Screen savers

At the end of February, The Independent published an article, the sentiment of which I’ve heard repeated in numerous forms and across various platforms over the last few years. The article is called ‘Let’s ban PowerPoint in lectures – it makes students more stupid and professors more boring’.

Business presentation with travel slides

Briefly put, the arguments go like this: PowerPoint, in author Bent Meier Sørensen’s words, ‘locks the lecture into a course that disregards any input other than the lecturer’s own idea of the lecture conceived the day before.’ Since the software was designed for business professionals, it is based on the idea of presenting results, producing a series of points that can easily be grasped and followed through (and thus potentially predicted – something else you might not want in a lecture), and that this encourages lecturers to attempt to sell ‘bullet point knowledge’ to students rather than encouraging them to engage fully with the topic at hand. Also, there’s the old read-your-way-through-slides problem: Sørensen remarks that ‘In my presentations, the texts on slides are really just my private and often hastily written down thoughts… Yet the students perceive my bullet points as authoritative.’

Much as I am prepared to acknowledge that PowerPoint is far from a perfect teaching tool (for the simple reason that there really isn’t, as far as I’m concerned, such a thing as a perfect teaching tool, a one-size-fits-all way of getting people to learn and engage), I’d say there’s something more fundamental, and more problematic going on here. And it is to do with a balance I’ve long puzzled over, and would love to discuss with others: the balance of finished and unfinished, formal and behind-the-scenes, that goes into teaching anyone… well, anything.

PowerPoint at its go-getting, business-savvy best is about Looking Like You Have The Answers. (Less so, perhaps, if those answers screech in across the screen to the sound of squealing brakes, but I guess we all have our preferred house styles.) It can be neat, ordered, full of pretty graphs and video clips and tables of data. It can present a finished product, a part of the ‘publication’, if you like, of your formal spoken presentation that goes with it. This PowerPoint is fixed, linear, about presenting (not discussing), and draws a line under the subject in question.

Teaching anything, to anyone, is almost never EVER like this. Someone will ask an awkward question. Someone will get to your point long before you ready for them to, and someone else will still be stuck on your first sentence. Someone might throw you a complete curve ball that takes you way off-piste, and will either require gently deferring for another time, or dealing with and dragging back towards the thing you were driving at. Someone might query something you don’t know the answer to, and it could be fascinating question, and you might want to stop and look it up, or debate it with the class, or add in additional exercises and discussions to help all your learners get there.

Self-evidently, there are two things that are totally not in any way going to be of use to you in this situation. The first is: a go-getting, business-savvy Looking Like You Have The Answers PowerPoint. The second is a bunch of slides which have your own ‘private and hastily written down thoughts’ on them. The former belong in a board room. The latter on your own notes, somewhere where the students can’t see them.

I completely agree with Sørensen that the best learning experiences can’t be predicted. They are spontaneous and link directly to the experiences, knowledge, and questions of the learners themselves. I also agree that most classrooms are now set up to encourage you to use slideshows, and most teaching institutions expect you to be able to upload slides, handouts and other class materials to an online platform to allow students to refer back to them. So rather than binning the programme altogether, a few humble thoughts and suggestions from me, if you’re feeling the PowerPoint blues.

  1. It’s a tool: you are in control of it, not the other way around. You know you don’t have to show the students all the slides, right? Sometimes you might not get to the end. Sometimes you might have got stuck on a topic that means you decide to skim other bits you’d planned. Tell them if you do this, and stick the whole slideshow up anyway. They can read without you doing it for them. Trust them to pursue the bits you didn’t have time to cover in class, or turn those bits into tasks and assignments for next time.
  2. It is absolutely possible to build ‘loop’ arguments into PowerPoint. Say you want to cover three big themes and use three very different, in-depth case studies, one for each. Produce the three slides of big themes, cover them one at a time, add in a recap slide for when you get back to the meta-level. If you’re explaining the topics well, they’ll follow you.
  3. Speaking of explaining the topics well, PowerPoint is not a replacement for your lecture notes. No one needs to see those but you. That way they can be as randomly scrawled, last-minute and disordered as you like. Just know what’s on the slides, if you choose to use them. Only write down on the slideshow the really crucial Give the students less text in PowerPoint: that way, they will still be encouraged to make their own notes (and thus absorb and process the information more effectively) and they won’t fall into a coma trying to read text-heavy presentations.
  4. A lesson is not a presentation. And most lectures are no longer simple ‘chalk and talk’ sessions. Students and teachers expect interaction. So don’t keep the wretched thing locked in presentation mode. On several occasions I’ve left slides blank in lectures, come out of the presentation mode to gather thoughts from the class after a discussion, typed them in and then saved and uploaded the slideshow with the students’ own ideas included.

Last but not least, since PowerPoint (or Prezi, or whatever else you’re using) is one tool among many, don’t rely on it exclusively. Use a board marker, or handouts, or flip-charts, or cuddly toys, or juggling balls, or chocolate bars, or anything else that’s going to get your learners learning – and yes, I’ve seen sessions with all of these things included – and don’t let the constraints of ‘formal function’, whether of software, the layout of the room, or the tone you might be expected to take in the session, get in the way. You wouldn’t think much of a TV gardener if they insisted on attempting to renovate an entire garden using only one spade, and then complained that it was wrecking some of the plants, would you? Think more creatively about how to tend your charges. It’s so much more rewarding when you can actually help them to grow.

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