Sense sensibility

16th July 2010 at 01:00
Special schools have long used sounds and smells as part of the therapeutic process, but now mainstream teachers are warming to the idea. Meabh Ritchie reports

As Nina Jackson's GCSE pupils file into the classroom, there are a few sniffs before the questions start: "What's that smell?" and "What are you burning today?"

The answer is sandalwood. Mrs Jackson, a music teacher, has a scented candle burning in the corner. The boys approve. The girls are not quite so sure. One of them says she prefers the rosemary candle from last week. But they settle into their seats happily enough.

Once they have sat down, Mrs Jackson hands out a worksheet and plays them a few minutes of Faure's 'Pavane'. The class listens attentively after being told to "follow the shape of the melody". They know the drill by now: it is just a small extract and will finish soon. When it does, Mrs Jackson heads to the whiteboard and the lesson begins. After 15 minutes of revising key points that might come up in their exam, she asks the pupils to return to their worksheet to revise what they have learnt and answer the questions. The same extract of 'Pavane' is played through the speakers

For Mrs Jackson, who teaches at Ogmore School near Bridgend in south Wales, the environment she creates in her classroom is a crucial aspect of her teaching. In today's class, she deliberately picked music with between 80 and 120 beats per minute and linked it to a specific area of knowledge that the pupils needed to know.

"Sound pulses at this rate create alpha waves associated with concentration and meditative states," she says. "They tune into the frequency and connect the learning with the extract of music. The music acts as a brain trigger."

The smells are also carefully chosen. She uses muskier, herbal smells for these older pupils, but Years 8 and 9 are treated to more floral smells. "It helps the younger ones to feel safe and secure," she says.

All the staff at Ogmore School, not just music teachers, are converts to using music during class, sometimes just to set the tone of the lesson. Many were persuaded by Mrs Jackson's book on the subject, The Little Book of Music for the Classroom. However, she is on her own with the candles and scented oils.

"I set off the fire alarm with a candle once," she laughs. "We had to evacuate the whole school. I wasn't flavour of the month after that." But the pupils love coming into her classroom. "It's all about making a comfortable space for them," she says. "It stimulates the way they think."

But it has taken a long time for her approach to start to gain ground in schools. While we have long become used to the potentially mood-altering role of sounds and smells - from calming music at railway stations to enticing home-buyers with freshly baked bread - when it comes to the classroom, these sensory elements are often left out of the equation, with little thought given to the effect they might have on pupils.

Sensory stimuli play a big role in Montessori teaching, and are widely thought to be crucial to the development of pre-school or nursery-age pupils. Light and sound are also widely used as part of the therapeutic process in special schools. However, multi-sensory environments are largely absent from standard classroom teaching.

There are signs that this is changing, however. Developments in technology have gone some way towards making classroom environments more flexible, particularly their lighting, which allow teachers to incorporate sensory stimuli into lessons. In 2005, Green End Primary in Manchester became the first school in the UK with computer-controlled lighting that responds to pupils' moods. The dynamic lighting has been installed in every classroom and changes colour, depending on whether the pupils need to be calmed or energised to learn.

"After lunch, when they get in from the playground and they are more hyper, it might have a more blue tone rather than red to calm the children down," says headteacher Lisa Vyas.

Once the lights were installed, pupils were monitored over the course of a year to determine which tints would work best at certain times of day. The lights are not overly dramatic, says Mrs Vyas, but they have an impact.

In tests, researchers from the British Research Establishment, a consultancy specialising in the built environment, found the lights did not make any difference to pupil reaction times, but responses in questionnaires revealed that pupils felt more relaxed and comfortable.

All Saints RC Primary in Liverpool embarked on a pilot project earlier this year to see if sounds and smells affected concentration levels. Peppermint aromas were pumped into one Year 6 classroom, while the other group worked to a background of natural sounds such as running water and rustling leaves.

The results are still being evaluated, but headteacher Jeremy Barnes says he is convinced that some ambient factors can make a difference. "I'm very fixed on the idea that music can help," he says. "As for smell, the jury is out a bit more. But this experiment is about giving it a go."

Some schools have taken advantage of the opportunities that were offered by the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme - now put on hold - to incorporate sensory variations into classrooms. A room equipped with different sensory stimuli has been set up in Blackburn in one of the city's ICT learning centres so that school leaders can test what impact it has before deciding whether it should be part of their own school builds.

In one of the centre's systems there is an LED globe which uses a system of traffic-light colours for behaviour management. "The lights are on a touch screen, so teachers get complete control," says Ben Willetts, managing director of education lighting company 4D Creative, which developed lighting models for the centre.

"They can set the lighting to green if the children are working well, orange if they are being a bit disruptive and red if they are getting out of control." The lighting pre-empts the teacher dishing out discipline and goes some way to helping with behaviour management.

Mr Willetts has installed lighting systems at special schools and some mainstream schools and says they can have a powerful effect on pupils. "They make things less visible, less intimidating and it is easier to try new things without the harsh lights and traditional classroom layout," he says.

The demise of the BSF programme, may bring these kinds of experiments to a halt, however. And lack of money is not the only restraint on harnessing sounds and smells.

Precisely because environmental factors do affect mood, there was some initial reluctance to the dynamic lighting at Green End Primary, says Dave Ashton, district property development manager at Manchester City Council.

"You got some people who said we were controlling the kids' senses, but that wasn't the aim," he says. "It was to make things more comfortable for them. Even in winter, you could brighten the light in the classroom."

Another objection is that what works for one child will be a distraction to another, and the lack of specific research in this area means that teachers can be reluctant to start experimenting. But Tim Rudd, head of services at the educational think-tank Futurelab, says this is not an excuse to neglect the issue altogether.

"There is always the argument that the same sensory stimuli may not suit each pupil, and there is no doubt significant truth in this," he says. "However, the worst thing we can do is ignore sensory needs completely."

Sub-standard environments in school classrooms have a detrimental affect on pupils says Mr Rudd, and yet environments are neglected all too often. "(Teaching) can often occur in acoustically poorly designed, rectangle rooms, which research suggests can undermine classroom management and behaviour control elements," he says.

Pupils can struggle to hear the teacher, teachers find they continually have to repeat themselves and everybody becomes stressed, he says.

For many schools, focusing on stimulating a child's senses appeared to be a luxury when the school buildings themselves were in a poor state, says Jenny Thomas, head of research and policy at the British Council for School Environments.

"Part of the problem has been the maintenance of the school," she says. "Some of the buildings were so awful that the staff were more worried about stopping the roof from leaking and getting the temperature right before they could think about anything else."

But while she recognises that the sound of crashing waves or the smell of sandalwood may not be top of the priority list for some teachers, when there is evidence that children respond well to a stimulating learning environment, there is every reason to give it a go.

"They certainly get a lot more in terms of multi-sensory experience outside of school," says Ms Thomas. "Some of that learning coming into school would not be a bad thing."


Reduce errors and increase work rate: Lemon, peppermint, lily of the valley, lavender, jasmine, mint and eucalyptus.

Reduce stress: Spiced apple, rose and chamomile.

Reduce anxiety: Vanilla, neroli and lavender.

Relax: Basil, cinnamon and citrus flowers.

Energise: Peppermint, thyme and rosemary.

Relieve tiredness: Woody scents, cedar and cypress.

From Using Brainpower in the Classroom: Five Steps to Accelerate Learning by Steve Garnett


Memory recall: 80-120 BPM

Mozart - 'Adagio' for violin and orchestra

Faure - 'Pavane', modern version from 'Utopia'

Franz Schubert - 'Rosamunde'

Calming down and chilling out: 60-80 BPM

Enya - 'Paint the Sky with Stars'

Chopin - 'The Complete Nocturnes'

Kitaro - 'Mandala'

Music for setting the scene: 60-90 BPM

Samuel Barber - 'Adagio for Strings'

Michael Nyman - Soundtrack from The Piano: 'The Heart Asks Pleasure'

Libera - 'Agnus Dei'

Study skills and revision: 80-120 BPM

Robert Miles - 'Dreamland' and 'Children'

Tchaikovsky - Waltz from 'Swan Lake'

Vivaldi - 'Allegro' from 'Flute Concerto in D'

Music to motivate, stimulate and energise: 125-165 BPM

Eddie Murphy - 'I'm a Believer'

The Proclaimers - 'I'm on My Way'

James Brown - 'I Feel Good'

Mary J. Blige - 'Be Happy'

Source: The Little Book of Music for the Classroom: Using Music to Improve Memory, Motivation, Learning and Creativity by Nina Jackson.

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