The inspiration for this post comes from a walk I had the other day. It also comes from some thoughts about online classes that have been disturbing me recently. But let me explain each of these inspiration sources in turn.
It wasn’t a particularly radiant day. Meteorologically speaking, I mean. It was late November, a time of the year in England that is frequently marked by overcast skies, muddy grounds and temperatures that require at least two layers of tops, plus a waterproof coat and let’s not forget about wellies.
And it was exactly like that on that day.
In spite of the greyish, leafless background – or, I now wonder, perhaps because of it – my eyes kept spotting several little visual treasures during my walk. The River Kennet, on its lead-colour surface, displayed some quite magnificent reflections of bare trees and also of a few, scattered white clouds in the sky. Water and air merged effortless in my field of vision, a sighting that became even more spectacular with the addition of those lush green patches of grass that seem to abound in England, irrespective of the time of the year.
My eyes spotted human-made little treasures too. Lovely houses framed the river here and there; canal boats moored along the towpath gave some unexpected colour and charm to my surroundings.
At some point I even spotted a carved milestone signpost, in the shape of a whale tail. My eyes were delighted.
I witnessed this non-stop display of beauties while hearing the constant, rhythmic cracking of the dry leaves I stepped on while walking. Someone must have been burning a log fire in the vicinity, as I also felt some pleasant, not too strong evidence of burnt wood for some time. Further down the towpath, the track got really muddy. And again, my senses were strongly stimulated courtesy of some fun noises made by my squelching wellies treading along the mud, by splashing sounds coming from the river, by the occasional (and hence so distinctive) chirp of a solitary bird.
This overdose of sensorial experiences made me feel very energetic, both physically and mentally. I found myself bursting with new ideas.
And that’s how my second source of inspiration for this post came about: I started thinking about ways to create opportunities in online classes to develop sensorial experiences. Experiences that could then lead to similar outbursts of energy and creativity for students and teachers alike.
Let me state clearly: I don’t loathe online classes. On the contrary, they have all my admiration for many of their strengths. I could list a few here, such as the possibility to engage, and engage with, people from all parts of the world; the flexibty of pace and timing they allow when we have an asynchronous format; the easiness of recording parts of the class for revision or further work on any relevant matter (for example, analysis of oral production). But the pros and cons of online classes are not my main topic in this post, so let’s come back to our senses.
Next I’ll outline some ideas about how we can promote multisensory teaching and learning in online classes. There’s an important assumption guiding my comments below, so let me state it clearly: I think it would be contradictory, fruitless and even unfair to focus only on students’ senses if we want to promote multisensory experiences in our classes. Teachers need to set the example, and create opportunities to appeal to their senses, too.
1 Create a visually-rich desk
Surround yourself with objects that make you smile. If you like a particular colour, or a particular combination of shades, make sure you can see them when you work. I tend to disregard claims such as ‘yellow is stimulating’ or ‘blue is depressing’. These generalisations don’t work for me. My relationship with a certain colour changes from time to time, and I always seek to have in my field of vision patterns, textures and colours that I find stimulating at that point in my life. I also like to see, while working, objects that make my grey cells happy: books, plants, photos of loved ones, colourful pens and post-its, something made of glass. Encourage your students to do the same. This idea is suitable for all learners, from A1 (What’s your favourite colour? What’s your favourite object on your desk?) to C1/C2 levels (Give a clear, elaborate description of the objects you have chosen to be on your desk; Give reasons why they are important for you).
2 Identify the sounds that stimulate your brain
Brain stimulation can occur at different domains. Here I refer to both cognitive and socio-affective stimulation, that is, I’m talking about sounds that trigger focused thinking, idea generation, analytic capacity, and other types of higher-order mental activity. I’m also talking about sounds that bring a smile to your face and make you happy, or sounds that make you want to react to with your body (by dancing, clapping, singing, and so on). For me, instrumental music of different music genres does the trick. I prefer instrumental because lyrics distract me from my thinking. In your classes, you can have students decide on the most suitable music genres and songs to be playing in the background. Several oral text genres that can be used during your decision-making process, including informal conversations, interviews, presentations and debates. When it’s suitable to have some background music in your class you can organise a voting session to decide on what’s going to be played: for that you can use the app Mentimeter.
3 Have something tasty around
A disclaimer: I’m not encouraging binge eating or indiscriminate snacking. I’m suggesting, rather, that it may be a good idea to have on your desk, or on a nearby shelf, something you enjoy eating or drinking. When the time for a break comes, the treat is there waiting for you. And this way enjoying something tasty can become a part of your working routine. If appropriate you can suggest a break during a class when you and your students can share information (description, recipes, experiences) about the delicious items you’ve chosen to have around you. This way you could have a ‘virtual sampling event’. The activities suggested here could address the following CEFR descriptors:
- A2 Can explain what they like or dislike about something.
- B1 Can give detailed accounts of experiences, describing feelings and reactions.
- B2 Can describe the personal significance of experiences in detail.
- C1 Can develop an argument systematically in well-structured language, taking into account the interlocutor’s perspective, highlighting significant points with supporting examples and concluding appropriately.
- C2 (In an interview) Can keep up their side of the dialogue extremely well, structuring the discourse and interacting authoritatively with effortless fluency as interviewer or interviewee, at no disadvantage to other participants.
4 Encourage varying tactile experiences
From a tactile perspective, online teaching and learning can be quite a dull experience. Most of the time we do nothing more than tap and type, press and scroll, hold and swipe. And we do these things on and with texture-less surfaces. To make our online classes more tactile-friendly, how about suggesting activities that require touching a wide range of textures? For example, when talking about photos we can encourage students to discuss how they prefer their printed photos: matt or glossy? They can bring examples of each at that point and describe their feelings while touching the two types of texture. We can also teach relevant vocabulary (smooth, rough, silky, fuzzy, bumpy, soft, hard, coarse and so on) and ask students to find objects around them that can be described by these adjectives. If we teach children, we can explore the brilliant “THAT’S NOT MY®” collection for that. We can encourage tactile experiences even with our textbooks by asking students to flip through the book to find something relevant to the topic of the class.
5 Surround yourself with enjoyable scents
What we describe as a good or a bad scent may vary from one person to another, so the first step is to identify what smells you prefer. And then try to arrange for flowers, candles, essential oils or any other source of the fragrances that you enjoy. This can be done regularly, to make your working space more stimulating. In order to create teaching and learning opportunities inspired by the power of scents you can do the following: first make a list, with your students, of scents easily found around their houses: herbs work well for this; you can also include fruits, flowers or even some cleaning products. Then each student chooses a scent they would like to have around him/her during the online classes for a term. We all know that smells can retrieve memories – so what I’m suggesting here is to make memories associated with your classes, to be retrieved in the future.
Whether education will be predominantly hybrid or fully online in 2021 is still unclear. But there is no doubt that online classes will still have a strong presence in the months to come – if not forever. With that in mind, making online classes more sensorially enjoyable is worth trying I think. What do you think?