In recent years, publishers have exploited our interest in the "biographies of things" – books have been written about cod, cotton, even the colour blue. One has just been published on paper (in both senses). My own favourites include the history of the footnote, and (more world-changing) the story of barbed wire. The best of these treatments explore the often unexpected impact of the ‘thing’ on culture, society and economy.
Educational artefacts seem to have escaped such treatment (although Adventures in stationery deserves a look), so I want to put down a marker for two: the Banda machine and PowerPoint.
When I began teaching, xerographic copiers existed but were very expensive. The Banda machine and its distinctive product – the mauve-tinted foolscap hand-out – had dominated reprographics for decades, and remained in use for several more years, but then they simply seemed to disappear. (Where did they go? There must have been tens of thousands, yet eBay can only offer packs of carbon paper ‘skins’, and the odd spare part. Maybe they were all sent abroad by development charities – as Banda Aid?)
When the Banda became obsolete, so too did a skill-set and a way of life. As a student, I appreciated the love that went into brilliantly drawn diagrams and maps, inscribed onto skins and then ‘run off’ using a hand-cranked drum, to produce sheets that smelled sweetly (and no doubt dangerously) of chemicals. For a few short years at the start of my career, I risked asphyxiation running off copies in ill-ventilated resource rooms, honing an art that was lost all too quickly in the move to photocopying. It’s healthier, but maybe we have lost the sense of ownership and pride that went into creating an engaging and highly individual resource.
Another candidate for biographical treatment would be PowerPoint. For a short period after the advent of word processing, we learned to intersperse pictorial transparencies with titles created by photographing word-processed pages and turning them into 35mm slides. PowerPoint made this a lot easier, but in the process the software, in alliance with the data projector, changed the classroom.
Much has been written about the dire educational effects of PowerPoint – supporting didactic teaching, creating the impression of "authority", prioritising form over content. While I appreciated the opportunity to create snazzier teaching resources, it did strike me that students inclined to create bullet point lists were missing the opportunity to explore items in any detail, give a sense of hierarchy to the ordering of items, or make links between them. Bullet points set the bar pretty low in terms of cognitive challenge.
Is it too soon for a history of PowerPoint and its effect on teaching, learning and thinking? In any case, it may be too late for it to be produced, Samizdat-style, on mauve-tinted foolscap sheets.
Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets as @KevinStannard1