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Education that’s not to the point

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Esther J. Cepeda
July 28, 2013

CHICAGO -- My belief that the PowerPoint presentation is the worst thing that ever happened to modern education was verified a few months ago while I was observing a training session on the art of marketing complex technology. At one point, the teacher stopped his PowerPoint presentation to rant about the tyranny of PowerPoint presentations.

The trainer bemoaned the skull-numbing effect that an endless stream of bullet points and images has on a listener.

He painstakingly detailed the absolute no-nos of trying to impart important information through such a limited method: Keep the number of slides to a minimum, use as little text on each slide as possible and never, ever, recite your bullet points verbatim.

Then he told us that the newest trend in high-level salesmanship is to perform important presentations without electronic aides. Apparently, top sales professionals have started learning to sketch so they can hand-illustrate their most important concepts on whiteboards during a talk in front of clients.

Such an effort demonstrates two things, the trainer said. “First, it shows the customer that you know your stuff, that you’re not just regurgitating strings of facts because you need to have slides and fill them. And second, it shows your audience that you are tailoring how you impart information in a way that is relevant to them in the moment.”

“Wow!” I thought. “That’s exactly how teaching used to be.”

Well, that’s how it used to be a long time ago when teachers were masters of their subject areas and they shared their wisdom by lecturing and maybe making a few notes on a chalkboard. Back when students were—gasp!—expected to listen and even—double-gasp!—take notes.

That method died sometime after I graduated from college and before I began my graduate-level teacher training nearly a decade later.

As a trainee doing state-mandated observations, I sat in classroom after classroom—in both urban and rural, affluent and low-income schools—where entire class periods consisted of a dimmed room, a clip-art heavy 80-slide PowerPoint deck, reams of printouts of the same presentation (the “notes”) and the monotonous drone of an instructor faithfully reciting bullet points until the bell rang.

Educational Death by PowerPoint, I called it.

I got to experience it again during the final presentations that my older son’s summer-school class put on for parents and administrators last week.

What I gleaned from the 13 nearly identical PowerPoint presentations about usually fascinating mathematical giants such as Pythagoras and Fibonacci is that the soon-to-be high school freshmen had been taught to present ideas as poorly as many teachers do.

Every beautifully animated presentation diligently followed the same formula: several slides, followed by an explanatory YouTube video—of the Pythagorean theorem or the Fibonacci sequence, for instance—and more slides.

In a sense, it was magnificent to see a whole class of mostly low-income students—many of whom don’t have access to decent Internet access or the latest in techno-gadgetry at home—navigate an electronic presentation with the flair and ease of a corporate professional.

But, sadly, nearly each presentation—stocked with crutches of easy-to-regurgitate facts and a video to perform the heavy lifting of in-depth explanation—left a question mark as to whether the students themselves fully understood the information they were so snazzily presenting. They weren’t given the chance to explain the concepts to the audience in their own words.

Technology in schools has become a multibillion-dollar racket for an ever-expanding number of companies selling everything from computers, tablets and educational software to schools desperate to improve educational outcomes.

Expensive tech-ed “miracle cures” remain unproved. Our biggest concern about integrating technology into schools should be that even as we provide students with mastery of the standard tools of business—whether it be slide presentations, email or social media—we risk forgetting a vital piece of the educational puzzle: the ability to communicate for understanding.

That old-fashioned, low-tech competence needs to be at the center of education policy if we expect tomorrow’s professionals to actually put their computer skills to use.

Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.



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