What are we doing when we think that we are dual coding? – Part Two: Does consistency matter?

We have a Year 7 enquiry question that asks students to consider the historical significance of four medieval women.

We’re pretty happy with it.

It allows us to cover some chronology that would otherwise be missing, introduces students to the idea that historical significance is ascribed rather than inherent, suggests some criteria by which historical significance may be judged, makes a moral point about the exclusion of some groups of people from conventional historical narratives, asks students to practise supporting claims with examples and allows them to, if they choose, to create some dramatic art work. It’s quite good fun and it sits nicely within a progression model of the second-order concept of significance planned into our Key Stage 3 curriculum.

Like I said, we’re pretty happy with it.

Teaching this topic this year, Maggie Johnson, one of our brilliant Specialist TAs from our Hearing Support Centre, said that she was concerned about the amount of substantive content there was in this course and asked if she could make an aide memoire to stick on the desk of a student with hearing difficulties so that she and the student could refer to it when signing. Feeling once again grateful to work with such amazing TAs, I said, “of course”.

Which is when Maggie, very politely, pointed out that the inconsistency of the pictures might actually prove to be an obstacle developing students’ understanding and that the pictures were, in short, rubbish.

Have a look at the pictures we were using…

Eleanor of Aquitaine…

…Julian of Norwich…


…Margery Kempe…


 and Margaret of Anjou…

It’s not the fact that Eleanor of Aquitaine appears to be riding a My Little Pony that was the problem. Nor was it that the picture of Margaret of Anjou is from the ‘wonky’ school of art that was so popular in the medieval period  – it’s that there is no consistency between the images. Three of the pictures are modern artistic impressions, two are from medieval manuscripts, one is from a medieval mural and one is a twenty-first century photograph of a twenty-first century statue. The images not only look radically different from each other, the intentions behind their creation are radically different. Yet, we were going to use them to try and help Year 7s learn about women who, as far as they are concerned in this enquiry, are of the same order: they are all medieval women, they are all objects of our study and they all will be subjected to analysis of their potential historical significance. Whether explicitly or implicitly, the pictures did not suggest that parity.

If we wanted students to understand that the women were of the same order we needed to have pictures that made this clear – we needed consistency in our dual coding.

We rectified this problem by drawing our own pictures.

We projected the images onto a whiteboard and went around them with a dry-wipe marker. We then took a photo of our drawings, emailed it to ourselves and tidied and coloured jpeg with Photoshop. Below are the results:


The images we have created are certainly not more beautiful than (some of) the originals but they are at least consistent – images that represent things (in this case, medieval women) that are of the same importance, and will be studied and analysed in the same way, now look the same.

However, they are not exactly the same. They still have visual clues that might act as cues to remembering a little about these women’s lives – the queens are wearing crowns, Julian of Norwich is dressed as a nun and Margery Kempe is holding her imaginatively-titled autobiography, The Book of Margery Kempe.*

For me, the take away from this experience was that consistency in the images you use has more than just aesthetic value…

…and that there are people who paint pictures of medieval queens riding fantasy horses and post them on the internet.


* I realised later that we would need to correct the image of Margery Kempe before teaching this again next year – one of the things she does that gets her into trouble with the Mayor of Leicester is wearing white despite being a married woman.

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?