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PowerPoint in the Classroom

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Last year I helped two middle-school Latino kids work on their PowerPoint presentations on dinosaurs. Many Anglo kids were working on the same thing at the same time in the same way, under the eye of the roving teacher, so I feel confident this was the approved procedure:

  • Search Google for articles about and images of dinosaurs.
  • Download them.
  • Cut-and-paste the articles and pictures into Power-Point slides
  • Add (misspelled) titles.
  • They were done.
In the interest of fair disclosure: I hate PowerPoint. It sucks the life out of a room. Everyone focuses on the least interesting things in the room – the frequently misfunctioning projecting setup and the ugly blue slides – and there is no energy left for real interaction. What a deadening experience.

The technology of putting a slide show together is so absorbing even to an adult that it uses up brainpower that could have gone into writing it well or preparing an absorbing oral presentation. If by any chance you have never seen The Gettysburg Powerpoint Presentation (Lincoln’s address as it would have been rendered in PowerPoint), read it and weep.

Yes, I loathe PowerPoint, which only came into my life when I began volunteering. The orientation meetings involved co-ordinators standing next to their PowerPoint presentations and reading the slides to us off the screen. Jeez, if the slide is on the screen, why read it to us? And if you can read it, why do we have to look at the screen?


But beyond my detestation of the medium these things occurred to me as I watched these middle-schoolers in computer lab:

My kids barely read English on a first grade level. They certainly could not read the articles they were pasting into their slides.

Thinking it could be a good time to squeeze in a little language work, I offered to do an ad hoc translation as we sat there. But kids only want to do the work that has to be done, and reading the material was not part of the assignment.

I observed that many of the Anglo kids were not reading the articles they were using either. Shouldn’t reading, at least, come before PowerPoint?

Secondly, the only original writing involved in this assignment was to compose the titles. The presentations were collages of found materials. But the kids felt ownership in the product. Is this not, on some level, teaching plagiarism?

I know Bill Gates wants all kids to be computer savvy, and that’s fine. But reading, writing, science and math, the arts, and recess all are more important than learning how to use PowerPoint. School time is so precious. Is this really the best way to use it?

Isn’t this like showing kids how to “open a box of cake mix, add water, and stir” and then telling them they’ve learned to cook?

(Let’s not forget that PowerPoint is a product, which Bill Gates is SELLING, just the way Duncan-Hines sells cake mix.)

I know I sound like an old fogey, but even young kids can learn the difference between trying to write something themselves and mindlessly regurgitating somebody else’s work.

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  • Jim Julius

    This is an excellent example of a terrible pedagogical use of PowerPoint. Though PowerPoint does have properties inherent to its original use as a tool of persuasion for business/sales people, it is still a tool. As such, teachers ought to be using it thoughtfully and teaching students the same. Avoiding it altogether would be preferable to the above scenario, but is not preferable to teaching students to think critically about the affordances and biases of technology. Please see http://www.fno.org/sept00/powerpoints.html for an excellent article on a thoughtful approach to having students use PowerPoint.

  • http://victorplenty.blogspot.com Victor Plenty

    Thanks for linking to the Gettysburg Powerpoint. Perhaps my favorite passage from the site creator’s commentary was this one:

    “I wasn’t a professional designer, so I thought I’d be in for a late night doing some serious research: in color science to find a truely garish color scheme; in typography to find the worst fonts; and in overall design to find a really bad layout. But fortunately for me, the labor-saving Autocontent Wizard took care of all this for me! It suggested a red-on-dark-color choice for the navigation buttons that makes them very hard to see; it chose a serif font for the date that is illegible in low-resolution web mode, and of course Excel outdid itself on the graph, volunteering the 0.1 to 0.9 between the 0 and 1 new nations. All I had to do was take Lincoln’s words and break them into pieces, making sure that I captured the main phrases of the original, while losing all the flow, eloquence, and impact.”

    Powerpoint may be a useful tool in highly skilled hands, but you’re absolutely right about its dangers to the untrained. Far too many using it today have not yet mastered the basic skills of reading, writing, or speaking coherently. Powerpoint overuse seems to harm such skills more than it helps them.

  • http://www.visitmyclass.com/blogs/wenzloff Jim

    Amen! I see more time and effort spent on PowerPoint to produce junk. Some were created by kids and some by professionals. We’ve invented a $1,000 slide projector that shows junk.

    They call the screen slides because that was what engineers used to produce their presentations. I least they had diagrams and statistics to share.

    Effects, transition and clip art are boring after you’ve seen them once and they add nothing to the content.

    Let’s have kids talk and present with the lights on and be able to talk to a group.

    jim

  • http://www.templestark.com Temple Stark

    Great post, especially the point about plagiarism, which few on the Net care about.

  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com DrPat

    Thanks for the link to the Gettysburg.ppt, which I had not seen before – how sadly true it is!

    My take on PowerPoint is it is a highly useful tool to produce handouts. Having done that, pass out the paper (with maybe a CD containing the presentation) and give the talk without the fleeping computer!