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Published in Visuals

The Cognitive Science behind the HOW2s

While the techniques the HOW2s depict have sound research behind them, the science behind the HOW2s visuals themselves are often overlooked. Here’s a peek at the evidence

Signal-Noise ratio

If you want to learn about real classrooms, then it would seem to make sense to have photographs, or videos, of teachers in action in order to learn new techniques. But this is not what we find out from research.

Background, or irrelevant detail, will either distract, confuse or overwhelm the viewer. Psychologists call this visual noise. It gets in the way of the important function of the visual — to communicate the core message, or the signal

Photographs and videos, therefore, can often misdirect the viewer’s attention to aspects of the teaching that are not central, and lead to significant misconceptions that don’t get identified until much later. And at great cost. 

HOW2s are designed to communicate only the message and for this purpose, we have eliminated any extraneous detail. You won’t find furniture, displays, computers, and all the other furniture that constitute a specific context. HOW2s are context-free.

A simple line drawing is more effective for learning than a more realistic graphic such as a photograph

Ruth Colvin Clark, Evidence-Based Training Methods, 2nd ed, 2015

The visual argument

When I make a presentation about the power of visuals, I am very keen for the audience to understand I am not referring to particular people. There are no such things a visual learners — the whole learning styles concept is a hoax. Instead I aim to convince every single teacher that they, too, falter when facing a wall of text. In fact, I ensure they fail with just a few lines of text comprising simple vocabulary only.

How do I do that? I present them with four lines of text and ask them a few questions about it. All but the odd persons fails to answer easily or accurately. Then, in the midst of their astonishment, I present the same information visually and repeat the questions. Without any exceptions, all teachers manage to answer the questions accurately almost immediately. I convince them. What materials do I use? I’ll write a separate post on this process later in the year. And offer you the self same materials in Powerpoint format for you to use in your training sessions with colleagues or your students.

So, returning to this visual argument principle, we know that in a diagram, the component parts and their relationships are self-evident and all viewable at one glance. Not so with sentences. In order to understand the content of a sentence, you have to absorb each part in turn, and constantly related it to the preceding parts. It is a sequential process that takes considerably more time and effort. And, as the teachers in my process discovered, not always an accurate one. 

Psychologists have researched this over several decades and call it the visual argument. 

Diagrams…are able to display relationships without the intervention of complex syntax.

Bertrand Russell, Vagueness, 1932

Dual coding

We can use our visual and auditory channels simultaneously and, significantly, separately. This means that we can absorb more information than is normally considered possible. We avoid the dreaded cognitive load, that confuses and depressed learning.

Back in the 1970s psychologist Allan Paivio discovered this phenomenon he termed dual coding. Replicated studies over the decades have simply reinforced the truth of Paivio’s original findings.

The significance of this for teachers is plain enough: use visuals when making your class explanations. More will be communicated, with less difficulty.

Similarly, in coaching situations, use the HOW2s as your guide to focus and structure your explanation and your coachee’s understanding. 

The contiguity principle

When text is far away from the visual, or vice versa, the viewer has to expend considerable mental energy in keeping one in mind while attending to the other. Technically this challenge is called divided, or split, attention

Split attention increases cognitive load — the amount of information the brain can absorb at any one time. Its consequence is to make learners confused, exhausted, and de-motivated. Naturally enough.

HOW2s, like comic strips, have the text embedded within the graphic. There is no split attention as the contiguity principle has been applied.


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