What are we doing when we think that we are dual coding? – Part One: What do students already need to know in order to understand the pictures?

Dual coding in some subjects must be easy.

In biology, the picture you need to illustrate the parts of a leaf is one that shows the parts of a leaf. In physical geography, a description of the creation of oxbow lakes would probably be best dual-coded by a diagram of the formation of an oxbow lake.

But in history?

I wouldn’t suggest that we are the only subject that has to deal with abstract concepts but there does seem to be a disproportionate amount of them. Take for example the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The exam-board-endorsed textbook on this subject has four paragraphs on this subject – it is after all only one small part of a one-hundred-year course on international relations. However, beneath that brevity lies much complexity. Take for example the sentence:

“The conservative, strictly Muslim rural Afghan people disliked communism because it was an atheist ideology (it denied the existence of God).”

Let’s just unpack that. In order that a student can parse that sentence they need to hold in their heads some understanding of (at least some of) the following concepts: ‘conservative’, ‘Muslim/Islam’, ‘rural’, ‘Afghanistan’, ‘communism’, ‘atheist’ and ‘ideology’. The schemata that you need to hold to understand this sentence are numerous. If you have that cultural knowledge, then this is a clear, concise summation of the reaction of some Afghanis to Taraki’s government. If you don’t, it is intimidating and confusing. All of this for a question that, if it comes up at all, might be worth 4.76% of a GCSE.

I know that building these schemata and developing knowledge is what Key Stage 3 is for – and we should be at least engaged with the question about which of substantive concepts we want to teach to our students (and which we want them to retain). But, if we are being honest, how many of those concepts do our students understand because they are taught them at KS3? How much of students’ understanding of other concepts like ‘law’, ‘parliament’, ‘economy’, ‘trade’ etc. is built by lessons? Isn’t it actually the case that the students who are most au fait with those terms have had most of them introduced, defined, explained, illustrated and clarified by their experiences outside of the classroom? Don’t tell me that the tens-of-thousands of hours with their families, peers, books, telly and internet is not more instrumental in their development than the hundreds of hours they spent in history lessons – even if they are devastatingly brilliant lessons.

Even if it were reasonable to expect history teachers to be responsible for the entirety of a student’s historical, political, economic and cultural education, the weight of outside influences will always be heavier than the influences of a history teacher, no matter how inspirational, dedicated or passionate. This is how privilege becomes entrenched – those who are born into families that help them develop cultural capital valued by academia have easier access to more of it. Those who are not face a harder challenge.

So, what does this mean for dual coding?

First, it means we need it. We need to give students ways to hang on the myriad abstract ideas that lie behind our subject.

Second, it means that it is hard to get that dual coding right. If an image is supposed to illustrate a point you are making, it needs to resonate with the students looking at it. It needs to tap into, and latch on to, students’ understanding of the world around them. It means that the students need to have the cultural understanding to make sense of the images you are showing them. Take a look at this picture from a well-known and mostly excellent GCSE textbook:

Unemployment Diagram

This image is part of a diagram designed to dual-code the idea of the spread of the Great Depression to the rest of the world. I guess that if you are reading this blog then you have the cultural reference points to understand why three men standing in a row represents unemployment. You see that image and it triggers for you memories of photos of the breadlines in the Great Depression. Maybe it’s the Thursday dole queue. Perhaps you see the workers from Metropolis. You might see that long line of Hendon Young Conservatives used in Saatchi & Saatchi’s Labour Isn’t Working poster from the 1979 election campaign. You might even be humming a Hot Chocolate song thinking about The Full Monty.

But what about the kids who have never seen those images? What about those who have never seen those films? What about the kids with the least cultural capital? What about those kids who do not share our mental schema? It is our duty to help introduce them into the great conversation that is academic discourse and yet the very thing we have selected in order to try and help them understand a complicated idea is an image that means nothing to them. If you do not already have those images in your head you are excluded from the thing that will help you put a new idea into your head. If you are not already part of a group that values academic knowledge, you are further excluded from it.

Okay, so a picture of men standing in a row is very unlikely to cause a budding historian from a non-traditionally-academic background to give up in frustration but, if it does not place another tiny brick in the wall, it certainly does help them climb over it.

We, as history teachers, have to think carefully about what assumptions we are making when we illustrate a point. What cultural knowledge, what schema, is required for the pictures we use to be meaningful for all of our students?

Who are we excluding and discouraging when we think we are being helpful?

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