PowerPointless Pedagogy?

Two weeks ago, I blogged about the virtues of teaching simple lessons with a repetitive structure. One of the comments left beneath the piece was in agreement, but implored me to go further:

…abandon powerpoints all together. I have been freer since I embraced the idea that very little can be taught well using an image that cannot be better taught using words.

This is something I hear a lot, often from traditionalist teachers with whom I share common ground on many other issues. I listen to their arguments, I agree with much of what they say, but I simply cannot give up my attachment to PowerPoint. I use PowerPoint presentations in nearly all of my history lessons. Sometimes, I consider giving it up for a fortnight, just to see how it feels, but cannot even bring myself to do that.

I am well aware of the multiple crimes which can be laid at PowerPoint’s door, and fully accept that it often makes teaching much worse. Three of PowerPoint’s most serious crimes against teaching, from my experience, are:

  1. PowerPoint = the lesson: Have you ever noticed how ‘the PowerPoint presentation’ is often used as a synonym for ‘the lesson’? As in, ‘I have just put the lesson is on the shared drive’. Such a mindset has dire consequences. It tempts teachers to use PowerPoint as a crutch, and assume that they no longer need to give prior thought to their lesson sequencing, explanations, and questioning, because ‘it is all there on the PowerPoint’. One of the worst teaching habits that PowerPoint presentations encourage is allowing slides to become the replacement for a textbook. It is only a small step from that, to the cardinal sin of teaching-as-reading-off-the-PowerPoint (common amongst much CPD, incidentally).
  2. Engaging PowerPoints: Giffs, cartoon characters, pop culture references, clip art, comic sans, lurid colours, cluttered slides. Can’t bear it, hate it all. If you are engaging pupils with material unrelated to lesson content, their engagement is worthless.
  3. Time thievery: My biggest disappointment following my first ever day of teaching was that no pupil stayed behind to thank me for designing such a lovely PowerPoint presentation. I had spent hours on the bloody thing. It had animations, transitions, a colour scheme, little jokes, and not one pupil batted an eyelid. Of course, creating those types of PowerPoint presentation is a colossal waste of time.

All that being said, I do think that PowerPoint’s advantages can compensate for its deficiencies. The three most significant for my practice are as follows:

  1. Imagery: There is clear evidence from the field of cognitive psychology that combining images and words aids memory – a process known as ‘dual coding’. I sense this phenomenon at work all the time in my history lessons. Pupils at Key Stage 3 find it much easier to remember characters from the Tudor period, for whom we have wonderful portraits (Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Mary I, Thomas Wolsey and so on) than those from the medieval period, for whom we don’t (Thomas Becket, Henry II, Edward I, Edward III). Well-chosen historical images can illustrate a period in ways that words simply cannot. And they minimise the misconceptions that may occur if you tried to explain the appearance of, for example, an ornate Catholic alter or a Victorian back-to-back house, verbally. Just this week, I have used scenes from Lutrell’s Psalter and Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry to illustrate life in a medieval village to Year 7; Foxe’s Book of Martyrs to illustrate the reign of Mary I to Year 8; and a fantastic animated diagram of James Watt’s steam engine from the Museum of Scotland to illustrate the Industrial Revolution to Year 9. I would hate for my lessons not to have this visual aspect.

    steam-engine
    The museum of Scotland’s excellent animated diagram of Watt’s steam engine. Could I explain that better verbally?
  2. Instructions and information: Though I try to keep text to a minimum, my PowerPoint presentations do contain some instructions and information. This may be keyword definitions, for pupils to copy into their books, or a mnemonic to remember how to analyse a historical source. Every other lesson I teach starts with a recap quiz, for which the questions are projected on the board. Of course, I could print all of this information, but I would weep for the trees. Or I could place it all in pre-prepared booklets, but I don’t think I would ever be sufficiently happy with a unit not to want to adapt it midway through teaching according to unforeseen issues and misconceptions.
  3. More teaching time: Whilst I do teach with my board pen in hand, I don’t like to spend time writing large chunks of text on the board. This is perhaps rooted in having begun my career in a school where turning your back on the class for one moment normally meant turning back to a scene resembling a medieval doom painting. But even in a school where behaviour is not a concern, I still like to maximise the time I spend facing the class, monitoring how well they are working. PowerPoint allows for this.

In sum, I think that PowerPoint can be tolerated, so long as it is seen as an aid for the lesson, and not the lesson itself. If a PowerPoint presentation never takes more than 15 minutes to prepare, consists mostly of well-chosen images that complement and do not distract from lesson content, and includes instructions and information but no large chunks of writing, then I think it is no bad thing.

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3 thoughts on “PowerPointless Pedagogy?

  1. I’ve only just come across this post…so apologies for the delay.

    1. I like what you’ve said. Clear arguments are always enjoyable though this one didn’t make me change my mind.

    2. 🙂 I’m actually quite excited about your new history books. I’m hoping that you’ve got lots of nice illustrations & photos in them – even though they are KS3 and I’m a primary person.

    3. I prefer the pupils to have their own copies of anything we are studying (as far as is possible). Showing a worksheet via the projector is not as nice as giving each child their own textbook. Showing an image on the screen is not as good as giving everyone a reasonably good copy (e.g. a postcard) and studying that. Showing an image on the screen is not as meaningful as sitting in a semi-circle around a reproduction of a portrait of Henry VIII or an enlarged line drawing of Henry II.

    I would just rather that, if my school is in London and near a tube station, pupils went out to see the real thing. And if you can’t see the real thing then go out and buy a high quality image for the pupils to look at.

    If I could go back to pre-Interactive White Boards and Projectors I would not find teachers trying to make a giant version of an image that everyone could see at once. They’d be making multiple copies (via a textbook usually), taking us to see Very Important Items at a museum or just telling us a story so gripping that we didn’t need an image. (But maybe this is nostalgia and not reality)

    4. I would like to see pupils doing more drawing anyway. Michael Fordham’s maps are brilliant – imagine Y5/Y6 pupils being able to sketch and label a map. I’d rank that as just as important as being able to write an essay.

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