I left school at the end of the 1990s and didn’t train as a teacher until 2012. When I came back to the classroom, I couldn’t believe how much had changed: marking was now done in every colour of the rainbow, none of the cool kids sported Supergrass-style sideburns, and PowerPoint presentations were everywhere.
In the decade I’d been out of school, I’d ended up in a career in logistics management – that old tale of misspent youth. Those were heady days of spreadsheet pivot tables, neverending email chains, and heartsinkingly dull meetings filled with interminable PowerPoint presentations.
As I endured all those zooming bullet points and spinning slide transitions, I would have never have suspected that I was looking at a truly disruptive piece of technology – one that was going to turn the education world on its head.
And that was because I wasn’t.
Too many 'tricks'
On the one hand, the way that PowerPoint allows teachers to combine images, words and their own voice makes it a powerful tool for delivering learning. On the other hand, PowerPoint comes with a bucketload of tricks. The problem is, when you mash those hands together, the razzamatazz rather tends to detract from what you wanted the class to learn.
Sure, visuals can aid understanding – anyone who has spent any time in a special school will be able to tell you about the intrinsic link there. But PowerPoint’s arsenal of animations don’t do that. Instead, they’re nothing more than a stack of children hidden under a long raincoat; an awful disguise for a teacher simply reading out what is on the screen.
The problem with PowerPoint is that it didn’t arrive in schools as a fully formed revolution alongside training for teachers in dual coding. Instead, it arrived in schools as a replacement for that old faithful: the overhead projector (OHP).
Gain in learning?
Back in my school days, I had a history teacher whose idea of pedagogy was to point the OHP at the wall, put up some handwritten notes, and then read them out – word for word – for the next hour. As far as I could tell, this approach, and indeed those very acetates, had sustained him throughout his entire teaching career.
Strip away all the fancy animations and is this really so different from how we use PowerPoint? Do all the hours spent preparing slides really translate into an equivalent gain in learning? Does the ubiquity of this software trick us into finding something online and thinking, “This’ll do”, despite all the distracting clip art?
We shouldn’t kid ourselves that PowerPoint alone does anything to improve our teaching. It can be a potent tool for processing and deepening learning, but all too often it is simply a fig leaf hiding the fact that, in truth, we’re really just standing in front of a great big wall of Comic Sans.
Ian Goldsworthy is a primary teacher and tweets @Ian_Goldsworthy