The death of teaching: The one-eyed learning idol

Written by: Joel Wirth | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock
A great read - thank you.

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In a new six-part series, Joel Wirth takes a look at common elements of classroom practice that we might consider changing in order to achieve better lessons and better teaching. First up is PowerPoint...

It had been a long day. I’d been shadowing the student (a White British, disadvantaged boy) across all his lessons, experiencing at first-hand his regular, daily diet of school. Now, last up, it was geography. There was a post-lunchtime sluggishness about the room, not helped by the bright sunlight outside and a general reluctance on the part of the class to recognise the apparent delights of coastal erosion.

Ten minutes gone and the teacher was six slides in, gamely sharing a passion for stacks and stumps and wave action. But I could detect her dawning awareness that year 9 might not be “feeling it”.

Scanning the room for a possible cause of this evident disconnect, the teacher eventually settled on that sun. It was, after all, May and temptingly bright out there. “Can you not all see the board?” she cheerfully concluded, taking purposeful strides towards the far wall. And turned off the lights.

This had now become a high-stakes game. Brilliant sunlight outside. Last lesson of the day. A room of permanently sleep-deprived teenagers cast into sudden, deep and tempting shadow. The teacher had banked on the manifest attractions of longshore drift somehow outweighing the now multiple inducements to drift off.

Within moments, I felt myself start to yawn. Around the room, inexorably, heads started to slump. In the gloom at the front to the room, the teacher moved in the penumbra, keeping herself in the gloom lest even she prove a distraction from the board. Groynes were mentioned. The tide of torpor ran high...

When did this happen? When did it become acceptable to condemn students to a darkened room where they couldn’t even accurately make out the face of their teacher in order that they might worship this one-eyed god of learning? When did education become a slow death by a thousand PowerPoints?

This is not techno-fear. PowerPoint and all its many presentational equivalents are evidently excellent tools, but have they become the only tool? I used to tell teachers that they know they’ve made it the day they could confidently be thrust into a year 8 classroom where no work had been set, armed with nothing more than a board pen and 60 minutes to fill.

As the years have progressed, I worry that successive cohorts of teachers might not be able to do so with confidence; that their over-reliance on PowerPoint might have deskilled them in the art of teaching. I will go further – I believe that nothing threatens teaching more than PowerPoint.

I asked one child in an outstanding school to log their experiences across a week: 25 lessons, 25 PowerPoints (even in art and PE). Copying something from the board in 16 of them. Lights turned off in 11.

That’s the dominance and the effect. Ask teachers and they will often malign the impact that screens have had on the current generation of learners. The reality is that however we might mumble our collective concern at the potentially deleterious impact of the six hours of daily screen time of the average UK 13-year-old, we compound that damage by heaping on another five of our own at school.

Try this yourself. Walk the corridors of your school and see how many lessons are being driven by PowerPoint. Notice where teachers now stand, how they interact with classes. Open the door. Ask whether the PowerPoint is really necessary here. Could they not all be learning the fine art of actively listening to a fellow human being?

Stay longer. See if you can spot the point where the teacher shows that they have over-relied on the slideshow. Where they reveal that they don’t know the answer.

On the very day I wrote this article, a student asked a teacher: “Dulce et Decorum Est – what does that mean?” The word-for-word reply? “It means what it says on the slide.” So, what’s to do?

Re-empower the teacher

Take a random scheme of learning and review the accompanying PowerPoints. Remove anything that is a barely concealed instruction to teachers (those “now, get into groups” or “discuss...”). Most presentational tools allow for such instructions to be added as accompanying notes. Students need to see teachers as the source of pedagogical authority in the room, not the slideshow.

Words! Words! Words!

We used to obsess (rightly) about the reading age of textbooks. At their best (which wasn’t often) they were at least professionally written and set out by equally qualified experts. That’s unlikely to be the case with your PowerPoints. The chances are higher than you might think that there will be too many words, or garishly distracting colours, or things that flash, or confusing layouts or, on occasions, combinations of them all. Reduce and simplify. Get the focus back on the real expert in the room, the teacher.

A picture paints a thousand words

We all understand that images can have a huge impact. So, why not replace as many word-heavy slides as possible with a single image? You will probably find this opens up more avenues for genuine engagement than a whole range of other pedagogical initiatives: “Okay. So, what’s happening here?” “Who can guess from this image where we’re going next?”

Try being PP-free for a day

This, of course, is the ultimate. Yes, it needs preparation but it is nothing like as hard (or with no paper and printing, expensive) as you might imagine. If you think this is a step too far, road-test it with staff and ask them what they would find difficult. There’s a menu of professional learning activities in that task alone.

Turn it off!

So, the teacher needs the PowerPoint for the initial input. That’s fine. But once the class are clear what they are to do, turn it off. Make your teacher and not the board the locus of pupils’ attentions.

Get a policy

Students will tell you about PowerPoint, so start with them. Track their experiences and see what they see. Once you have done so, set a policy through your broader department or school-wide teaching and learning policy. Set advisory limits on the number of words/slides. Be clear about the impact of too many colours, memes, fonts. Insist that the light stays on! As in all things, establish very clearly the “this is how we do things in this school/department”.

Shift the balance

Of course, we didn’t all go willingly into the good night of PowerPoint addiction. We were thrust there by the onerous demands of a welter of external factors. “Consistency” and “eradicating in-school differences” became axiomatic. National curriculum levels were removed and the rumours began that the inspectorate would only look in books, not at teachers.

And so we insisted that teachers mark and mark and mark. We misused (and perhaps misread) Sutton Trust research on the value of feedback to justify this, ignoring the fact that the single biggest impact a teacher can have is in knowing their students’ strengths and weaknesses and teaching lessons that actively engage their interests. This needs courage from middle and senior leaders. Reduce the amount of marking you ask your staff to do. Tell them instead to plan exceptional learning experiences.

That probably starts by taking that off-the-shelf PowerPoint and eviscerating it so that it learns its place in the classroom: a useful classroom assistant, but not the commander-in-chief. 

  • Joel Wirth is a former teacher and senior leader who now works as a consultant headteacher.

Power points shift attention from the content of the lesson to presentation and computer/graphical skills that often obstruct rather than add to teaching. Teachers and teaching need to be at the heart of each lesson.
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Love this article and I've been saying this about power points for ages! The article also made me laugh as I'm a geography teacher!
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A great read - thank you.
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