The curse of PowerPoint: time to teach naked.
07 Oct 2016
“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting results.” Albert Einstein.
A confession: PowerPoint has become the clothing of my teaching. It is there, draped over every lesson, always present. It exists in different manifestations: sometimes it is an ostentatious outfit, a three piece suit if you will. Sometimes it is a little more skimpy – the shorts and t-shirt variation. But it is always there, a ubiquitous presence in my classroom.
Until this week. This week I went naked.
It felt uncomfortable to shed it at first: I was exposed, sweaty, nervous, tentative. I kept checking behind me, waiting for a prompt, a guide, a reassuring voice that would tell me what to do with my students next. I searched in vain for a gigantic and friendly central point to direct students’ attention to when I felt their attention wavering. I yearned for something to ask students to copy as my energy levels sagged. Nothing.
Despite waking on Tuesday in a cold sweat, as the days went on I started to feel more at ease in my nakedness: freer, loser, like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Bones of creativity creaked slowly and reluctantly into action. By the end of the week I was a full on nudist: liberated in a manner I hadn’t felt for years, removed from the shackles that had stolen so much of my time.
The curse of the PowerPoint has been lifted.
Monday morning (pre-match debrief): sceptical students informed of the adventure of this week. Some groaned in genuine disappointment. Interesting, I hadn’t expected that. Short mini survey with a range of classes completed. For 95% of students every one of their lessons throughout the day is accompanied by a PowerPoint. That is five different variations of a PowerPoint that they need to follow throughout the day. Five different examples of something to vacantly stare at. Five different lessons that revolve around exactly the same stimulus. It would be fascinating to dive inside a fifteen year old’s mind as they enter room number five of the day to PowerPoint five waiting them. The perfected PowerPoint pose will probably look a little like this:
I bet they practise at home.
A diet of PowerPoint all day, every day: how much of it is meaningful for students? How much is taken in? How much of it impacts on their learning? Importantly: how much time is spent on PowerPoint presentations? Does the effort directly correlate to the positive impact on students’ learning? Has anyone done any meaningful research on this? I have done a lot of searching this week and found little of substance.
As someone with more than just a slight perfectionist streak, I spend an inordinate amount of time on them. Not necessary on the written content, more on enjoying coupling them with nonsensical images or quips– all in a futile attempt to make content ‘engaging’ and ‘interesting’. Genuinely, as this week has pointed out to me, a complete waste of time. Or indeed, as this week has pointed out, harmful. It is a distraction, diluting learning to seek to mere gimmicks.
Thinking point: a staff training day. Five different sessions, each one led by a different individual with a PowerPoint. Result? How much has been digested? How much has been taken away? Would we appreciate that as our day? Would we feel excited, committed, engaged?
So what did a week without PowerPoint force me to do? It forced me to be creative: there was acting, there was movement in the classroom; there were props; there was music; there was spontaneity. While all of this is of course important and meaningful in securing focus and motivation, severing my PowerPoint ties importantly cut out gimmicks and forced me to spend more time thinking about the learners in my classroom. Instead of procrastinating on Google image or filling a slide with huge amounts of content that would only end up lost in the instant reception of the perfected PowerPoint pose, I planned some meaningful questions to ask students. I planned strategies for ensuring students would be able to complete the tasks. I thought.
It meant I used the board more than I have for a long time. I modelled writing (badly, as an alarming number of students pointed out at the end of the week – “no offence sir but your handwriting is useless”). I wrote with students in the room, I used word to model as much writing in advance as I could. My teaching was more reflective, I didn’t slavishly follow a routine dictated by a structure of a PowerPoint. Instead I thought about what we needed to spend more time on, what we needed to spend less time on. I communicated with students more; I didn’t dictate to them. I thought much more about how I would be speaking in the classroom, how would I be relaying this information to my students. I used my own personna more in the room. I felt more enthusiastic, more present, more focussed on them.
It was messier than usual, it was less prescriptive, it didn’t follow any neat junctions. But isn’t that what learning really is? Since when did learning come packaged in some neat presentation?
Friday: (post-match debrief). Each class was asked about how they had found the week: what was different, what did they enjoy, did they miss PowerPoint? Did they learn better with or without PowerPoint? Interesting mix of responses, it wasn’t the universal rejection and mass burning of all things PowerPoint that I had been idealistically hoping for. Some did: they believed they learned better without it; they believed they enjoyed lessons more; they enjoyed the lack of structure. Yet a great number of the students were honest about PowerPoint as a means for providing clarity; about how they enjoy the images (might have set myself up for some issues there!); about how it helps when they need to write things down.
Not to belittle the feedback of these delightful young customers, I will absolutely take on the need for direction and clarity, but there was a universality in each class in regards to comments. In each class at least one person offered a subtle and adolescent variation of: “Without PowerPoint I have to listen, I have to think about spelling, I have to follow things more carefully”. Listening? Thinking? In a classroom? Disgraceful.
In extremity then PowerPoint is doing the following (deep breath): lessening the intellectual rigour that can be present in lessons; damaging vital opportunities to hone literacy and listening skills; seeping out creativity and spontaneity; offering a superfluous distraction to the enthusiasm and passion an individual classroom teacher can exude; making learning repetitive and monotonous; severing ties between a classroom teacher and the relationship they are striving to build with students; mindlessly pandering to a need to provide a gimmick for all things learning.
And breathe again.
In all honesty I will not be forever banishing PowerPoint to the proverbial technological dustbin. Of course it has its place. It will help to model writing, it will help to stimulate thought with images, it will help to scaffold learning. What I refuse to do now is to slavishly adopt it as my modus operandi, to rigidly use Powerpoint to structure my content. The classroom should be a place of spark, of variation, of passion. Every lesson following a PowerPoint structure is not going to facilitate this, all it will facilitate is boredom. Students learn best when they are engaged. They learn best when they are intrigued by content, emotionally and intellectually invested. Can PowerPoint play a role in this? Perhaps, but maybe we just need to be more careful, more reflective and more creative with it. Perhaps we would all benefit from some naked teaching…
Thank you for reading, I am conscious this is very much a one sided polemic/rant so would be fascinated to hear other thoughts, please comment!