I’m a big fan of children’s book illustrator/author, Dav Pikley. So, when I came across a beginning reader by him called, “Big Dog and Little Dog,” I bought it for my three year-old grandson. The grandkids should love it.

The book is complex with a great deal of subtext.

Big Dog and Little Dog want food.

Here is some food for Big Dog.

Big Dog is happy.

Here is some food for Little Dog.

Little Dog is happy too.

Deep, I know!

After the dozen or so pages of the story, the book includes f#$cking comprehension questions. The publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, calls them “Bonus Skill Building Activities.” I am not going to destroy my grandson’s love of reading by giving him books with a stupid quiz at the back.

Want to know why Johnny can’t read?

Textbook publishers and the educators engaged in a faith-based relationship with them!

I am sure that if you asked the publisher why they felt compelled to ruin a book with assessment schlock, I bet they would say, “teachers want it.” Well, who cares? Any teacher incapable of engaging a child in a conversation about Big Dog and Little Dog should be servicing robot drink dispensers at McDonalds. Better yet, perhaps teachers should shut up altogether and just let kids enjoy reading a book for information or pleasure.

Accelerated Reader, comprehension questions every three paragraphs, and other cynical schemes designed to interrupt reading  for the purpose of ranking, sorting, or failing children have a prophylactic impact on reading far more destructive than playing Minecraft or binge-watching episodes of Wife Swap.

When I was a kid, once you could read, there was no longer a subject in your schedule called, “Reading.” Today, some kids receive reading instruction K-12. These are the very same kids who we are often made to believe are not good at reading. Perhaps adults need to stop ruining the reading experience and provide kids of all ages with access to high-interest reading material free of moronic “bonus skill building activities.”


If you wish to do something about childhood literacy, donate generously to my favorite charity, Access Books. They build and stock beautiful libraries in third world schools where children would not otherwise have access to books. Criminally, those schools are in California!


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.

I’ve never been good at ice-breakers or getting-to-know-you games. If I am being paid to teach, whether it be children or adults, that’s my focus. I never worry about classroom management because I never enter a classroom thinking I need to manage it. “Hi, I’m Gary. We’ve got stuff to do!”

I take seriously the Reggio Emilia inspired notion that the primary responsibility of a teacher is to be a researcher – one who makes private thinking public and invisible thinking visible. Teachers should work* to understand the thinking of each student and identify what they can do in order to prepare the learning environment for the next intellectual development.

During my educator workshops around the world I often find that the best engineers are preschool teachers, the best mathematicians teach P.E., and the most natural programmers teach 5th grade (or vice versa?).  I have certainly found plenty of veteran teachers to be much more sophisticated technology users than their younger peers. Starting the workshop with preconceived notions of who the participants are or what they think they know only narrows the possibilities for serendipity and exceeding expectations.

This is the time of year when teachers meet with teachers of the next grade level to discuss the students they are about to receive. Perhaps this common practice is counterproductive. A student’s “file” can be a life sentence. Why be prejudiced about a student  before you meet her? Why not start every class with fresh eyes, an open mind, and open heart? Ask yourself, “How do I make this the best seven hours or forty-three minutes of a kid’s life?”


Footnote:

It's a lot less like work than it about caring for each student or getting to know them on a collegial level.


In Chapter Four of our new book, Invent to Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, we discuss the importance of prompt setting as a basis for project-based learning. I argue that “a good prompt is worth 1,000 words.” Projects are not the occasional dessert you get as a reward after consuming a semester’s worth of asparagus, but that the project should be a teacher’s “smallest unit of concern.

Last week, Sylvia Martinez and I completed a successful four-city Texas Invent to Learn workshop tour. Each workshop featured an open-ended engineering challenge. This challenge, completed in under two hours, was designed not only to introduce making, engineering, tinkering, and programming to educators with diverse experience, but to model non-coercive, constructionist, project-based learning.

Presented with what we hope was a good prompt, great materials, “sufficient” time, and a supportive culture, including a range of expertise, the assembled educators would be able to invent and learn in ways that exceeded their expectations. (We used two of our favorite materials: the Hummingbird Bit Robotics Kit and Snap! programming language.)

A good time was had by all. Workshop participants created wondrous and whimsical inventions satisfying their interpretation of our prompt. In each workshop a great deal was accomplished and learned without any formal instruction or laborious design process.

What’s your point?
Earlier today, our friends at Birdbrain Technologies, manufacturers of the Hummingbird Bit Robotics Kit, tweeted one of the project videos from our Austin workshop. (Workshop participants often proudly share their creations on social media, not unlike kids. Such sharing causes me to invent new workshop prompts on a regular basis so that they remain a surprise in subsequent events.)

This lovely video was shared for all of the right reasons. It was viewed lots of times (and counting). Many educators liked or retweeted it, All good!

What’s slightly more problematic is the statement of the prompt inspiring this creation.

“Problem: The Easter Bunny is sick. Design a robot to deliver eggs.”

That was not the exact prompt presented to our workshop participants. This slight difference makes all the difference in the world.

The slide used to launch the invention process

Aren’t you just nitpicking?
Why quarrel over such subtle differences in wording?

  • Words matter
  • My prompt was an invitation to embark on a playful learning adventure complete with various sizes of candy eggs and a seasonal theme. Posing the activity as a problem/solution raises the stakes needlessly and implies assessment.
  • Design a robot comes with all sorts of baggage and limits the possible range of approaches. (I just rejected the word, solutions, and chose approaches because words matter.)

People have preconceived notions of robots (good and bad). Even if we are using a material called a robotics kit, I never want children to cloud their thinking with conventional images of robots.

The verb, design, is also problematic. It implies a front-loaded process involving formal planning, audience, pain point, etc… good in some problem solving contexts, but far from universally beneficial.

The use of problem, design, and robot needlessly narrows and constrains the affective, creative, and intellectual potential of the experience.

A major objective of professional learning activities such as these is for educators to experience what learning-by-doing may accomplish. Diving in, engaging in conversation with the materials, collaborating with others, and profiting from generative design (a topic for future writing) leads all learners to experience success, even in the short time allotted for this activity. Such a process respects what Papert and Turkle called epistemological pluralism. Hopefully, such positive personal experiences inspire future exploration, tinkering, and learning long after the workshop ends.

Our book suggests that good prompts are comprised of three factors:

  • Brevity
  • Ambiguity
  • Immunity to assessment

Such prompt-setting skill develops over time and with practice. Whether teaching preschoolers or adults, I am sensitive to planting the smallest seed possible to generate the most beautiful garden with the healthiest flowers. That glorious garden is free of litter from brainstorming Post-It Notes, imagination crushing rubrics, and other trappings of instruction.

References
Martinez, S. L., & Stager, G. (2019). Invent to learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, second edition (2 ed.): Torrance, CA: Constructing Modern Knowledge Press

Turkle, S., & Papert, S. (1992). Epistemological Pluralism and the Revaluation of the Concrete. Journal of Mathematical Behavior, 11(1), 3-33.


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.

”cmk09″

Buy the book!

Long ago, a wise friend told me that 90% of education research is bullshit. As I mature, I realize that estimate is far too modest. Social media and the nonsense masquerading as education journalism have become inundated with a flaming brown paper bag full of articles out to prove that phonics[1]and penmanship instruction[2]are crucial 21stCentury skills[3], class size does not matter[4][5], constructivism is a failed pedagogical strategy[6], there are no learning styles[7], not everyone “needs to code,”[8]all kids need to be above the norm[9][10], and that standardized testing is objective, reliable, and valid[11].

If you believe any of these things, then I would love to tell you that the Common Core State [education] Standards were “written by the nation’s governors.” No seriously; they expect us to believe that crap. I for one would love to see Chris Christie’s notes from his curriculum development meetings. “Time for some BrainPop on the GW Bridge!”

When brightly colored infographics and Venn diagrams with nothing in the intersection of the rings fail to convince you to panic, the purveyors of hysteria wave their interactive white board pen and recite the magic word, “SCIENCE!”

SCIENCE is the new FINLAND!

Wish to justify the curious epidemic of learning disabilities, just yell, “SCIENCE!” Want to medicate kids when your curriculum fails to sedate them? SCIENCE! Care to cut salaries and slash electives? SCIENCE will prove that playing the bassoon will never get you a high-paying job at Google passing out t-shirts at tradeshows like the niece of your mom’s hairdresser. (Someone should set that last paragraph to music. Lin-Manuel, call me!)

Aside from the ISIS-like fanaticism defending phonics or penmanship systems, two recent “studies” reveal the quality of SCIENCE rushing through the body education like sugar-free gummy bears. “Study Shows Classroom Decor Can Distract From Learning,” about the value of bare walls on kindergartener’s recall, and “Kids perform better during boring tasks when dressed as Batman.” No, seriously. Those are real. Someone undoubtedly earned an EdD and parking space at Southern North Dakota Community College for such drivel.

The mere stench of SCIENCE associated with such studies goes unchallenged and serves as fantastic clickbait for a myriad of school discipline conventions. (Seriously, this is a real thing.) Why doesn’t anyone ask why babies are taking bubble tests or should be subjected to ugly classrooms? Surely, the National Science Foundation is funding replication studies to determine if five-year-olds dressed as Superman or Queen Elsa are more easily tricked into wasting their formative years on meaningless tasks? [12]

It just isn’t sufficiently SCIENTIFIC for children to enjoy happy, healthy, creative, productive, and playful childhoods. Move along young Batman. Nothing to see here. Wet your pants again? You might be dyslexic.

SCIENCE is only ever used to sustain the mythology or comfort of adults. The only time educators are ever asked to provide “evidence” is to justify something kids like – laptops, recess, band, making things…

The burden of proof is quite different for defending the status quo. What was the last time you heard anyone ask for evidence to support homework, 42-minute class periods, Algebra II, AP classes, textbooks, worksheets, times tables, interactive white boards, or the countless forms of coercion, humiliation, and punishment visited on students daily?

You know where else you find very little actual science? In Science class where the vast majority of the curriculum is concerned with vocabulary memorization or historical reenactments and very few students do science by engaging in the habits of a scientist.

At a recent gathering, three generations of people shared what they remembered from their high school science classes. The most vivid memories consisted of starting fires, causing explosions, noxious fumes, throwing test tubes out a window while exclaiming, “I’m Zeus,” or killing things (plants, the class rat, time). In SCIENTIFIC terms, 0.000000003% of the official science curriculum is retained after Friday’s quiz.

Another way of providing nutrients to the sod of education rhetoric is to sprinkle highfalutin terms like, metacognition, everywhere. This form of scientism takes a little understood concept and demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of it as a vehicle for justifying more memorization, teacher compliance, or producing the illusion of student agency. Don’t even get me started about the experts incapable of discerning the difference between teaching and learning or the bigshots who think learning is a noun.

Free advice: Forbes, the McKinsey Group, anyone associated with Clayton Christensen, TED Talks and EdSurge are not credible sources on education reform, pedagogy, or learning theory even if they accidentally confirm our own biases once in a while. They are libertarian hacks hell-bent on dismantling public education. It is also a good rule of thumb to steer clear of any source containing “ED,” “topia,” “mentum,” “vation,” “mind,” “brain,” “institute,” or “ology” in their title.

When you get right down to it, many of the questionable educational practices seeking justification from SCIENCE seek to promote simplistic mechanical models of complex processes that are in actuality much harder to distill or even impossible to comprehend. To those seeking to justify phonics instruction, a simple input-output diagram is preferable to the more likely hypothesis that reading is natural. Learning is not the direct result of having been taught.

Note: This is a deliberate provocation intended to challenge a phenomenon in education rather than engage in a hot-tempered battle of dueling research studies. Don’t bother to ask me for evidence to support my claims since I’m trading in common sense and honestly do not care if you agree with me. Seriously.

Of course, there are studies widely available to validate my outrageous blather, but I am under no obligation to identify them for you unless you grant me a cushy tenure track position, medical insurance, and a pension. If this article upsets you, my powers of persuasion are inadequate to change your mind anyway.

Endnotes:

[1]If everyone learns to read through the direct instruction of a fixed sequence 43 different sounds, how do you explain students learning to read in China, Japan, Israel or any other language without phonemes?

[2]These studies always “prove” the importance of medieval chores by pointing to test score increases (memorization). How many children are misdiagnosed with learning disabilities for confusing the ability to express themselves (writing) with the way in which they use a pencil (writing)? If penmanship is so precious, teach it in art class as a craft or as a PE activity prior to the prehistoric high school IB exams.

[3]I refrain from citing the pernicious and ubiquitous “studies” I mock with such utter contempt because I do not wish to give them any more oxygen.

[4]See the amoral work of John Hattie. He also determined that desegregation doesn’t matter for student achievement. Basic concepts of right and wrong are of no consequence for such purveyors of SCIENCE!

[5]Bill Gates loves larger classes too (except for his children) – https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/02/bill-gates-big-idea-to-fix-us-education-bigger-classes/71797/

[6]Constructivism is not a pedagogical trick, it is a scientific learning theory. Those who doubt constructivism are like flat earthers or climate change deniers. Science has nothing to do with their beliefs.

[7]Go ahead; argue that humans do not learn differently. The anti-learning styles crowd confuses teacher intervention with learning.

[8]Addressed this issue in this podcast.

[9]Hillary Clinton promised to close all schools below average – https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/12/23/hillary-clinton-may-want-to-close-every-public-school-in-america-according-to-math/?utm_term=.623a9f0ad161

[10]No Child Left Behind demanded that all schools meet norm-reference standards by 2014 – [10]https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2014/10/11/354931351/it-s-2014-all-children-are-supposed-to-be-proficient-under-federal-law

[11]See all education policy

[12]My friend Alfie Kohn does a fantastic job dismantling the quality of such “SCIENCE” in this article. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/06/05/the-education-question-we-should-be-asking/


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.

In August 2018, I delivered the opening keynote address at the Constructionism Conference in Vilnius, Lithuania. When invited to speak at the conference nearly eighteen months earlier, I felt pressured to share the topic of my address quickly. Since I do some of my best work as a wiseass, I offered the title, “Making Constructionism Great Again.” Over the ensuing months, my tongue-in-cheek title began resonating and formed the basis for what I believe to be one of my favorite keynotes ever. (Sadly, I will unlikely ever give the presentation again. Therefore, I will not have the opportunity to improve upon my performance)

Despite the title I selected, I accepted the sober challenge of making an important contribution to the conference. After all, this is a community I care about, a topic I have dedicated my adult life to, in the home of my ancestors. Due to a family emergency, the speaker scheduled before me had to fly home and my talk got moved earlier in the schedule at the last minute. That meant that some of the people I hoped would hear my message, missed it. I rarely write a speech with specific audience members in mind, but I did in this case.

A bit of background

The Constructionism Conference is held every two years, almost always in Europe. The conference prior to Vilnius was in Thailand, but that was the only time the conference was outside of Europe. For close to three decades, the conference was called, EuroLogo, and was a biennial event celebrating the use of the Logo programming language in education. In 2008, the long-time organizers of the conference worried that interest in Logo was waning and that shifting the emphasis to constructionism (1) would broaden the appeal and attract more participants. It has not. Communities begin to die when they become self-conscious. There is nothing wrong with “preaching to the converted.” There are quite successful institutions that preach to the converted. Its members find strength, nourishment, and purpose in gathering.

In my humble opinion, the problem lies within the fact that the European Logo community, and this is a generalization, focused more narrowly on the fascinating mathematical or computational aspects of the Logo programming language separate and apart from its more radical use as an instrument of school reform, social justice, and epistemology. Logo’s father and inventor of “constructionism,” Dr. Seymour Papert was a noted mathematician and computer scientist who did invent the first programming language for children, but limiting the enormity of his vision to that would be like one of his favorite parables about the blind men and the elephant.

To me, the Constructionism/EuroLogo community has been focused on what is measurable and earns academic credit for those seeking job security in university systems proud of their ongoing medieval traditions. Although I have great friends who I love, respect, and adore within this somewhat dysfunctional family, I am never sure what they make of the loud American kid who works with thousands of teachers each year and doesn’t give a damn about publishing journal articles read by 3.1415927 people.

I go to the Constructionism Conference every two years because it is important to sustain the community and ideally to help it mature. If it became more popular or influential along the way, that would be a bonus. This speech was intended as a bit of unsolicited tough love, but love nonetheless. In fact, love is a big theme in this address. That is one of the most important lessons I learned from Seymour Papert and this Constructionism Conference was the first since his death.

I hope you will watch

Thankfully, I grabbed the SD card out of the video camera sitting in the theatre pointed at the stage following the talk so there is a video documenting a talk I am proud of and wish I could give many more times. The audio quality isn’t perfect and there is no camera work (except for a couple of quick edits I made). That said, if you want to understand who I am and why I do what I do, I hope you will watch this video. It was quite an emotional experience.

If you wish to listen to it while deep sea folk dancing, please WATCH from about the 46 minute mark. You need to see, hear, and feel what great teaching and learning look like.

(1) For those of you interested in learning more about constructionism, you could read our book, Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom or Edith Ackermann’s splendid papers, her Constructionism 2010 paper, Constructivism(s): Shared roots, crossed paths, multiple legacies or Piaget’s Constructivism, Papert’s Constructionism: What’s the difference?


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.

There is so much for educators to learn about learning, learn about love, and loving to learn in this remarkable reunion commemorating Art Blakey’s Centennial. (start watching from 25:41)

The Jazz Congress in NYC ended today with a panel discussion featuring approximately thirty of the world’s finest musicians, all of whom played with the great Art Blakey over the course of four decades. For my money, this may be the single greatest gathering of artists ever assembled to honor a common mentor in history. Whether you never heard of Art Blakey or he is indelibly part of your consciousness, this conversation is simultaneously moving, profound, profane, and hilarious.

This video is everything! You owe yourself the two hour experience. I will refrain from saying more so you may construct your own meaning.

This remarkable gathering may be of equal or greater significance than the legendary A Great Day in Harlem photo.


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.

Following speaking at the prestigious WISE Conference in Qatar (November 2017), Gary Stager delivered a keynote address on learning-by making at a conference held at The American University in Cairo. The video is finally available. Enjoy!


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.

In May 2018, Gary Stager sat down with Change.School founders, Bruce Dixon and Will Richardson for their Modern Learners Podcast, to discuss learning, teaching, school improvement, and a host of other provocative topics. The title of the podcast is “The Lost Art of Teaching with Gary Stager.”

You may listen to the conversation or download the audio podcast here or watch the Zoom video below.

One seventh grader’s journey includes learning math through Scooby Doo
©2001 Gary S. Stager/Curriculum Administrator Magazine


A version of this was published in the August 2001 issue of Curriculum Administrator Magazine

 

At our annual family dinner to celebrate the end of another school year each of our children reflected upon the lessons learned and the obstacles overcome during the previous ten months. Our seventh-grade daughter, who will be referred to by the top-secret code name of Miffy, shared with us a new pedagogical strategy and use of educational technology not yet conceived of  during my school years. What was this innovation? Was it project-based learning, multiage collaboration, constructionism, online publishing, modeling and simulation? No, it was Disney films.

Yup, that’s right. Disney films (and several others too). The following is a partial list of the films shown this year during class time by my daughter’s teachers.

1st period Science 2nd period Math 3rd/4th period Language Arts 6th period Physical Education (rainy days) 7th period Social studies 8th period Band
Mulan
The Lion King
Babe Angels in the Outfield*
Young Frankenstein
Mighty Joe Young Little Giants* Babe
The Nightmare Before Christmas Aladdin The Big Green* Charlotte’s Web Rocky & Bullwinkle
Contact Cinderella The Sandlot* The Lion King II A Touched by an Angel episode dealing with racism & prejudice The Emperor’s New Groove
The Andromeda Strain The Little Mermaid Planet of the Apes Aladdin Remember the Titans Grease
MTV videos Mighty Joe Young The Road to Eldorado Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
VH1 videos The Nightmare Before Christmas Dinosaur Mr. Holland’s Opus
Scooby Doo
The Nightmare Before Christmas
[The list is based on what my daughter could remember at the end of a school year. So, it is likely to be incomplete.]

I know by now that you must be marveling at the interdisciplinary nature of The Nightmare Before Christmas. You may also be wondering why there were no movies shown during fifth period. That’s because they don’t show movies during lunch.

Now I’m as fond of wasting time and goofing-off as the next guy, but Miffy was able to remember watching at least 34 films having no educational value whatsoever in one school year. In case you were thinking that they could be studying film criticism or visual storytelling you should know that they only watched half of most films because the periods are too short. Others were watched over several days.

This remarkable waste of class time occurred in a school where requests for meaningful projects, hands-on experiments, field-trips, drama and other productive learning experiences are abandoned because of an oft-repeated “lack of time.” Sure the standardized tests and top-down curricular pressures wreak havoc with creating a productive context for learning, but we can’t blame this one on Princeton or the President. Somewhere along the line educators determined that the demanding curriculum was elastic enough for the illegal showing of countless commercial films.

My Daughter the Rodeo Clown

Miffy also told me that due to the SAT-9 exams, “Career Day” had been cancelled. I’m not sure which part of that statement is most tragic, so let’s state it in the form of a standardized test question.

Which is most pathetic?

  1. a) Canceling Career Day because of SAT-9 testing
  2. b) Career Day
  3. c) The school’s remedy for having cancelled career day

The ingenious remedy chosen was to spend much of the last week of school watching a series of instructional videos called, “Real Life 101.” While hardly as educational as Mulan, these shows turned out to be far more entertaining. The audience was repeatedly reminded, “you don’t need a college degree for this career, but it wouldn’t hurt! ”

The hosts of the series, Maya, Megan, Zooby and Josh (there always seems to be a Josh) introduced exciting career options for the high-tech interconnected global economy of the 21st century. The career options included the following: Snake handler, projectionist, naval explosive expert, skydive instructor, rafting instructor, diamond cutter, roller coaster technician, exterminator, auctioneer, alligator wrestler and my personal favorite growth industry – rodeo clown!

Actual Career Day worksheet used in the Torrance, CA Unified School District

You can’t make this stuff up! The worksheet that followed the Career Day substitute asked each child to rank these careers in order of preference and write a few sentences explaining their number one choice.

If I wanted my children to watch television, I’d let them stay home. At least at home they could watch something educational like “Behind the Music: The Mamas and the Papas”or learn about Beat poetry from the “Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. ”  At least then they would have a chance to learn something more than the unfortunate lessons being modeled by their schools.


Notes: *My kid explained that all of these films share the same plot about a group of fat kids working hard together to win the big game. Somewhere in there’s a lesson for us all.

About the author

Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He is also the curator of the Seymour Papert archive site, The Daily Papert. Learn more about Gary here.

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.