The death of teaching: The one-eyed learning idol

Joel Wirth, consultant headteacher, takes a look at common elements of classroom practice that we might consider changing in order to achieve better lessons and better teaching in SecEd. 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.

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. 

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?

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. 

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.

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.

Read more ways to rid your classroom of PowerPoint The death of teaching: The one-eyed learning idol

Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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