Is PowerPoint A Waste of Time for Teachers?

I just finished reading “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within” by Edward Tufte. If you use a computer, or help others use a computer, this is a must read. Tufte argues that PowerPoint’s design inherently makes it more difficult to communicate with an audience.

Instead of giving an informative presentation, PowerPoint encourages speakers to create slides with ultra-short, incomplete thoughts listed with bullets. One of the harshest critiques in the 31 page booklet is about bullets. Harvard Business Review describes bulleted lists as serving 3 limited possibilities: “to show sequence (first to last in time), priority (least to most important or vice-versa), or simple membership in a set (these items relate to one another in some way, but the nature of that relationship remains unstated).” You can probably find bulleted lists in every organization in the world. I know I use them all the time, and reading the Review’s take is making me rethink my personal organizing strategies.

Tufte specifically addresses the use of PowerPoint in schools, and delivers tough judgement on student use:

Especially disturbing is the introduction of PowerPoint into schools. Instead of writing a report using sentences, children learn how to decorate client pitches and infomercials, which is better than encouraging children to smoke. Student PP exercies (as seen in in teacher’s guides, and in student work posted on the internet) typically shows 5 to 20 words and a piece of clip art on each slide in a presentation consisting of 3 to 6 slides – a total of perhaps 80 words (20 seconds of silent reading) for a week of work. Rather than being trained as mini-bureaucrats in the pitch culture, students would be better off if schools closed down on PP days and everyone went to The Exploratorium. Or wrote an illustrated essay explaining something.

His main suggestion? Use the tool that provides real power. In many cases: the sentence

One of the most important points I took away, was that digital projection of information, particularly with PowerPoint, is a terrible way to present data. His example of John Graunt’s 1662 work The Table of Casualties does a perfect job of showing how a simple data table is exponentially more powerful than literally thousands of PowerPoint slides. He explains how to create excellent handouts for your audience instead of using the less-useful slides.

A point that sounded like a constructivist education argument against PowerPoint is helpful in thinking about how we train teachers to use technical tools.

The push PP [PowerPoint] style imposes itself on the audience and tends to set up a dominance relationship between speaker and audience. Too often the speaker is making power points with hierarchical bullets to passive followers. Aggressive, stereotyped, over-manged presentations – the Great Leader up on the pedestal – are characteristic of hegemonic systems.
We want to be careful to help teachers learn how to empower students, not empower their own speaking egos.

Even if you feel differently, I highly suggest reading it. It raises important points about how we teach young people to choose appropriate tools.

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