How I Got Dual Coding Badly Wrong

I’ll begin this with a confession: my grasp of cognitive science is shallow.

I have tried to improve it. I’ve read (and re-read) Willingham; I’ve listened to Dylan William talk about Cognitive Load Theory; I’ve tried grappling with publications from organisations like (the catchily named) Centre for Education and Statistics and Evaluation (actually an excellent site well worth your attention).

But, it seems, I am not a deep thinker when it comes to these discussions.

I try – I really do – but I fall short.

This point was recently driven home when I read a blog by Adam Boxer on Dual Coding. Adam rails at the proliferation of the images adorning worksheets in the name of ‘dual coding’. Too often, he argues, these images are being misused. He wrote:

In short, if you want to use them [icons] fine, but don’t confuse aesthetics with thinking. Some principles of aesthetics support cognition, but many don’t. And making something look pretty with icons is fast becoming the “multicoloured dialogical marking” of the 2020’s: cool pictures to put online that show your creative flair yada yada, but not much bang for your buck in terms of learning.

As I read Adam’s article, I realised: ‘Oh, he’s talking about me.’

Here, for instance, are two poor examples (both my own):

Exhibit 1: Pointless imagery next to text

Screen Shot 2020-05-09 at 10.00.51


  • What is the value of the knives being next to the recap question? In fact, if anything, it actually has the potential to confuse things: the Nazis didn’t use knives to carry out their attacks
  • What is the value of the images next to the paragraphs? They look pretty – sure – but they don’t actually add anything


Exhibit 2: Images to aid recall

Screen Shot 2020-05-09 at 09.59.20

Some reflections:

  • I used this activity as consolidation exercise: pupils had to try and figure out what the images related to and then, as a class, we discussed them and added detail to form the basis of an essay plan
  • Perhaps not all of this is pointless: the hammer and sickle can be used to illustrate a great deal about communism; the graph at the bottom left has potential to illustrate an economic downturn


  • Are these images better than context-specific images? What value does the clinking beer hold? When considering the Beer Hall Putsch, it’s actually not that important that it happened in a beer hall; it’s more important that pupils understand the consequences of the attempted coup
  • All of these images could be replaced with more concrete, context-specific images (e.g. a poster of Nazi propaganda rather than a weird lego face, as above)


So, what’s a history teacher to do?

As I reviewed my own efforts I realised I needed to rethink my practice. I re-watched Adam’s talk on Research Ed. I got into a brief but helpful conversation with Jacob Olivey and Mike Hill on Twitter. I tried to think about dual coding more deeply.

My key takeaway was this:  Visuals must suit the ideas you are trying to communicate. 

And so I tried to think about or find good examples of this in history-specific contexts. Below are a few (stolen mostly from Jacob Olivey and Mike Hill) that I think meet the criteria:

1. This for illustrating change and continuity 


2. This for teaching an overview of the suffrage movement(s) 

Votes for women

3. Maps 

France 1000

4. This for explaining Hitler’s increase in power, 1933-34

Hitler consol power

5. This for explaining why 12th century knights could be effective in battle 

A knight

In short, there are plenty of visuals that can support pupils’ learning. They are just often more difficult to find than searching on the Noun Project website (which, worryingly, now has a ‘add in’ for PowerPoint).

As Adam ends his piece by saying, rather than prettying your worksheets with images, there are a whole range of things you would be better off doing. For my money, doing some subject-specific reading would rank high on that list.

Thoughts, as always, are welcome, for as the above experience shows, it’s how we (hopefully) become better practitioners.

2 thoughts on “How I Got Dual Coding Badly Wrong

  1. A fantastic development of understanding on display here. Well done.

    As I commented on Adam’s post, if I’m honest, looking at your first sheet especially, I would never even guess that those images were there for anything other than decoration. There is nothing inherently wrong with decoration of course, though it is often superfluous, but it can at times be distracting, which is worse than achieving nothing.

    I don’t actually think there’s anything wrong with the recall activity you showed. What’s important there—and Adams’ article agrees with this, though I can’t speak for Adam the person—is that those images were not placed along side the answers in the original text. If they were, then you’re creating anchors and triggers that are of little value. But, if there were no such pictures when the original content was encountered, then the icons in the recall sheet are not just triggering recall of the icons themselves and then the text they were associated with, but the student has to break down their understanding and assess how and why these images might be relevant. This is recall and understanding, and seems to me to be more valuable than you are giving yourself credit for.


    1. I can’t seem to edit my answer… I wanted to add that while decorations are often superfluous they can make material more attractive and thus more engaging, which is no bad thing. So, possibly engaging, perhaps superfluous—it is most important to ensure that they don’t pose a distraction.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create your website with
Get started
%d bloggers like this: