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Wed Jun 29 16:31:00 SAST 2016

The Big Read: Little power and no point

Jonathan Jansen | 24 March, 2016 07:34

Sometimes a meme conveys an educational wisdom better than any research report or lofty pronunciation by some expert. Such as this one shared on Facebook the other day: "What if I told you," says the image of actor Laurence Fishburne, "that reading a PowerPoint point aloud is not the same as teaching."

For all the marvels of technology, the pointless PowerPoint presentation is the one that does the most damage.

So next time you go to a lecture, pay attention. Nine times out of 10 you will find the presenter making the assumption that you are blind; that is, she will click from one slide to the next and literally read off what your eye had already captured seconds or minutes beforehand. When this happens at a sales meeting it is bad enough; when it happens in a school or university classroom, it is nothing less than criminal.

Parents, I want to warn you. Your child is being tricked out of a good education by these numbskull educators (and I use the word "educators" with reckless abandon) who are too lazy to teach. You might as well keep your child at home, invest in more internet bandwidth, and download PowerPoint lectures on virtually any subject from algal photosynthesis to Machiavelli's The Prince, rather than pay for what was supposed to be the teaching of these subjects.

The purpose of teaching is not to convey information. For that you have computers and books like PowerPoint for Dummies. Teaching at its simplest is an interactive engagement between a teacher and a learner. The teacher's first task is to determine what you already know and then move from there to introduce new knowledge in ways that alter, challenge, bridge, provoke and even destabilise prior beliefs, attitudes, and commitments in a respectful way.

Teaching is not indoctrination; it is an invitation to think differently about a problem or puzzle or preconception without "telling" the learner what to think or say or do. At its best, teaching introduces social or personal or technical dilemmas in ways that draw out the learner to participate in solving them. A classroom or lecture hall is buzzing at the point where the talking is done by active learners rather than by the teacher or lecturer who introduced the problem and now stands back to guide a lively discussion.

Teaching is, moreover, a relationship of trust. In schools, parents entrust their children to you so that you teach them well, stretch their imagination and help them discover their latent talents. In universities, students accept a contractual relationship in which they pay large amounts of money in exchange for quality teaching that prepares them as citizens and workers in a 21st-century economy. Dumbing them down with meaningless PowerPoint "notes" is, in effect, a breach of contract. Not that most students care, of course; they have learnt in this country to accept sub-standard teaching provided they "pass" - whatever that means.

Of course we all use PowerPoint slides in a lecture, but done well, such aides offer multimedia links and electronic props that complement instruction rather than replace active engagement in the hands of a skilled facilitator - the teacher.

So why do teachers embrace these mind-numbing uses of technology? First of all, laziness. You can summarise complex concepts and load them online as "notes" and demand that students regurgitate those bullet points in the next test. With this kind of educational fraud there are no intellectual demands placed on either teaching or learning. Then there is the problem of coverage. Teachers typically have little time to "get through" an overloaded curriculum and what better way to ensure you do this than reduce every chapter to a set of over-simplified notes.

What about distance learning? I discovered a long time ago that there are cases where the quality of design and delivery through materials-based instruction can approximate the kind of teaching and learning that comes through a live teacher. But that takes massive investments and re-investments of time, money and expertise and there are few organisations in South Africa that come even close to creating multi-media platforms that could replace the live teacher. For the most part, in our country distance education is still correspondence education and it seems we largely missed the boat when it comes to the more innovative uses of technology in the classroom.

At the moment, however, there is very little difference between a live teacher and a dead teacher in classrooms full of PowerPoint presentations.

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