Pointing in the Wrong Direction
© 2003 Gary S. Stager/District Administration Magazine

Published in the January 2004 issue of 

The good news is that my daughter’s teachers are at last beginning to use computers. The bad news is they are using them to make PowerPoint presentations. Frightening images of my high school algebra teacher with the indelible blue arm from the ceaseless writing and erasing at the overhead projector flashed through my mind during my recent trip to Back-to-School Night.

Monotonous lectures at the overhead are quickly being replaced by the even more mind-numbing PowerPoint-based instruction. While the overhead projector allows a presenter to make changes and annotations on the fly in response to the needs of the audience, a PowerPoint presentation is a fossil created earlier that day — or during another school year — with low expectations for audience engagement.

Allow me to set the scene, a drama familiar to parents of secondary school students. Your child writes his or her daily school schedule for you to dutifully follow during Back-to-School Night. You rush through dinner to attend the PTA meeting, where the details of the latest fundraiser can be revealed. This year you will be inflicting $20 gallon drums of cookie dough on your innocent friends, colleagues and relatives. Next, you run a half-marathon in less than three minutes on a pitch-dark campus in order to make it to your first-period class.

The teacher, a new devotee of PowerPoint, has a problem to solve. The low-bid PC in her classroom is broken and the school district cannot afford an expensive data projector for every teacher. Undeterred by these challenges and buoyed by a motivation to convey critical information to the assembled parents, the teacher does what any good problem solver would do. She prints out the PowerPoint presentation. The teacher carefully hands each parent a copy of her presentation one at a time. This takes approximately four minutes (and uses all of the toner in the hemisphere).

The title page contains her name and contact information, but no details about this particular class because the presentation needs to be generic enough to use all evening. Upon opening the stapled packet one is treated to a couple of dozen slides detailing the teacher’s gum rules, incomprehensible grading system and ways in which students will be punished for breaking any of the innumerable classroom rules. Since the “presentation” was prepared with a standard PowerPoint template, each page is dark and the school will be out of toner for the remainder of the year.

Teachers like the one I describe are well-meaning, but their reliance on PowerPoint undermines their ability to communicate effectively. Such presentations convey little information and reduce the humanity of the presenter through the recitation of decontextualized bullet points. Such presentations require expensive hardware, time-consuming preparation and reduce spontaneity. This eight-minute presentation was a test of endurance. I fear for students subjected to years of teacher-led presentations.

As a service to educators everywhere, I have prepared a one-slide PowerPoint presentation (above) to help them with Back-to-School night.

What’s the point?
Somehow the making of PowerPoint presentations has become the ultimate use of computers in American classrooms. Perhaps we are emotionally drawn to children making sales pitches. Adults see these children playing Donald Trump dress-up and overvalue the exercise as educational. Teachers refer to “doing PowerPoint” or students “making a PowerPoint” and this is unquestionably accepted as worthwhile.

The desire to create a generation of fifth graders with terrific secretarial skills fails on a number of levels. PowerPoint presentations frequently undermine effective communication. The time spent creating PowerPoint presentations reduces opportunities to develop important storytelling, oral communication and persuasive skills. The corporate look of PowerPoint creates an air of false complexity when students are really constrained by rigid canned templates and the use of clip-art. Class size and time constraints frequently deprive students of opportunities to actually make their presentations before an audience.

Kids should be conducting authentic research, writing original ideas and learning to communicate in a variety of modalities. PowerPoint is a poor use of technology and trivializes the development of communication skills.

I used to refer to Back-to-School Night at my kids’ schools as “The Night of 1,000 Columns,” because of the comical inspiration provided by each year’s new gum rules, notebook policies (loose leaf vs. spiral vs. “Trapper Keeper”) and truly awful public speaking. (See a classic from the archives.)

Mission critical business is always conducted at Back-to-School Night. We learn about each year’s cupcake policy and how the new math texts arrived again without the required manipulatives. Who can ever forget the school’s disastrous attempt at vocabulary development? Or, being told by the history teacher in September 2000 that, “They do elections next year.” (in 2001 – a year after the first contested presidential election in US history)

I remember one teacher with so little gravitas that parents walked into her classroom, looked around, mumbled, “I guess she’s not here,” and shuffled out into the night.

At least one teacher perfected a grading system so complex that she had hundreds of individual marks per student per month. Unbeknownst to this highly-skilled professional, she morphed from a mild-mannered English teacher into Super Actuary. His NPR totebag and coffee mug magically transformed into a green visor and slide rule. Shazam!

My mind wanders during the 8-minute presentations. I keep an eye on the clock, waiting for the bell to free me from the monotony. I wonder, “How could my child spend 180 days of this sitting in that uncomfortable chair?” How do I escape?

Each year’s meeting began to feel more like “Scared Straight.”

The catalog of school rules and their accompanying punishments increase in volume and severity. B.F. Skinner would have sent his children to Summerhill after attending the average American Back-to-School Night.

Check out the email I just received from a friend reporting on his Back-to-School Night…

“The teacher explained that students start the year with 10 extra credit points. Each time they use the bathroom during class time, it cost them a point. If they can hold on all year, they get 10 extra credit points. Cool, huh?“*

What kind of sadistic madman becomes a teacher in order to govern a child’s bladder?*

Are Depends now part of the school uniform?

Now that my children have outgrown school, I am at the mercy of friends to report new innovations in state-sanctioned torture.

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Footnote: *I was teaching recently at an Australian school where each child is provided with a reusable large water bottle and required to keep it next to their desk as part of the school’s “Hydration Policy.” Hydration – good or bad? You make the call!

My friend informs me that the teacher is sensational, although the toilet fetish leaves room for concern.