Clear Teacher Explanations 2f: Dual Coding Mistakes

As dual coding becomes more popular, its definition also expands. This post intends to clarify the difference between dual coding and graphic design. The key idea is that aesthetically pleasing diagrams do not necessarily translate into better learning. If teachers invest time adding lots of diagrams to their resources with the mistaken belief that it adds value to learning, then I think ‘dual coding’ has morphed into something it shouldn’t have.

I often see teachers make worksheets with the following dual-coding mistakes which, though well-intentioned, do not reap the intended benefits:

  • Icons to represent headings (dollar notes to represent economic arguments).

Just use the heading on its own – the diagram is not usually specific enough to represent exactly what you mean and so doesn’t serve a benefit over using the term itself.

  • A diagram that represents a single word but can actually represent a larger set of ideas (e.g. scales to represent justice).

This kind of diagram is often a metaphor or abstract representation. A crown might represent power to you, but it actually has far more connotations that you are not making explicit. Dual coding should make the abstract concrete, not the concrete abstract! Teachers are often tempted to have a diagram for EVERY ‘key word’ on their worksheet. This isn’t necessary – not everything *needs* an illustration. If you enjoy doing it that’s fine! I write this with the intention of informing any teachers who feel the pressure to add diagrams for everything, that it will not necessarily benefit their pupils. It might look pretty, but it doesn’t necessarily help your pupils understand or remember the idea more clearly.

The way to realise you are making this mistake is this: if you find yourself searching for a diagram to represent a particular idea or word, and you eventually stumble across something and think, ‘Ah yes, this *could* represent the idea’, then the truth is the diagram is probably not specific enough to serve your intended purpose.

If there is asymmetry between the specific idea leading to the specific image and the image leading to the idea, then it is not dual coding. The crown could mean anything, not just power. The dollar note could mean lots of things, not just ‘economic argument’.

  • A series of pictures organised into a complex structure that a list could serve equally well instead (literal roadmaps of the curriculum, I’m looking at you).

The point of dual coding is to make an idea easier to follow, not prettier to follow. It is fine to make something pretty, but it isn’t called dual coding – it’s graphic design. The mislabelling risks the concept of dual coding being misrepresented and therefore misunderstood. The main benefit of dual coding is aiding understanding, not aesthetics. (Although, it is true that the clearly laid out diagrams are more effective than messy ones!)

  • Images that show something that can be so easily imagined are rather pointless (stack of books next to a text about reading).

Unless you have EAL readers who are learning words like ‘books’ and ‘reading’, you do not need a picture of somebody reading in your text.

  • Pictures for comic effect.

This not dual coding, it’s distracting. Let CGP play this role in your pupils’ lives!

  • Drawing things that there are diagrams already available for just for the sake of drawing them.

E.g. rather than hand drawing an outline of a body, with beautiful sketches of the glands for pupils to label, just print off an existing diagram and get them to label it.

Ultimately, if you are investing valuable time to plan a resource, you want the additional time you invest to be having impact on learning. If it does not, and you want to make your resources aesthetically pleasing that is absolutely fine, as long as you are aware that that is indeed the purpose of your investment.

Questions to always ask yourself before dual coding:

  1. Is this diagram making an invisible organising structure from my mind explicit to pupils?
  2. Is this diagram making the content I want to teach more memorable?
  3. Is this diagram making it easier to imagine something?

If the answer to all of these questions is “No”, you should question whether dual coding is worth your time. Sometimes a worksheet or explanation without diagrams will do everything you want it to. But if you answer yes to the questions above, harnessed properly, explanations can be made significantly clearer and far more memorable with diagrams.

For examples of dual coding in science, have a look at the series of blogs that precede this one in the #ClearTeacherExplanations series.


6 thoughts on “Clear Teacher Explanations 2f: Dual Coding Mistakes

  1. Pingback: Teaching with a Presentation — The Power of Big Pictures and Story Telling – Chat Physics

  2. Pingback: 3 Things: Thought quality, wide knowledge, and a formula for flow – JON GUSTAFSON

  3. Pingback: Clear Teacher Explanations I: examples & non-examples | Bunsen Blue

  4. Pingback: Making the Juice Worth the Squeeze: Dual Coding – Reflections on Education

  5. Pingback: Teaching with a Presentation — The Power of Big Pictures and Story Telling – ChatSci

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