Brain-friendly learning
Part 2: Context and Senses

Margaret Cooling, well known for her writing, speaking and training, particularly in the area of RE, encourages us to adapt RE to make teaching and learning more compatible with the way the brain works.


Two more ideas for making RE more brain-friendly

1. Think context as well as content

Where were you when you heard the news that Princess Diana had died? Can you remember the room you were in when the news of September 11th broke? Many of us can recall the setting of dramatic events. The brain is designed to learn well in context; that is why the police use crime reconstructions to jog people's memories.

The context in which we learn matters. We may not be able to create those real-life contexts in RE but we can create exciting learning contexts by using active learning methods. We can also use the brain's power of imagination. Story creates an imaginary context. Video and TV all deal with ideas and issues within contexts rather than abstractly and they can all be used in RE as long as they are not used passively.


In RE, teachers can use story as a context for communicating information. When teaching, take time to create contexts by describing scenes, situations and people. Information can be communicated 'in context' using a number of techniques.

For example:

  • Imagine David is sitting in the empty chair in your group. What would you want to ask him about his fight with Goliath?
  • Use role-play and case studies
  • Ask pupils to describe how something might work in practice and ask them to describe the situation where it might apply
  • Imagine you have Esther on a chat show. What are you going to ask her?

2. Use the senses

We have five senses but teaching sometimes uses only hearing. However, if a message comes through more than one sense, e.g., sound and sight, it is more likely to be remembered. This is another way of strengthening the pathways in the brain.

Sensory stimulation (sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell) can aid learning, but always bear in mind allergy and asthma problems when using taste and smell. RE is ideally placed for sensory learning. Our subject matter can use all the senses:

  • Sights (banners, art, stained glass)
  • Sounds (music, songs, readings, bells, rattles)
  • Smells (incense, spices)
  • Tastes (food from religious celebrations, e.g., Passover)
  • Textures (artefacts)

The classroom environment matters in RE, as it affects our senses. Are there interesting RE displays? Is music used to create an atmosphere at the beginning of a session?

Other ways to use the senses in RE:

  • Use coloured pencils to mark stories and passages in order to connect ideas or highlight important words. Use coloured post-it notes to record pupil questions.
  • Take key words and ask pupils to illustrate them in a way that conveys their meaning.
  • Music can be used to help people to learn and remember as it activates emotions and may help with memory. Try reading a story expressively over some appropriate music.
  • Ask pupils to create calligrams of key words (draw the letters in a way that communicates the meaning).
  • Mix senses: what colour is happiness? What sound represents joy? What taste represents sadness? What texture represents peace? What smell represents anger?
  • Use visualisation as a stimulus to the 'inner eye': the ability humans have to see pictures in their heads
  • Use poetry and rap. The rhythm, rhyme and sound patterns (alliteration, etc.) stimulate the senses. In medieval times this was used as a way of helping people to remember large amounts of material, as the following example from one of the York mystery plays shows:
  • I am Dame Percula, of Princes the prize,
    Wife to Sir Pilate - a Prince without peer
  • Use art as a visual stimulus. In RE there is a range of visual stimuli to choose from: paintings, textiles, vestments, robes, prints, sculpture, tiles, calligraphy, book illustrations and architecture.
  • Touch: use dance and drama and physical activities. Use body sculpture and mime. Touch stones, feel artefacts. If appropriate use gestures and rituals. Create hand signs to express the meaning of words (you don't have to use a recognised sign language).

If this article has whetted your appetite to discover more about brain-friendly learning, check out the subscription service for RE teachers, the REthinking Network. Click here for more details.