Monday, November 27, 2023

All Learning Starts as Sensory Learning

All learning starts as sensory learning. The world penetrates us through our senses, entering into our bodily systems through our eyes, ears, noses, mouths, and fingers. Our sense of proprioception is the one that helps our brains understand where our bodies are in space. Some  include the sense organ in our brains that regulates body temperature. Others estimate that there are as many as two dozen human senses at work.

Whatever the case, our senses take in the world, and then, in collaboration with our brains, we interpret all those photons and waves, those vibrations and molecules, in order to make decisions about how to behave. I know it's more glamorous to assert that we make meaning, but as neuroscientists and author Patrick House writes in his book Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness, "(T)he entire purpose of the brain is to make efficient movement from experience, and everything else, including consciousness, is downstream of these efforts." In other words, the ultimate purpose of consciousness is to control our bodies.

To do this complex thing, we've evolved our senses, all of them, be they 5 or 25, because they make our survival more likely. 

The Age of Zoom meetings was likely always in our future, but the Covid pandemic made it suddenly ubiquitous. It allowed life to go on, but many of us, especially those of us in relationship-based professions like early childhood education, were immediately conscious of the flatness of the experience. The Zoom meeting is perhaps useful and efficient, but as an educational experience, it greatly reduces our sensory access to the world, essentially condensing it to sight and sound. Perhaps this is fine for a self-motivated adult seeking to learn specific new skills or knowledge, but for children still developing their ability to construct the world from sensory input, this amounts to stunting or shutting off access to parts of the world, which means parts of their own brains.

No wonder their minds wander. The smells and tastes and textures, not to mention the outside-the-box 3D world of sights and sounds from the actual world around them was far more compelling.

Standard schooling has long been at war with the evolutionary imperative to learn with all of our senses. The whole notion of children sitting, facing forward, listening and watching, is not unlike a Zoom meeting. When a child attends with their other senses -- noticing the smell of the cafeteria, the texture of the gum stuck to the underside of their desk, the taste of their #2 pencil, the feeling of their body moving through space -- they are said to be "distracted" and are reprimanded for not remaining focused (literally) with their eyes and ears, to the exclusion of all else.

In contrast, most of our play-based preschool programs are designed around the idea of learning through all the senses. We have our sensory tables, for instance, filled with rice or flax seed or water or mud. We scent our play dough, making it both a tactile and olfactory experience. We offer fabrics and tiles and carpet samples, each with their own textures. We have to be careful about what our youngest students have in their hands because we know, as nature intends, that they are liable to put in in their mouths. We taste, touch, see, smell, and listen to everything in our world, exploring it fully because that's the way we've evolved to learn.

A week ago, I returned from a large education conference called EdCrunch that took place in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The theme of the conference was technology and how it can help make high quality education available to everyone. I had previously taken part in the online version of this conference, which had for 7 years prior to the pandemic been a live event. In the Zoom version I logged in at the designated time, answered a few questions that had been translated from Russian, then logged out. Speaking only of my experience, there is no comparison between being at the live event with 2500 Kazakh educators, ed-tech vendors, and dozens speakers from all over the world. 

The actual presentations tended to be like those in standard schools and imitated by the Zoom meeting, but the real learning, the real experience, took place in the hallways and elevators, over breakfast and coffee, and simply being in this ancient city that most of us had never visited. The 360 degree experience challenged me mentally, emotionally, and physically. I had conversations about AI and robotics and accessibility, but I also found myself discussing international cuisine, history, culture, and had one particularly fascinating discussion about what we miss out on by doing our research via Google rather than the analog way of perusing dusty library stacks seeking out a scientific journal from 1976 that published an article that may or may not be useful for the paper you were writing. Yes, it wasn't as efficient, and there were lots of dead ends, but in the process of thumbing through those periodicals, scanning those microfiche films, and simply stumbling across books that happened to be adjacent to the book you were originally looking for, often resulted in discoveries and epiphanies and divergent thinking, that are simply less accessible in a 2D world.

Although I was there hobnobbing with university professors who have dedicated their lives to technology-supported learning, and CEOs of edtech companies hoping that their innovation will be the Zoom of the future, and even though we were there, ostensibly, to discuss the present and future of technology in education, I didn't talk to a single person who didn't feel that this live experience, this full body experience, was infinitely more valuable and educational that an online event. 

We have not evolved to have five or 25 senses by accident. It's unnatural to reduce learning to only that which enters our bodies through sight and sound. As the late, great Bev Bos would say, "If it hasn't been in the hand and the body, it can't be in the brain." That's how we learn at full-capacity.


"This inspiring book is essential reading for every family choosing a preschool, every teacher working with young children, and every citizen who wonders how we can raise children who will make the world a better place." ~Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids

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