DUAL CODING and ART – is there a connection?

I recently tweeted an imploration to primary teachers to teach more art in order to help secondary students become better at utilising the method of dual coding. The response to the tweet certainly took me by surprise, with a mix of responses ranging from:

  • support, to
  • indignation at the notion that art should not be taught to benefit secondary students but be taught for art’s sake, to
  • indignation that primary teachers shouldn’t be serving secondary teachers

But most surprising of all was the assured dismissal of the notion from one of the strongest proponents of dual coding in the present climate: Oliver Caviglioli.

My position is this: a student who is better at art, and specifically drawing (a distinction I admit I should have made clear in the original tweet), is more likely to dual code because they are more confident in drawing and more able to represent their conceptual understanding.

There is an important distinction to be made here however. If the conceptual understanding is already there, then there isn’t much more encoding happening, so technically, it is not dual coding. The benefit of drawing would be in the retrieval process, strengthening the memory by creating another neural pathway to it via the drawing. However, it could also be argued that the drawing is still serving teh encoding process by strengthening the coding, forcing teh drawer to think deeper about the concept. It is from this position then that i shall continue in this line of argument. Thanks to Dan Williams for this insight.

I’m certainly not suggesting that someone who is not good at drawing is excluded from dual coding, a point that Oliver understandably exhorts in order to open the practice to as many as possible. Oliver states that dual coding is not about drawing or perception, but is more a means of translating conceptual thinking. I completely understand this distinction, however I believe that a more confident drawer is more able to represent concepts and understanding because they possess the ability to convert what’s in their brain onto the paper with greater ease than someone who isn’t a good drawer. The automaticity that resulted from the development of the hand eye/brain coordination would free the working memory, and should significantly speed up the process of encoding with dual channels*.

I use myself as the example of this: I am always trying to dual code my understanding of what I read, but my lack of drawing ability forces me to go to google and search for images, which takes time, and is at the mercy of what is already there. My ‘search’ is my conceptual understanding, it is what I want, but if the drawing I have in my mind isn’t there, perceptually, not only has it taken considerably more time than if I drew it myself, but worse is that I have to take the second best image. A student in the classroom trying to conceptualise their understanding to improve the encoding process is also at the mercy of such conditions, but worse without google, clumsily and painstakingly attempts to transcribe their ideas onto the paper. It’s demotivating.  

One of Oliver’s retorts to this is that the skill of line drawing is simply a 5 minute training exercise, and thereby negates the connection between competency in drawing and dual coding. I mean absolutely no disrespect to Oliver, but I believe there is some creeping in here of the ‘curse of knowledge’. All skills are arrived at via a process of the acquisition of schema. It is the accumulation of knowledge and indeed its practice that eventually leads to automaticity when new contexts present themselves, and without the underlying acquisition of a ‘learning to draw’ schema, the skill of dual coding suffers. Take for example the images I’ve chosen in the post’s front image. Getting line drawings to reflect the differences between the old aged person and the zombie and the assertive flag bearer (in other words, numerous and maybe even countless concepts) is not something that can be mastered in 5 minutes.

Alex Quigley also challenged the tweet suggesting that there is no evidence linking the idea of better drawing with better dual coding, intimating that the connection between effective drawing and dual coding would in fact be quite the jump, an example of ‘far’ transfer of knowledge. I replied that using this as a basis for not engaging in the development of ‘drawing’ knowledge to develop a broader skill is dangerous ground as it effectively renders the accepted argument for the concerted development of distinct knowledge that doesn’t resemble the final skill as redundant. Daisy Christodoulou succinctly addresses this here with her marathon analogy. She also recently addresses an ostensible contradiction with ‘far transfer’ and the distinct development of knowledge here, leaning on the idea that there are alternating stages in a larger cycle of learning, and that well thought out learning design essentially replaces the ‘far’ with ‘near’; with the larger goal in mind, all knowledge acquisition is a part of the journey, and the concept of ‘far’ becomes ironically short-sighted.

I would place learning to draw as a useful component on the journey to mastering the larger broader skillset of dual coding. And because of that, I would say there is a connection between art and dual coding. Of course, as Alex states, there is no evidence to truly affirm this, but it seems pretty logical to me. Open to being wrong.

*I don’t have any evidence of this. It is an intuitive assumption.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger and follow this blog, if you’d like.

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