Archive for the 'Teaching' Category

A year without PowerPoint

Dennis Sparks

Like many readers of this blog, I sometimes attend meetings that feature one or more PowerPoint presentations. Sometimes those are “training meetings,” which means that the explicit purpose is that participants learn something of value.

It is not uncommon for the meeting’s convener or “trainer” to conclude the “presentation” by saying something like, “Now that we have covered…” or “Now that you understand….”

Giving people lists of rapidly-paced information with the assumption that they have learned something is bad teaching—no matter the age of the learners—unless the goal is to create a near-death experience for the participants.

I think of the presentation of lists as the “PowerPoint Syndrome,” although it is not always done with PowerPoint.

Here is a recent example from an organization with whom I volunteer that requires periodic online “inservice.” For about 45 minutes I listened and watched as a speaker read factual information from a list of slides that I was able to view on my computer screen. (I could have read the slides much more rapidly than the speaker spoke them.)

At the conclusion I was given a multiple-choice test of 10 questions seemingly randomly selected from the dozens if not hundreds of points that have been made during the presentation.

Because I am a good test taker, I passed the test with a perfect score. Did I understand the subject matters well enough to explain it to someone else? No. Did I acquire any skill useful in my volunteer work? No. Could I even remember most of the content a few hours later? No.

PowerPoint presentations are a part of a broader problem of teaching and learning that equates teaching with telling and performing.

I am not opposed to all PowerPoint presentations. Occasionally they are the most efficient means of providing a relatively quick overview of a topic or important information.

While presenting learners with information is sometimes appropriate, my objection is to the mindless overuse of long and endless lists of low-level information that cannot possibly be absorbed, yet alone understood.

To promote the mindful use of PowerPoint, I propose a year in which PowerPoint will only be used in meeting agendas or lesson plans when they can be fully justified as essential to the purposes of the meeting or lesson and they have no ill-effects (such as near-death experiences).

Just as the admonition “first do no harm” requires doctors to consider the possible negative effects of medical treatment on patients, so, too, must administrators and teacher leaders consider the ill effects of mindless PowerPoint presentations on teaching, professional development, and meetings.

What do you think—what is the appropriate role of PowerPoint in meetings and learning environments for young people and adults alike?

A year without “presentations”

Dennis Sparks

The start of a school year offers a blank slate for the development of new habits.

In recognition of the value of a fresh start I propose the elimination of the list-heavy PowerPoint type of “presentations” that dominate many meetings and far too much “professional development.”

Presenting” is not synonymous with “teaching.” Teaching, in my mind, is a complex cognitive and behavioral process in which teachers, and often their students, choose learning outcomes, select the instructional methods that are most likely to produce those outcomes, determine whether the learning has been acquired, and provide additional learning opportunities for students who have not achieved mastery.

Presenting, on the other hand, may include some or all of those steps, but in practice seldom does.

While “presenters” may intentionally engage learners through various activities, more often than not they speak to mostly passive “audiences,” which is why professional development is often derisively known as “sit and get.”

As they are commonly used, presentations are not intended nor designed to give more than lip service to higher-order cognitive processes such as planning, assessment, the critical analysis of research, and the development of professional judgment, among other complex instructional knowledge and skills.

Therefore, I recommend:

That “presentations” be used sparingly and only when the explicit goal is “communicating” a modest amount of information for relatively low-level purposes. Such presentations are not to be confused with the type of learning experiences required to deepen understanding of complicated subjects or to develop complex skills.

That leaders be ruthlessly honest with themselves and others to determine if the “presentations” they are considering are really a good use of teachers’ time and good will.

That the term “teaching,” not “presentation,” be used to describe the methods required for the development of the kinds of knowledge and skills mentioned above.

We honor teachers and teaching when we use the verb “teach” to describe the processes by which important and complex understandings and skills are developed, whether the students are young people or professional adults.

In another post I wrote, “… with few exceptions, presentations—because of their typically brief and superficial nature—do not change beliefs, create deep understanding, or cultivate new habits of mind or behavior because they are seldom truly intended to achieve those ends. And if those are the expressed purposes of a “presentation,” let’s then call it what it is—teaching.”

I urge administrators and teacher leaders to consciously justify the absolute necessity of every “presentation.” I am confident that few presentations will meet the standard of being “a good use of teachers’ time and goodwill,” which hopefully means their rapid demise.

All of the above require that leaders be more intentional about the kinds of learning experiences required for educators to expand and deepen the sophisticated and nuanced skills and understandings of their profession.

What do you think—do “presentations” have a place, and, if so, what purposes do they best serve?

[A year without presentations will also likely require a year without PowerPoint, which will be subject of my next post.]

The similarities between successful teaching, professional development, and leadership

 

Dennis Sparks“Big Idea”: The practices of successful teaching, successful professional development, and successful leadership are remarkably similar.

In my view, a common set of principles regarding human learning and relationships underlie teaching, professional development, and leadership that intends to continuously improve teaching and learning.

Good teaching, as I see it, is an intellectually-rich science and a psychologically demanding improvisational art that is practiced in an ever changing landscape of relationships with students, colleagues, and parents. And like other endeavors that blend science and art, it can be improved through years of practice with frequent reflection on the effectiveness of one’s efforts.

The same description could be applied to skillful school leadership and to professional development that leads to professional learning.

Because I view teaching, leadership, and professional development as closely linked, I frequently ask administrators and teacher leaders who face daunting challenges in their work to imagine how a good teacher would think about and respond to those challenges.

The following posts highlight the understandings and processes that inform effective practice in these three areas. They were among the most widely distributed and read posts of the past year.

“Learning by doing while thinking about it”

“11 dysfunctional beliefs that profoundly undermine leadership, teaching, and learning”

You can peruse all posts in the “teaching” category here.

 

Seeing what is invisible to others…

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The only true voyage… would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is. – Marcel Proust

I recently read a fascinating book by Alexandra Horowitz, On Looking: 11 Walks with Expert Eyes. 

In each chapter Horowitz takes a walk around her Manhattan block or in other neighborhoods with different experts to understand what they see that escapes Horowitz/s conscious awareness. She walks with a geologists, a biologist, a researcher in pedestrian behavior, a sound technician, skilled medical diagnosticians, and so on.

Each walk revealed to Horowitz a world that was previously invisible to her and provided experiences through which she believes she will be forever changed.

Horowitz writes: “There is a certain bias in everyone’s perspective that has been named, by the French, deformation professionnelle: the tendency to look at every context from the point of view of one’s profession.”

What do expert teachers and principals see that I would not?

As I read the book I found myself wondering what expert teachers  and principals see each day in their classrooms and schools that would be invisible to me. A great deal, I suspect.

But my experience in spending time with such educators has revealed that they are often not as skillful as Horowitz’s experts in explaining what they observe and what it means.

While accomplished teachers and principals see patterns and details that escape my notice, they may or may not be able to explain it in the complex and nuanced way that, say, an expert on pedestrian behavior offered his running commentary to Horowitz as they strolled down a Manhattan street.

Here are two fundamental reasons why I think that’s true:

• Teachers’ and principals’ expertise has not been acknowledged and appreciated within and beyond the school community. As a result, they might think that everyone sees what they see and does what they do. These teachers and principals often find it hard to imagine that not everyone thinks and acts as they do.

• They have had few opportunities to polish that expertise by sharing it with others.

Such fine-tuning and collegiality benefit both the individual teacher or administrator and the broader school community and are hallmarks of outstanding schools.

The continuous improvement of teaching and learning for the benefit of all students requires that accomplished teachers and principals share their expertise — which begins with what they are observing and thinking.

Three things are required to develop and tap that expertise:

1. Developing expertise through experience and reflection on the effects of one’s practice on student learning and other valued outcomes. Years of such practice are essential. (10,000 hours is an oft-cited number of hours required to develop expertise.)

2. Honing one’s descriptive abilities through conversation such as those that occur in team meetings and writing in journals and blogs.

3. Sharing that expertise within a culture of continuous improvement. (Creating such a culture, I believe, belongs among the highest priorities of principals and teacher leaders.)

I encouraged  teacher leaders and principals who wish to take their performance to another level to invite others into their classrooms and schools and to explain to them in close to real-time what is observed and the thought processes behind the countless management and instructional decisions made during a particular lesson or throughout the day.

Effective instructional coaches and principals, of course, enable such mindful professional learning processes.

Horowitz concludes, “An expert can only indicate what she sees; it is up to your own head to tune your senses and your brain to see it. Once you catch that melody, and keep humming, you are forever changed.”

What do skillful school leaders do to enable the school community to “catch the melody, and keep humming”?

When professional learning is a barrier to continuous improvement…

 

Dennis SparksIn my experience most of us already know enough to make a much larger difference. 

While additional knowledge and skills may be helpful, a significant barrier to continuous improvement is the “default setting” of many educators to learn more before acting.

I value learning. I have always enjoyed learning how to do my work more effectively and efficiently. I enjoy learning about a diverse range of subjects that interest me. And I appreciate learning about things that I didn’t know interested me, like when my eye travels from shelf to shelf in a library or bookstore or when I follow a series of hyperlinks wherever they may take me.

But the endless pursuit of new professional learning can also be a barrier, and even a form of procrastination or avoidance, to diligently applying what we already know to improve leadership and teaching for the students who are in our classrooms today.

Sometimes the search for “perfect” knowledge prevents us from acting on the “good enough” knowledge that will benefit students now.

How do you distinguish between “I already know enough” and “New learning is essential?”

 

Can teachers give away what they don’t have?

Dennis Sparks

• Is it possible for teachers to create classroom cultures of high-cognitive engagement if their own meetings and professional development require little intellectual engagement?

• Is it possible for teachers in a school with incoherent, fragmented improvement efforts to create coherent, focused instruction in their classrooms?

• Is it possible for teachers who work in professional isolation to create classrooms with high-levels of student cooperation?

The answer to all of these questions is “yes.” But, it’s a qualified yes.

Within every school—not matter how problematic its culture and structures may be—there are teachers who rise above the circumstances of their environment.

But if the goal is quality teaching and learning in all classrooms for the benefit of all students, then the bar for intellectual engagement and meaningful collaboration in faculty meetings, school culture, and professional development is set much higher.

Put another way, a school faculty cannot give away what it doesn’t experience on a regular basis in the professional culture of the school.

Do you agree? 

A professional responsibility to continuously improve teaching

Dennis Sparks

My previous post highlighted the problem of “either/or thinking” when it’s applied to professional development.

Such thinking is also a problem when educators discuss their responsibility for improving student learning in the face of poverty and other challenging economic and social conditions.

Some say that poverty is too strong a force for schools to overcome. Others believe that there is ample evidence that schools can teach all students to high levels no matter what their socio-economic status may be.

For me it is not either/or, but both/and.

I am fully convinced the poverty affects student learning and the overall quality of children’s lives. That seems irrefutable.

Poverty has a profoundly negative effect on the quality of life for young people and their families. I hope that educators join with others to do everything in their power to blunt its impact if not eliminate it.

And:

We know a great deal about the kind of teaching that engages all students in meaningful learning, no matter their socio-economic status. And we know a great deal about the kinds of structures (professional learning communities, for instance) and the attributes of school cultures that enable such teaching.

As a result, educators have a professional responsibility to continuously improve the quality of teaching and learning for the benefit of all students, particularly those facing daunting life challenges.

Do you agree or disagree? What are the individual and collective responsibilities of educators in the face of serious social problems?

 


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