The Reading Nest: A Study in Multisensory Learning

Anna Dusseau | 16th March 2020

My kids have this annoying habit of dismantling the furniture. How it came to be that these pint-sized people have the strength and determination before breakfast to transform our old leather sofa into a fortress, I don’t honestly know, but this is how I often find the kitchen arranged at 7am on a Monday morning when I make my way blearily over to the Nespresso machine. But there’s more. Much more, actually. Disney-print duvets and my favourite throw from the living room are spread over the top to form a roof and inside, I know without even looking, that they will have smuggled in a torch, some Hob Nob biscuits, the walkie talkie from way back which has been in the bath but still – astonishingly – plays some crackling radio stations, and all the books they could lay their antibac-gelled hands on. We call this The Reading Nest and, if you don’t mind them fucking with your feng shui, it’s actually pretty genius.

According to an intriguing episode of Guy Raz and Mindy Thomas’ award-winning podcast Wow in the World entitled ‘A Case for the Giggles’, science shows that laughter is essential for our neurological functioning, memory capacity and emotional well-being. Interestingly, it seems, the benefits of laughter are optimised when combined with physical activity, such as running, team sport, or just taking a bike ride. If you think about it, this is a natural way of being (how often have you seen a 5 year old racing across the park in breathless giggles, pursued by a friend or the family dog?) but it is something that, logistically, is ironed out of our lives as we grow up, because this innate model for human behaviour simply isn’t manageable within the setting of mass public education, or a corporate board meeting. Not that I’m seriously suggesting you ditch the PowerPoint presentation and play tag with your global manager right away. Save that for the Christmas party, eh? But there is a wealth of information out there to suggest that multisensory learning experiences hugely enhance our brains’ receptivity, as well as stimulating our central nervous system, making this approach to learning less ‘books out, heads up’ and more like placing a tuning fork to your central nervous system. Let me explain.

In the study Benefits of Multisensory Learning (Shams and Seitz, 2008) the authors note that ‘the human brain has evolved to learn and operate in natural environments in which behaviour is often guided by information integrated across multiple sensory modalities.’ This isn’t breaking news for homeschoolers. Multisensory learning means processing a new skill or information by integrating the range of learning receptors available – visual, auditory, tactile and kinaesthetic – and this is what most homeschooling families are doing on a daily basis, without even thinking. Reading a book under the apple tree on a hot summer’s day. Listening to the news on the drive home from swimming, watching rain droplets race horizontally across the window pane. Lying on the sofa copying a volcano diagram from the encyclopedia with the reggae skip of Bob Marley drifting in from another room. These are multisensory learning moments and they happen all the time in homeschooling. But at school, 90% of learning happens sat at a desk and is divided into subjects. Why? The University of California’s psychology paper by Shams and Seitz – among many, many others – makes a powerful point that studies which attempt to assimilate a simple learning task through a single sensory approach (audiotapes, for example) ‘can require a month or more of training to asymptote, with only a small increment of performance.’ It is no wonder then, that the average homeschooler comes across like a miniature mature student, with unnervingly confident eye contact, broad vocabulary and a surprisingly encyclopedic knowledge of all things from pop culture, to Ancient Runes (if you’ve made it to Book 5), to the development of penicillin. They are learning in a free-range and multisensory environment which, at a ‘neuroanatomical [and] electrophysiological’ level, stimulates the whole body, enhancing the plasticity and receptivity of the brain. Impossible to recreate in school.

Or is it? Guy Raz and Mindy’s laughter podcast comes back to me here because, my kids and I were astonished to learn, when it comes to the multiple benefits of laughter, it turns out that your brain actually can’t differentiate between genuine bally-laughs and fake laughter. Crazy, right? The mind-body benefits were the same. So, whether crying with laughter on the phone to an old flatmate, or providing canned laughter for your 2 year old who has been pretending to be a dog for nearly 40 minutes, your well-being and neurological functioning are boosted either way. Especially if you do some push-ups at the same time. How could we apply this to the often rigid and unisensory environment of school and, too often, the workplace? Interestingly, Shams and Seitz drew the same conclusion in their study that ‘multisensory training protocols [that] can better approximate natural settings..are more effective for learning.’ This could be groundbreaking if actually applied to educational and potentially corporate settings. Sure – it’s not easy, with an average class size of 30, to have a a few people practising guitar in the corner while the front row finish their Hamlet essay and the back row just close their eyes and absorb it all. It’s also much less quantifiable for the purposes of OFSTED inspections and teachers’ performance reviews which is – but absolutely should not be – what a lot of education is about. So, what to do? When the majority of children are learning in environments which better approximate Victorian factory conditions than a model of neurosensory freedom and growth, should we blindly accept this status quo, or would it hurt to suggest that the Chemistry teacher occasionally plays a mixtape during practical experiments? I think there is a compromise to be found here and that, if simply imitating elements of a natural learning environment still have the same benefits for neuroreceptivity, this should be a national target for all educators, school leaders and CEOs.

You know, I wish I could tell you that The Reading Nest is the only time our house gets turned upside down, but it’s not. When it’s not operating as the Baudelaire’s private library, the sofa is also frequently employed as Huckleberry Finn’s raft meandering down the Missisippi, or sometimes a pirate ship where we throw the inflatable globe between us, looking up the next destination on our voyage while my 4 year old brandishes a Nerf gun and tells the baby to walk the plank. And we are not special, with our times tables out on the swing and Star Wars-inspired artwork while singing along to Justin Beiber. We are absolutely typical homeschoolers. More than that, we are learning and growing in an entirely natural multisensory environment which an increasing weight of scientific research suggests is the way our brains were designed to function. Whether your children go to school or are homeschooled, this is information that we can all use to enhance the experience and productivity of learning for young people and, even, adult learners. For my regular readers, you might remember our homeschooling friends who told us they like the way homeschool makes their ‘brains feel’ and, as it turns out, perhaps this wasn’t just a dollop of vegan-falafel-munching intuition. Because there really is scientific evidence to prove it.

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Published by Anna Dusseau

Writer | Educator | Homeschooling Mum

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