Taste and Its Connection to Learning

By James Rossi, Classroom Coordinator

Today’s post is part of a series on using the five senses to create an optimal learning environment. You can find all of those posts here.

The sense of taste is one sense I do not actively engage from day to day. I do regularly joke with my students about not licking things around the room, but given the allergic world we live in and the very obvious negatives of sugar, I do not feed my students.  

Taste, however, as a physical sense like smell, can have ties to memory. Research here is limited but shows a correlation between gum chewing and increased recall of materials.

When we consider the human animal, there is value in the act of chewing. When our ancestors were chewing, it was highly unlikely they were in the midst of a hunt, being attacked, starving, or ill. Food is and always will be a positive thing to have access to for any living organism. We need energy, that’s the law. So, there is a mental connection between chewing and being at ease. 

Are Basic Needs Being Met?

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs expresses the idea that until basic needs are appropriately met, a person cannot achieve higher levels of cognitive engagement. This hierarchy requires that other needs also be met, but taste plays into one at the base level – nourishment. What does this mean? Chewing gum can contribute to a reduction of anxiety levels, simulating fulfillment of one of our base needs.

While we’re on the subject, I would also like to note that as it pertains to these needs – I set my students free to attend to these needs, and I think this is a very important part of the supportive learning environment. We have tested the idea in multiple rooms with great success.

We have an understanding. They do not ask to go get water. I have a water pass. If it’s visible, they may go; if it’s gone, they must wait. If multiple students get up for it at once, they have to silently settle who goes first. If there is conflict or my guidelines are not followed, they lose the privilege. I have not had an issue in the past six years since I started this.

Learn more about the importance of students’ needs being met in our piece on lunch shaming.

Eating in Class – Yes or No?

If they are hungry and I catch them eating, I ask “Did you bring enough for everyone?” The answer is always no.  So, I explain that while they’re hungry, they aren’t the only ones and they’re likely doing more harm than they realize to their classmates…but this is if I catch them. 

Believe it or not, I actually encourage them to eat when they need without me catching them.  What are the real problems with eating in the classroom? Filth and critters, right?  Maybe choking?  If they’re working hard at not getting caught because they know I allow it as long as they are successful, I don’t have those issues.  Their needs are met, and they still get what they need from me. 

You also learn who your sneaks are and who you need to keep a closer eye on. There have been a few instances that this has not worked out and in those cases I engage directly with the student in private after disallowing them to continue eating in class. Why not? I work better when I’m snacking.

Similarly, bathrooms are a point of contention in my building. Some teachers are less liberal with their bathroom passes than I am. The way I see it, even if my student is trying to get out of class and meet up with a friend, my system is set up so that that choice is a cost to them. They have to weigh that against their class performance. Sure, some students will lose out and be unsuccessful, but this is usually only for a short time. Once they see the results of their choices they retune. 

It does take time, but I am a teacher who encourages failure. We learn best from our mistakes. I help guide those mistakes in a safe place.  

Your students will have a variety of needs, and at their stage of life, they have far fewer coping mechanisms.

Just make it easy. 

How do you approach eating in the classroom? Does that approach change between in-person teaching and distance learning? Let us know in the comments!

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