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.]

12 Responses to “A year without “presentations””

  1. 1 Lmacdonald September 3, 2014 at 9:13 am

    Presentations/PowerPoint, in my eyes, is more of a tool for the actual presenter. The slides cue the presenter and are more like a 21st century flash card.
    I don’t necessarily think presentation slides are harmful, if they are used properly. Problem is, most presenters are clueless on the nuances of creating presentations. They have far too many slides, too much text, and pictures that distract the lesson purpose. They also lack the understanding to differentiate slides for different audiences ( live audience or stand alone presentation)
    As far as teaching goes, your point is well made. Teaching is not synonymous with presenting. Again, if the slides are used purposefully then they can be helpful is supporting a teacher. Highlighting a good concept map, displaying a necessary image or the lesson objective can be a good use of slides. Any links to outside internet sources to save transition time, can be good too. No fluff, it clouds the lesson objective.

    • 2 Dennis Sparks September 3, 2014 at 5:51 pm

      Slides definitely have their place, but as you point out, it is essential that they serve very clear purposes. If a leader’s purpose is to create a “near death experience,” then a large number of dense slides would accomplish that end. But if a leader desires deep and extended conversation or the development of new habits of mind and practice, then a small number of slides with just a few key points would be sufficient. I appreciate your comment!

  2. 3 jmccarthyeds September 3, 2014 at 2:57 pm

    Giving up presentations could mean fewer lectures, leading to more opportunities for inquiry activities and student-led learning experiences. I believe this is the subtle point being made. Nice article.

  3. 5 Heather Langenhahn September 3, 2014 at 4:00 pm

    Dennis you are so wise and always point out those things we know to be true but sometimes default to never-the-less. Thank you for reminding me to “walk the talk” by modeling what we expect of teachers in their efforts to actively engage children in the classroom. Our teacher deserve no less. It will be a “presentation free” year at our school. 🙂

  4. 7 cathygassenheimerheimer September 3, 2014 at 6:20 pm

    Thank you — as always — for your very thoughtful post. Reading it, I was intrigued by your use of the word “teacher” to refer to professional learning. I’ve just reread Schein’s Helping and Humble Inquiry and wondered whether he would think that using the word teacher would put the teacher “one up” on the other person. Here’s my blog about my take on Schein’s Humble Inquiry: http://bit.ly/1vP8fQX

    But then, I started thinking about the characteristics of great teachers and realized that they really take a learner’s stance with their students by exhibiting curiosity, wonder, and honoring their questions, asking open-ended questions and, perhaps most importantly by really listening to them.

    I’ve been so lucky to learn those insights from so many great educators in our Networks. In fact, I’ve learned that many times some of our best professional learning sessions are when we are sitting side-by-side with educators learning with and from them. Usually, when we open a session, we remind people that we believe that the “knowledge is in the room” and that it is our job, as facilitators to structure that learning and — again — to learn from and with them.

    So, your post this morning really picqued my curiosity and gave me a much-needed opportunity to reflect. Thank you!

  5. 8 Dennis Sparks September 3, 2014 at 6:36 pm

    I appreciate your reflection, Cathy. As you point out, good teachers are always learning from their students, from their colleagues, and from the professional literature of our field.

  6. 9 Lois September 6, 2014 at 1:59 pm

    Hi, Dennis — Thanks for your thoughtful blog. Presentations have their place, but I agree with your admonition to limit them. They are good for jumpstarting ideas, broadcasting them, lighting the spark, pushing the plunger on the dynamite, shaking things up, etc. But, they must be followed immediately by professional learning: What does this mean? What does this mean for us? What do we know about our own situation and these new ideas? What can we do? What should we do? How?

    Also, I still like Eagle Rock’s idea about Presentations of Learning. . .for both students and adults. I often ask adults to make Presentations of Learning as a result of work they’ve done in their PLCs or otherwise.

    My best to you! Lois

    • 10 Dennis Sparks September 8, 2014 at 10:37 am

      I appreciate your comment, Lois! Just in case you come back this way again, I am sure readers would like to know a bit more about “Presentations for Learning.” Thanks!

      • 11 Lois September 8, 2014 at 11:26 am

        Presentations of Learning are a lot like the Coalition of Essential Schools’ exhibitions of learning for adults and students. When I ask adults to make a presentation of learning, I ask them not to just present what they learned but to reflect on it aloud, question it, advance it, comment on it. . . and invite questions and comments from the people who are witnessing this presentation. In fact, a really good POL will have a presentation followed by Q & A.

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