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?

4 Responses to “A year without PowerPoint”

  1. 1 Stephanie Hirsh September 11, 2014 at 7:19 am

    Dennis: Thanks for this column. I have been working on this for over a year and it is the hardest work I have ever done. I asked myself how I could advocate for transformed professional learning and continue to apply traditional strategies. As a result with each request I give considerable attention to the outcomes I want for participants and the learning experiences that are most likely to produce them. While I haven’t abandoned power point slides, I use fewer and primarily to offer visuals to support my key ideas (which are fewer and far between) and to reinforce instructions for learning exercises. Perhaps in a year I will be able to let you know what I have learned. I invite you to check in with me and others who accept your challenge.

  2. 3 Kent Peterson September 17, 2014 at 11:50 am

    Stephanie and Dennis–I am really glad you have brought up the problematic use of PowerPoint and agree with your insights.

    Slides can be deadly if they are a cognitive dump of points, but they also can be dangerous if they oversimplify complex ideas. Why listen to a presenter if all they do is read the PowerPoint (most of us read faster than the person up front anyway).

    Edward Tufte has a wonderful article on the cognitive problems of PowerPoint, too (see: http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/powerpoint).

    I do like using PowerPoint as an organizer of ideas so that participants don’t have to madly write down what they might want to keep or so I can show a photograph of a school symbol. But a slide should be a takeoff point for interactive reflection or discussion, a case example, or a deeper look at an idea.

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