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Bury St Edmunds headteacher Andrew Hammond talks sense

By Andrew Hammond

Most mornings I wake up early, fix a miniature reading light to my forehead and delve into a good book. My wife says it’s like being in bed with an angler fish.

The reason I wake up early is because my internal body clock tells me to wake up in time to read, before the turmoil of a day’s toil commences.

During the day I can continue to guess the time within a minute or so of accuracy. I only wear a watch because I like watches.

Andrew Hammond
Andrew Hammond

I have no super-human powers. I am not, as far as I am aware, an alien (though all of us originate from star dust, of course). I am a common-or-garden human and my chronoception (ability to sense time) was factory-fitted as standard. We all have it, in varying degrees.

We have Aristotle to thank for the idea that we only have five senses. We teach these to children from an early age, probably because they are linked to five obvious parts of the body: our eyes, ears, nose, mouth and hands. In truth, we have many more, 20 at least. For example, nociception is our sense of pain, thermoception our sense of heat/cold, equilibrioception our sense of balance and proprioception our ability to touch our nose or ears without seeing them. My wife’s best sense is her spatial awareness. The way she swings our seven-seater family car into a multi-storey car park and lands it smack dab in the middle of a narrow space is a wonder to behold. (I can’t even decide which space to park in, and often drive around car parks at least twice, pontificating on which space I prefer the look of. Then, after several adjustments, I leave it skew-whiff and scuttle off pretending it’s not my car, usually heading in the opposite direction to the exit).

Of the traditional five senses, I am convinced that our sense of smell is the most evocative, and I can prove this. If I smell the sweet aroma of fried doughnuts, I am instantly transported to Scarborough seafront, aged 10, on a family holiday. If I see a doughnut, I have no such memory. If I touch a doughnut, nothing. And if someone sneaks up on me and whispers ‘Krispy Kreme’ into my ear, my mouth may water but I don’t think of Scarborough. But a doughnuty smell triggers vivid images and experiences stored in my memory. Other smells work too: September grass reminds me of walks along the river bank near the Yorkshire town in which I grew up; and if I smell Swarfega, I am with my grandad in his workshop, mending things.

We are the greatest wonders of the known universe and our only limiting factor is the false construct we have of what it means to be human

Being in tune with our senses is what makes us human. Sadly, to describe a child as ‘sensitive’ is rarely meant as a compliment. But it is important that educators like me make room for sensory experiences in school and guard against the notion that effective learning means shutting off your senses and concentrating on the application of reason and logic only. Reading is a relatively recent phenomenon for us humans, entirely learned and never natural; the same for arithmetic; and yet so much of school is spent honing these very specific skills, because we think they are the most important ones to teach and what we are ultimately measured on, with sensory play and exploration reserved for playtimes only.

School should be an aesthetic experience but too often it is an anesthetic one. When artificial intelligence automates the logical and routine aspects of our lives, as it is sure to do, then educators will no longer need to obsess over students’ computational capacities and IQ scores. We can live again. We can explore the dynamic and diverse nature of intelligence. And who knows what your average child will achieve once he reconnects with the myriad human facets and capacities he has at his disposal?

Any invisible sense, beyond the conventional five, is often conveniently called our ‘sixth sense’ but they can’t all be the sixth one. When I telephone my mother, she is invariably on the other end of the line, already telephoning me. When I am thinking of something silently, my daughter will often comment on it, before I have ever said anything. And when I enter a room with others in it, I know instinctively if an argument has just taken place. We can all do this.

We are the greatest wonders of the known universe and our only limiting factor is the false construct we have of what it means to be human. Ask someone to look carefully and they will frown; this doesn’t make us see any better. Ask someone to think carefully and they will stroke their chin; this doesn’t make us think more clearly, despite Rodin’s sculpture. Ask someone to retrieve something from their memory and they will look upwards; this doesn’t make us recall more efficiently. Or ask someone to listen carefully and they will tilt their head your way, as if they only had one ear. We perform these actions because we think this is what humans do.

Reconsidering what it means to be human is a refreshing thing to ponder but few of us ever have time to. But school is a workshop, a safe laboratory for honing the many skills and facets we have at our disposal. Pre-school children do this instinctively from the year dot; they are brave, adaptable learners who use their myriad senses instinctively to interpret what they encounter, with no formal tutoring at all. Left to their own devices, children are multi-sensory learners. It is only when they enter school that they are told there is a special way of learning and it involves a lot of sitting still, reading and counting.

If the smell of a school for you means handwriting, mathematics, exercise books and spilt ink, then re-imagine it. Call it an adventure centre. That’s what my school is.

And being there, alongside children, as they discover new capacities and senses, is why we do the job we do. It’s a privilege.

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