Flight Attendant Teaching – The trouble with PowerPoint

In two training sessions I’ve led this week, (ironically both using PowerPoint), I’ve momentarily had somewhat of an unscheduled rant about PowerPoint.

I began teaching in 1998 when the only person to have a computer was the headteacher and the only board available was a chalk board or maybe (if you were lucky) a whiteboard and pen. The height of sophistication was an OHP with four colour pen acetates if you were super fancy, and this was only really used in assembly to put song words on.

Basically, the means of communicating information to your class was via what you said, did, drew, or wrote yourself. Because you taught multiple lessons in a day and only had one board (unless you had a nifty rollerboard) then this all had to be done live, in the moment and at the point of instruction. It was pretty powerful, as this was usually accompanied by live narration of your modelling and provided a clear visual and account of your exemplification of your expert schema now made concrete rather than transient and done so before the children’s eyes. There were no pre prepared resources to talk around or pre determined sequencing of screens. It was all live, all responsive, dynamic and rooted in an exact understanding of what was being taught as you were in control of the shape, content and planning of that lesson. There were no pre prepared departmental resources or downloadable powerpoints from a purchased scheme. As the teacher, you were the scheme, you were the resource, you were the dependent factor in exactly how concepts and knowledge were to be introduced, explained and explored. The practice was therefore inherently dynamic, responsive and interrogative in its explanations, as a board rubber and a few swipes of the chalk could change the direction of the lesson. The teaching had to be “teacher led” as the was no external pre prepared crutch on which to lean.

Powerpoint and its ilk have sadly erased much of that with neat, slick presentations more akin to a boardroom than a classroom. Yes, they can be brilliant for creating accurate graphs or maps, for providing an aide memoir for the teacher for points not to forget to mention, or for using as a framework but sadly they are all too often relied upon as the actual teacher, mistakenly conferred with far more power than they actually wield when trying to illustrate a teaching point.

You see the problem with powerpoint is that it is too fixed. It is too static. It cannot be easily interrogated or adapted in the moment. It is not inherently dynamic or open to direct manipulation and the posing of “what if” types of questions. It is a stubborn medium which requires its destination to be set before its onward journey and which can (if not prepared by the teacher themselves) be a meander through someone else’s train of thought with no professional overview or ownership of the content to be taught. It becomes an in flight meal of a resource rather than a buffet. It is a fixed “chicken thing dinner” for everyone in terms of its content, sequencing and structure rather than a responsive buffet to serve the needs of the different children in the room. It also doesn’t inherently encourage effective AfL. There is the danger with pre prepared powerpoint (especially those in some well known maths schemes) that teaching becomes a little like the safety demonstration on board an airline. The motions of blowing the whistle, fastening the seatbelt and affixing an oxygen mask are all outlined and arranged neatly on screen but, just as on the in flight demonstration there is no checking for understanding, the content has been delivered to all, and that is that.

So powerpoint teaching has two main issues; it is not inherently dynamic and responsive in the same way a board or a visualiser or concrete manipulatives can be, but it can also inadvertently encourage an in flight safety briefing model.

And that is why I loathe it for in class teaching. I love the ability to project excellent maps, diagrams or an extract of text and I love how I can use it as a reminder for myself for key bullets not to forget but that last point could just as easily be in a planning book or piece of paper. I’m aware this all makes me sound like a luddite with a rose tinted view of practice but so often I hear the phrase, “Oh I’ve not got my screens ready for that lesson” or “I’ve not done the powerpoint for that lesson yet” and it makes me wince a little. A lesson isn’t a powerpoint or a set of screens and I do worry that there is a growing over reliance on screens and powerpoints to do the heavy lifting of a lesson rather than focusing on the most impactful resource in the room which is the teacher themselves. A knowledgeable teacher, a board and a pen can work magic and some of the greatest lessons I’ve ever had the privilege to see have contained only those three elements. In fact, one week at my school there was a problem with the server and all the IWBs and so the only resources available for teaching for a week were old style board and pens. What happened that week was some of the best, most focused, most creative and lively teaching I’ve seen in years. The whole school site was utilised and explored, teachers used AfL much more effectively, the quality of modelling increased. Almost every aspect of teaching that week was enriched by an unintentional enforced move away from a reliance on the pre prepared resource and a return to teaching in the moment. It was a powerful reminder too of how our teaching and pupil activities and task designs were being dictated to by the Powerpoint approach and the ripple effect of this.

When I think of the overall effective use or otherwise of PowerPoint and its effect on teaching in recent years, I always notice that where it has been overused or over relied upon it has always resulted in development points for colleagues based around developing those elements of magic that can be created with powerful triumvirate of board, pen, and knowledgeable teacher. And I’ve never, not once, not in 24 years, ever given feedback which said, “What that lesson needed was more PowerPoint”.

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