Serving Up Multiple Modalities

Indulge me for a moment while I mention, again, an academic and Twitter crush of mine, Blake Harvard. If you are not already following Blake on Twitter, I highly recommend it. I bring this up because one of my favorite tweets of his involves this image. The initiation of the tweet came from someone who tweeted a graph relating to student retention rates in different activities. It said that "research showed that students remember 5% of what they learn from a lecture." Now, there is a whole lot to unpack here and not nearly enough time to do so. 

But it brings up the hugely important topic of Neuromyths and how prevalent they are in classrooms around the world. None more so than the Neuromyth of learning styles. I'm not saying that it isn't compelling to think that every student has a specific learning style, and we should accommodate this when teaching and assessing students. But, simply put, there is not a shred of evidence to support the notion that each of us has a specific learning style, and for learning to occur, we must be taught in that modality. 

However, there is research to support the notion that combining and varying modalities, whether that be visual, auditory, movement, or touch, is more likely to improve learning. For example, Dual coding is a combination of words and visuals when presenting information to students, aimed at making sure multiple sensory inputs are being covered. Indeed, visuals are an incredibly powerful modality when it comes to presenting new information. However, don't be afraid to have lessons without visuals. To draw from an Ian Kelleher analogy involving bacon and visuals. Everybody loves bacon, and bacon tastes good on lots of things, from a breakfast sandwich to a pizza topping. I have even seen in ice cream a few times!! But while bacon is beloved around the world, we don't want it on every plate that we eat for the rest of our lives. Consider bacon and sardines…#gross! It's exactly the same when teaching and assessing in multiple modalities. Not every scenario needs a visual. Consider engaging in a debate within the classroom. Deep, active cognitive engagement occurs from learners knowing the information and being able to use this to form an opinion. NO VISUAL NECESSARY!

Also, don't discount the role of multiple modalities in assessment. In a previous post, I wrote about the role of choice in activities and how it impacts engagement. Multiple modalities have their place here, as well. Think about your students: your struggling, just right, and superstar student. Would their experience be better if they could show their thinking differently? Possibly a poster or podcast would allow a student to highlight their skills in a modality that is preferred by them. 

Tools for Tomorrow's Classroom Use:

Dual Coding—Research suggests that combining and presenting information in the form of words and visuals supports how students engage with what is being taught. "Covering the bases" of sensory inputs is part of the rationale behind Dual Coding Theory. This simple tweak will help with the recognition and recall of information. Can you add an example of dual coding to a mini-lesson this week?

Arts Integration—In my opinion, this one can't be said enough, and it will be said over and over again. The integration of the arts has HUGE upside when it comes to memory, engagement, and emotion. The brain is primed for novelty, and the research suggests that it supports deep, active cognitive engagement. I'm not advocating for a Broadway production, but consider how you do this in your classroom.

Assess in a variety of modalities—I leave you with this one with as it bears repeating. A critical component of teaching and learning is assessing. Consider how your assessments are challenging your students and giving them an opportunity to...demonstrate their understanding.

About the Author

Peter McBride
Far Hills Country Day School Grade 4 Teacher