The Wings of Instruction: Neuro-move #3 -DUAL CODING

When Teaching Mirrors Learning Series 

Unpacking The DNA of Learning Blueprint


     Each article in this 15 part series systematically unpacks the DNA of Learning Blueprint for kindling the spirit of learning and re-starting our passion as educators.  The collective series will represent a comprehensive outline of fundamental requirements for timeless learning across ages and disciplines.

Part 10: The Wings of Instruction: Neuro-move #3 -DUAL CODING

 Dual-Coding’s Role in DNa’s “wings OF INSTRUCTION”


“A picture is worth a thousand words… be it hard copy or internal imagery”

Powerful Internal Imagery

Let’s explore internal coding in the brain.  Close your eyes and ask yourself, “How many windows are in my living room?”  Given the verbal prompts of “windows” and “living room,” the mind scans the room via visual memory and knows for certain how many windows there are.  Right?  You have never intentionally studied or rehearsed this, yet the visual recall is available.  Now ask, “what type of locks are on the windows?”  Again, internal visual scanning begins, bringing focused attention to access the location of the window locks.  All of this without benefit of study or deliberate conscious processing.  The brain has visually coded the information as a fundamental way experiences are processed, stored, and retrieved without formal school-type study activities.


Do You Suppose…

     …that if we placed a post-it at intervals in a book and asked students to stop at each one, pause, and take note of the primary image in their head each time? Would this practice improve comprehension and memory?  Well, it certainly does!  The mind uses internal imagery long before it learns letters and words.  This is one way to help teach kids how to make best use of their brain’s natural learning systems (Given, 2000).

    To do this, place a “marker” at developmentally appropriate intervals in the story or text of your choice.  Instruct students to pause at each post-it note for about ten seconds and form a quick mental image of what comes to mind (from the reading) at that point.  Have them write a word, phrase, or draw a quick, simple picture that captures the mental image they identify. As they collect and organize their visually generated quick notes, the capacity for recall will increase.  Additionally, many internal images are comprised of prior knowledge and provide contextual cues that improve comprehension.  As they begin to access their innate capacity for visual memory they will automatically apply this across subjects and experiences.  Unfortunately, there is a mindset in education, that the more proficient the students’ reading capabilities become, the less we continue to use the educational practices that naturally integrate central visuals and deepen understandings for application, transfer and sustained learning.


Dual Coding

     Dual coding is the merging of visual and verbal cues for the learner.  These MUST be done explicitly and simultaneously if they are to yield full impact.  When effective, they support a more comprehensive capacity for expressive and receptive communication.   For instance, if students had a picture of Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln side-by-side depicting the two leaders had in common between the images while writing things that distinguished them from each other on the outside of each respective picture, they would be practicing “dual coding” as they accomplished the task.  

EXPLICITLY (directly stated, not implied) and SIMULTANEOUSLY (at the same time) are imperatives.  When we use both modes to consciously process the verbal and visual attributes together, our brain uses and integrates pathways.  This is more than having verbal and visual available and is NOT to be construed as having students use pictures to understand text, as is sometimes done.  It is deliberately and consciously interweaving the two. Visuals contain many cues, subtleties and prompts that bolster memory, recall and transfer.  When the mind superimposes visuals (internal, from paper or screen or otherwise) with verbal elements, whether on paper or in our minds, we take better advantage of our natural capabilities for learning–a timeless skill!  

Unpacking the Basics

     Infants first learn to understand the world through their senses.  Prior to being introduced to letters, numbers, and written words—the mind learns by seeing/hearing patterns and by trial and error.  Processing visual cues becomes a vital component of assessing the world into which we are born.  When available, the visual modality is key to both early and later learning and is often underutilized.  Marzano et. al.’s (2001) work supports this through the findings on nonlinguistic representations, showing that the use of visual supports while learning bolsters (27% gain) achievement.  Unfortunately, the more proficient a students’ reading capabilities become, the less educational practices deliberately integrate central visuals that contextualize and deepen understandings. 

Dual-Coding’s Role in DNA’s  “WINGS” of Instruction

Central Image Example

     Many students struggle to retain the ocean of content encountered weekly, if not daily.  To coach learners how to take advantage of this make an enlarged copy of a key, central representation for each student.   Instruct students that they have the option to write directly on the image in whatever way they believe has importance or meaning for them.  Often the materials we use have an image or photo capturing something (Hogwarts, Walnut Grove, Map of Countries, lead character) aligned with the central purpose of study.  They can capture what they believe is relevant (locating geographical points during exploration, identifying chronologies of events, depicting characterizations of key people) by writing directly on the visual.  Their personal system of symbols and markings will identify items of importance that later cue memory.  The big ideas of the unit develop clarity, connections and expand depth of understanding. 

Conscious acts generating a physical illustration of their own from readings or discussion causes the mind to work further to capture personal understanding.  Ultimately, when a learner creates his/her own mental image relevance is increased.  The “dual-coding” that results from explicit and simultaneous discussion/text with a visual will change the way many approach their learning across disciplines as they find opportunities to communicate in many forms.


“Draining Text” from Visuals Example

     Have students “drain” meaning via text from a key image (picture example).  As words come to mind, all learners can contribute to a brainstorm of ideas, emotions, words that come to mind, regardless of prior levels of accomplishment (joy, ecstasy, happiness, elation…).  As related and differing perspectives are offered, everyone attending benefits from the array of vocabulary and perspectives generated.  Word choice, synonyms, genres, purposes of writing, etc. could be emphasized by design.  Images, illustrations, maps, diagrams, and photos all provide a wealth of material from which learners can interpret and express experiences, prior knowledge, and impressions on route to applying skills and concepts that move learning forward.


Science example:

     After watching selected videos on climate, have the students generate, from prior knowledge, all they know about climate (or other big idea) and the relationship or cause/effect of climate conditions that exist or happen.  Brainstorm and list all contributed terms and phrases where everyone can see them (whiteboard, flipchart).  This brainstorming will provide review for some, a stretch for others, and a good cueing mechanism for their memories to become more accessible as they proceed.  Have them individually create a personal anchor chart, “mind-map” or other format of their choice of how they perceive the causes/effects of conditions in the climate.  These initial student-generated representations provide an ongoing guide to assist students in capturing new information, understandings, and make adjustments within the context as they learn.  In pairs or alone they compare/contrast their visuals, ideas, relationships, words, writings, connections, etc. as their understanding grows.  Sharing their work with each other provides opportunities to give and gain feedback.   As activities progress, students may want to generate an updated representation of their understandings.  The initial and final visuals become telling pre-post indicators (assessments) of their progress! 

Slope-Intercept Example:

     Show students a cause/effect or digital story video, in this case—a vehicle rolling down a steep slope into a lake.  Then show a similar video, but with a gentle slope.  Ask them what they noticed…and what it would take to determine the speed or time elapsed as the vehicle enters the water.  Ask students to think of the videos and represent components in formulas that are used to figure this out.  As they process to generate an image that aligns with each letter of the equation, their comprehension of what the algorithm indicates increases.  Importantly, they have applied mathematics to real-life occurrences.

Moving toward tomorrow

Step 1:  Identify a key, pivotal, central representation from the upcoming unit.  Make a copy for each student to use as a reference, make notes on, alter, etc.  This representation must connect to the primary purpose of the unit!

Step 2:  Cause students to consciously access their internal images that relate to the big ideas articulated in the unit

Step 3:  Consider how students might generate an image of their own (whole class, groups or individuals) if feasible

Step 4:  Ensure that each segment of learning has at least one opportunity for learners to simultaneously and explicitly process visual/verbal aspects of a main idea, concept or learning goal

Step 5:  When presenting learning outcomes (potential assessment component), invite students to demonstrate their understandings in both visual and verbal ways.

     Once the psychology of engaging a learning mindset occurs, then the biology of neuro-moves can complete the learning agenda.  The deliberate and conscious use of simultaneous verbal & visual senses strengthens processing.  Increased attention, memory construction and retrieval cue pathways are greater if the information is dually coded into affiliated memory pathways.  The cognitive load of a task impacts the extent to which working memory is available… or overloaded. When learners deliberately, consciously use two modalities in synch—together—explicitly–the resulting processing increases potential “related connections.”  This can ease the demands on working memory.  If so, “a picture may well be worth a thousand words!”

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Marzano, Robert, et. al. (2001).  Classroom Strategies that Work,  ASCD                                                         

Greenleaf, Robert and Wells-Papanek, Doris. (2005). Memory, recall, the brain & learning. Greenleaf-Papanek Publications.

Given, Barbara 2000.  Teaching to the Brain’s Natural Learning Systems, ASCD.