What is the ‘sense’ in Sensory Education? – Craig Clarke

Frequently in Special education we encounter the word ‘sensory’. We have sensory rooms, sensory diets, sensory stories, sensory circuits, sensory walks, and sensory gardens. Used in these myriad ways, what does the word ‘sensory’ mean?

The dictionary definition of sensory reads: ‘relating to sensation or the physical senses; transmitted or perceived by the senses’. Quite literally everything that we do as human beings is, in some way, a sensory activity. As I type this I can feel the firm plastic of the keyboard on my fingers and hear the thrum of the keys being tapped. I can smell the coffee in my cup that I see sitting on the coaster next to my computer. Yet, despite the sensory feedback I am receiving from this activity, I would never call this activity ‘sensory typing’, ‘sensory ICT’ or ‘sensory blogging’.

Significantly, for some pupils with special educational needs it would likely be confusing to use the term ‘sensory’ to describe contrasting spaces, activities, objects and experiences. What exactly do a sensory room, garden, story, walk or circuit have in common? Clearly the commonalty is the senses, but to take this logic to the extreme, the word ‘sensory’ should prefix every single location or activity within a school. ‘Sensory hall’, ‘sensory reception’, sensory snack’, ‘sensory toilet’, ‘sensory work experience’, ‘sensory swimming’ and so on. However, this naming convention is completely unworkable and obscures the function or nature of the room or activity.

When people talk about a ‘sensory garden’ presumably we are talking about a garden with significant points of visual, tactile, olfactory, auditory and, if we can ‘scrump’ an apple, gustatory interest. Arguably, a garden without a combination of these things fails to be a successful garden at all. As such, is the word ‘sensory’ a meaningful description of this space?

Let’s take a sensory story as another example. Sensory stories are tales enhanced by the same stimulus detailed above. Again, shouldn’t all stories contain a combination of these if we’re to inspire our learners, regardless of their needs? And if we do, surely they simply become ‘stories’ rather than ‘sensory stories’. By arguing the case for interesting sensory experiences to be the norm in our environment, teaching and learning, the word ‘sensory’ becomes completely redundant.

My concern is that the word ‘sensory’ shifts our focus away from the learning we expect to see in the activity at hand. Consider a sensory room where bubble tubes are fully-lit and firing, with music buzzing from a stereo and a TV show humming away on a screen. How can a place so busy, so full of sensory feedback, ever be considered an effective space for thoughtful, targeted teaching and learning? We need to unearth the immense potential these spaces have when used in very particular ways with a specific learning objective in mind. With the word ‘sensory’ preceding a range of locations, strategies and activities in special schools, we run the serious risk of doing things and subjecting our pupils to experiences, rather than teaching them and promoting their participation and independence in their learning.

Of course, we recognise that some of our children require specific resources, methodologies and inputs to illicit responses and to support them in their education. Furthermore, introducing interesting sounds, tastes, images, smells and textures into a lesson are an excellent way of exciting all learners. For example, this might take the form of using musical instruments to support a child in developing their auditory discrimination skills. We could use a range of smells as part of a communication activity where a child is learning to express a preference. A light toy is an excellent resource to teach a child to fix their gaze on and track a moving object as part of their early development skills. Calling these activities ‘sensory’ learning is unhelpful: we need to think much more carefully and intelligently about the terms we are using to describe our pupils’ learning and the specific skills that we are teaching them.

These sensory stimuli are the means by which we teach and should not define the learning that is taking place. Every teacher tailors their resources to the learning at hand in classrooms across the country. In the same way that I would use Base Ten resources to support the teaching of place value, I could use a water spray to teach a child how to anticipate. However, teaching place value doesn’t become ‘Base Ten learning’ in the same way that using a water spray to teach anticipation shouldn’t become ‘sensory learning’. In both cases I’ve identified the objective (understanding of place value; anticipation) and the means by which I want to teach it (Base Ten; water spray). In the latter example, at no point does the word ‘sensory’ need to be factored into my considerations: the objective, anticipation, should define the learning.

Recently, we replaced our sensory room and were eager to give it a new name. ‘Early Development Room’ sounded somewhat clinical, so instead we opted for ‘The Bubble’. The intention was that, by selecting an abstract name, there would be no preconceptions about what the room may be used for: it would be a blank canvas in which to create exciting learning opportunities. So, as our school moves into its own bubble, I wonder if some of us in Special education need to move out of our sensory bubble, leaving said word behind and thinking more critically and carefully about the resources we use, how we use them and, ultimately, what we want to teach our students.

Craig Clarke is Assistant Headteacher at Bardwell School

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