Wednesday, April 28, 2010

PowerPoint This!

In a classroom lesson, as in writing, anything that does not advance the lesson, or essay must be cut. Beautiful language is no excuse for gratuitous verbiage. A teacher, like an essayist, has only so many minutes and words to make his point, and therefore he must be ruthless with his editing.

The same can also be said for equipment and tools in the classroom. I love Kenneth Branagh’s film version of Hamlet, but at 242 minutes, it is simply too long to show to a class at the rate of 45 minutes per day. That’s six days of class time in the dark watching film. So we must select scenes to show.

Too much of any one thing spoils the soup, so to speak.

I read the recent article in The New York Times on the military’s use of Microsoft’s PowerPoint program with great interest. In education, PowerPoint has become, for many teachers, the only tool. Everything from notes to the final exam can be mounted on digital slides and thrust in front of students sitting in the dark staring at a screen.

The article comes with a sample slide depicting a visual interpretation of our military strategy in Afghanistan. It is worth checking out the article just for that. When General Stanley A. McChrystal, “leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan,” saw this slide, he thought it looked like “a bowl of spaghetti.” The slide definitely did not make our strategy clear. According to the article’s writer, Elisabeth Bumiller, “The amount of time expended on PowerPoint, the Microsoft presentation program of computer-generated charts, graphs and bullet points, has made it a running joke in the Pentagon and in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Bumiller goes on to write that in Brigadier General H.R. McMaster’s view, PowerPoint is overused. He banned the presentations when managing the war in Iraq. He saw the program as “an internal threat.”

“In General McMaster’s view,” Bumiller says, “PowerPoint’s worst offense is not a chart like the spaghetti graphic…but rigid lists of bullet points…that take no account of interconnected political, economic and ethnic forces.”

In the classroom, this means slides of lists without a narrative context will not help students make connections.

Here is what I have witnessed. Teachers put their notes on PowerPoint. They put up a slide of their notes, and read them to the students. Or, they put up the slide, and what follows is three to five minutes of awkward silence while the kids copy down the bullet points. Where is the narrative thread, the connective tissue among the points? The teacher must fill in the spaces between those bulleted points. In short, PowerPoint is no substitute for good teaching; it can only enhance solid pedagogy.

I was teaching John Keats’ “Ode On A Grecian Urn” to my seniors. We veered off into a discussion of how cultures have differing ideas of what is beautiful. This was a discussion—students and teacher freely sharing ideas. I wrote my notes on a plain white board in a kind of shorthand: words and phrases along with dates and names. I connected these ideas in a lecture format at the start of the lesson; once everyone had the background, we moved into discussion mode.

The discussion part, I allowed to flow freely. Students contributed, I added to the discussion, and we tossed around and mulled over themes and ideas. No technology needed, just good, old-fashioned thinking and discussing.

I wanted to show them some ideas from other cultures on beauty. I pulled up a slide of the primitive sculpture, Venus of Willendorf. Students marveled at the voluptuous figure. Next, I brought up an image of a Mursi woman from Ethiopia with her stretched lower lip. My final slide was a picture of a woman from Myanmar with multiple metal rings stretching her vertebrae and elongating her neck.

So to recap, for this forty-five minute lesson, I would have some notes on slides, saving me from having to write them out on the board during class. These notes would guide my lecture on the background of Keats’ work. I then would stop the slides and lead a discussion of the poem itself, stopping to add a term or a quick note on the board. When I wanted to illustrate different cultural ideas of beauty, I would show them three images of what other cultures think is beautiful. Again, I would allow a discussion of what we saw, leaving the images up so students could refer to them.

To use one piece of equipment, computer program, or teaching method exclusively doesn’t work. We need various tools and methods in our arsenal, especially today when students are exposed to so many different kinds of information sources. Multimedia is a buzzword, but a good one: life is a multimedia experience, so our classes and teaching must be as well.

Technology is a powerful tool. I am not a Luddite, and I welcome these new tools, but the passion for a subject like English cannot be over-shadowed by an obsession with gigabytes and wikis.

Teaching requires knowledge, passion, understanding, and dedication. A good teacher recognizes how kids learn, and knows the best way to get students fired up about Shakespeare, the intricacies of grammar, the power of writing. Technological tools can make that process more efficient and vibrant, but nothing takes the place of a conversation between teacher and student. To question and answer, debate and discover, takes the most basic, yet fascinating of technologies: the human brain.

In the end, that is all the technology we need.


  1. Your students must have such a terrific time with you, Paul. Your classes sound amazing. The amount of thought you put into teaching and the energy and enthusiasm you emit in this blog is testimony to it.

    I never use PowerPoint, but I don't teach much. What I have noticed though is that every time people use power points at uni presentations and elsewhere, something always goes wrong and we wait ages for repairs.

  2. I hate that--waiting for the tech guy to show to fix the computer, projector, etc. Once, I was at a workshop where the presenter's equipment got stuck on the first slide. Unfortunately, the person paired the slide with music. We heard the same 10 bars of a U2 song over and over again because he could not shut it off. Finally, a participant stood up and pulled the plug out of the wall.

    Not a gracious way to end, but the audience was bordering on mass hysteria. Better his hard drive than our minds, I guess.

    Thanks for checking in and reading.


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