Sensory learning

Rediscovering our natural learning skill

Shao Jiayu - Shanghai Institute of Visual Art, Shanghai, China

Baby eating


Even before birth, sensory learning occurs naturally (Gerber, 2016). Babies explore the world by observing, listening and putting everything they can reach into their mouth. Toddlers try to touch or grab everything they see. We are born with the ability to use a multisensory approach to process new information and further to transfer it into ‘knowledge’.

The Chinese people put great emphasis on the body in the learning process which acts not only as a tool or medium but also as a source of spiritual cultivation. Such point of views are found in much ancient philosophy. ‘Dao exists where body exists' (ji shen er dao zai) for example, in Confucian thought, which means, spiritual cultivation and physical growth fuse into one subject; or 'unity of knowledge and action' (zhi xing he yi), from the sixteenth century Neo-Confucian Wang Yang-ming, which means, practice and learning complement each other.

Emphasis on body participation in the learning process can also be found in western educational thought. Around 350 BCE, Aristotle wrote in the Nicomachean Ethics ‘for the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them' (Nicomachean Ethics, 1908). Building on the work of John Dewey, Kurt Lewin, and Jean Piaget, Kolb (1984) helped to develop the modern theory of ‘experiential learning', in which sensory factors play an important part in effective learning.

The role of sensory factors for human beings

We perceive the world through senses which seems quite natural so that we even do not notice how it happens or take it for granted – ‘Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand’ (Edwards and Muir, 2004). Indeed, research on ‘sensory deprivation'(or ‘sensory isolation') indicates the significance of sense to human beings. Visual deprivation during the first five months of life may permanently damage interactions between the body's audio and visual system (Putzar et al., 2007).

Sensory deprivation can result in psychological disorders, such as panic, mental confusion, depression, and hallucinations (Mosby, 2012). Research carried out in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) environment shows that compared to infants in open wards, infants in private rooms had less brain maturation and had lower language scores at 2 years of age, which indicates that the decrease of sensory experience (sound and light) of infants may degrade neurodevelopment (Jobe, 2014).

Sensory factors in learning

Traditionally, the body is in a repressed position during the process of learning. Even today pupils in some primary schools in China are still required to bend hands behind their body so as to avoid any body activity that may ‘hinder' their learning process. However, the recent development of embodied cognition as a concept may tell another story. The embodied cognition movement, which is rising in cognitive science, has challenged the view of disembodied education. Embodied cognition is based on the idea that cognition, thinking, memory, learning, emotion and attitude, etc. are all shaped by the interaction between body and environment (Shapiro, 2011).

Embodied cognition provides a theoretical foundation for sensory learning. Meanwhile, some attempts to put sensory factors into practice can be found in China. For instance, some primary schools use a new model named ‘Poetry Aerobics' to teach Chinese poetry. The students are taught to do rhythmic exercise in accordance with the poetry that needs to be recited. This method helps the children to feel the artistic conception as well as remember the poetry. ‘Li Yang Crazy English' is another example which was very popular during the 1990s. Instead of writing sentences, students are taught to stand on the roof and shout English, sometimes with 50-100 students ‘shouting' together. With this method, many Chinese students successfully break the oral barrier derived from shyness. The two cases below from my own practice are good illustrations of how sensory awareness helps learning happen.

‘Smell walk’ in Shanghai institute of visual art (SIVA)

In the course of ‘creative writing', as a boost to students' writing inspiration, I took them on a ‘smell walk' all around the campus. We put our sense of smell to the test as we sniffed out school scents, whiffs, and even stinks! From empty drawing room with whiffs of turpentine, to floral community gardens, the students smell walk began around SIVA's surrounding areas where there was plenty to sniff. Contrary to their expectations of usual ‘teacher+ blackboard style', the students were quite excited about this walk, not just because it involved going out but also because it provides a new method for them to rediscover their feelings towards the environment that they are familiar with. As Coronado (2011) noted: ‘the odor can be also evoked by perception through other senses that are linked themselves with recalled stories in which additional emotions are generated. It is not that I remember because I smell, but that I smell because I remember, because I see and hear. ’ Students’ writing after the session also reflected the positive effect of putting sensors into the learning process since the sense of smell could directly stimulate the emotion that could then be transferred into the inspiration of writing.

‘Snack social’ in University of Hertfordshire

During the program of ‘Exploring practice in university teaching' at the University of Hertfordshire, we had good multi-sensory experience from the environment to support interaction in class. The course organizers created a good atmosphere by not only providing colorful memo stickers and practical materials but also tasty snacks for group discussion. In order to overcome shyness to speak in the public, perhaps a characteristic of some Asian people, they created a method of ‘snacks social' that by using the sense of smell and taste, we can start conversion with other people from biscuits, cakes or fruits, feel relaxed and furthermore give our opinion in group discussion. The method worked quite well for us, because in our culture eating serves not just the function of feeding but also very important tools to make social interaction happen - lots of important business negotiation happens around the ‘dining table' in China. Snacks build a kind of intimacy that shortens the ‘distance' among people and cultivates motivation for people to share their ideas. As Rebecca Thomas (2016) in her LINK article ‘Going out on a roll: cake, conversion, and critique' stated, ‘perhaps the most productive aspect of supplying tea and cake to a group of already-engaged academics is how this initiates conversation and helps to put participants at ease'. Meanwhile, outside the class, we can also find lots of university campaigns or activities using free cupcakes or cookies to arouse public concern or to enroll participation.

Implications for the future

Sensory learning is our natural learning approach, but as time goes by, we may consider it as a childish way to perceive the world. However, with the development of neuroscience, more evidence has been found of the irreplaceable position of the senses during the process of learning for adults. The rediscovery of sensory awareness in learning may lead us into a new direction that helps learning happen naturally.


  • Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2, trans. Ross (1908).
  • Edwards, L., and Muir, E. (2004) Developing enterprise education through theory and practice, Proceedings of the 13th Nordic conference on small business research, pp.10-12.
  • Gerber (2016) RRM 2001, Children's Ways of Knowing. Australian Council for Educational Research.
  • Jobe, A.H. (2014) Sensory deprivation in private rooms in the NICU, The Journal of Pediatrics, 164 (1), pp.1-3.
  • Mosby (2012) Mosby's Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing & Health Professions, Elsevier Health Sciences.
  • Putzar, L., Goerend, I., Lang, K. Rosler, F a. and Roder, B. (2007) ‘Early visual deprivation impairs multisensory interactions in humans’. See comment in PubMed Commons below Nat Neurosci. 2007 Oct;10(10), PP.1243-5
  • Shapiro, L.A. (2011) Embodied cognition. London: Routledge.
  • Thomas, R. (2016) ‘Going out on a Roll: Cake, conversation and critique’. LINK 2(2).

LINK 2017, vol. 3, issue 1 / Copyright 2017 University of Hertfordshire