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Excellence by design: some thoughts on Oliver Caviglioli, Dual Coding with Teachers

Post 1/5 on September excellence

Some books entertain, some inform. This book actually teaches. Within its nifty A5 format and simple red-black colour palette (beloved of Stendhal and also of anarchists) it take us back to basics. How do we design a page so that learning may happen? That page might belong to a knowledge organiser, a staff CPD Powerpoint slide, a sketchnote or an infographic for a class. How do we produce a Design for Life?

Part of the answer lies with those twin bedfellows, less and more. Fewer colours, fewer fonts, more cutting, more white space, more simplifying, less clutter, more background organising grids: more thinking about layout.

Why bother messing with default settings which seem to be almost part of our very nature as teachers? ‘My whiteboard always looks like this…’ ‘That’s just how I do a Powerpoint, thanks. They can follow it OK.’ Dual coding means double-barrelled learning because as Paul Kirschner explains here using the work of Paivio, presenting information in two different ways enables a learner to double their working memory capacity; this in turn allows (it doesn’t automatically enable) recall from long-term memory in two different ways. This is turbo-charged learning indeed. In draining the ‘I’m a visual learner’ bathwater, let’s not throw out the baby of visual learning.

Rather than attempting a comprehensive review of the book, here are 3 quick thoughts on how I might deploy its ideas with my high-attaining and potentially high-attaining students.

First, in my new book From Able to Remarkable: Help Your Students Become Expert Learners (Crown House, October 2019) I argue a case for helping our pupils to model and practise to their peers what they have been shown to do by us: adults lead, students learn, students lead. In Dual Coding, the principle is admirably demonstrated. Teachers explain how they use visuals in their teaching. Helen Jennings offers a brilliant double double spread showing how her Year 6 pupils have framed a Coach to Coachee method using dual coding which then becomes a Coachee presentation technique. Pupils think carefully about choice of image and instruction in designing WalkThrus which are scaffolded and sequenced logically and clearly, drafting and redrafting for clarity. Read and admire.

Secondly, Oliver Caviglioli explains how I might as a teacher use a visual to break down the main ideas in a text and arrange them to show their relationships; students practise this and learn to apply it in reverse it by constructing text from a visual. There are similar plug-in-and-play examples towards the back of the book with which I can challenge my sixth form in September. Perfect.

Finally, and drawing to a conclusion (sorry), amid the many examples of brilliant design and high-level graphic literacy in the book, Oliver is reassuring about the familiar ‘I just can’t draw’ mantra (guilty). Line drawings can be simple and stylised, using and removing rough labels in retrieval practice; posters and slides can be chunked and organised using software, classroom displays can be stripped back and decluttered. You may find, as I did with my book, that a current or former student can help with these processes and clarify your own thinking as they do so.

You don’t have to be Mondrian to appreciate good design. But Dual Coding with Teachers is about much more than improving teachers’ design aesthetic. The principle of dual coding is one which I suspect we’ve all known about in residual fashion for a long time but here it is at last as visible thinking to help all our students to learn better.

In stretching and challenging our own appreciation of cognitive load theory, we need to add an oft-missed visual dimension to our toolkit of strategies to enhance the learning of our high attainers and, indeed, all our students.

PS: tracing is now allowed. And encouraged.

2/5 Excellence by communication

3/5 Excellence by definition

4/5 Excellence by collaboration

5/5 Excellence by aspiration

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