Hands off or hands on: what has happened to multi-sensory learning?

multipurpose clear spinner

An instant multi-sensory resource creator.

Hands off or hands on: what has happened to multi-sensory learning?

I spent a day down at the BETT show in January, and came back with a bagful of fliers about the latest developments in educational technology. I sifted through what I thought to be the pick of the bunch, and put them up on the wall in the main corridor of our offices. Everything was apps and robots. At the time I thought: “This is the way education is going. We need to be doing more of this sort of stuff ourselves.”

Fast forward to the Education Show in March, where we had a stand. My attention was arrested by a product that I designed 17 years ago taking centre stage on a huge stand in the middle of the show. It was a simple thing: a clear plastic spinner, with rubber feet, that you can put on any surface or sheet of paper to create your own spinner game or activity. Except it wasn’t my spinner – yet there it was: smaller than mine, and circular rather than square, but exactly the same principal, even down to the four rubber feet. The company launching it clearly hadn’t pinched my design – they had literally re-invented the wheel; nonetheless I suddenly regretted the fact that I hadn’t patented the idea when we brought it out in 1999.

Since then it’s made me think, though – not just about the fact that we could have done a lot more to market such a useful little learning aid, but about where education is going and what learners need. I came back from BETT with an image in my mind of the technology train heading off towards the horizon, and Crossbow running after it with our suitcaserunning-after-the-train full of board games, card games, spinners, dice and other hands-on stuff. But there were computer games around – and good ones, too – when I designed my first card games with the dyslexic kids I was teaching at the school where I worked; and given the choice between playing a computer game or playing a card game, it was actually the card game that they usually preferred.

Have things changed that much? And more to the point, to what extent should we be encouraging activities in school where social interaction is removed? With today’s digitisation of leisure in a world where “all things are possible through the screen that strengthens me” (corrupted from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians), school is rapidly becoming the last remaining place where children can be positively encouraged to play socially.

This isn’t  about the social benefit of games, however, so much as the educational benefits of the type of materials that traditional games employ. Research evidence of the benefits of multi-sensory learning are overwhelming – not just for dyslexic learners, but for everyone. And multi-sensory means what it says: the exercise of multiple learning channels. Visual, auditory and kinaesthetic. Put that in the context of a well-designed social game where game play requires reading and vocalisation of target language, and add to it some of the shortcomings that can still affect both the process and the outcome of reading on screen as opposed to paper*, and some of the educational benefits of digital learning seem to be disappearing along with my imagined train that is carrying them.

This is not to say that all digital learning is bad: far from it. Paper media cannot compete with the accessibility, the versatility, the wealth of content, the level of engagement (so strong that it can become addiction in some cases) that good digital games and other resources provide, and there has to be a place for the best that technology can offer. What concerns me is that we don’t lose track of what we have learnt about the benefits of  multisensory learning in the rush to pile on board the next all-singing, all-dancing app train that pulls into the station. Because when it moves off, we (that is Crossbow Education) will now be quite happy to tip out the contents of our old-school suitcase into the gap that it has left behind.

Anyone fancy as game of cards?

PS Check out our conference SpLD Central on June 9th. Lots of multisensory stuff going on there.

Bob Hext, April 2016


*(Dillon, A. (1992) Reading from paper versus screens: a critical review of the empirical literature. Ergonomics, 35(10), 1297-1326.)