Canned and to the point?

Finally I received my copy of Kosslyn, Clear and to the Point. Most of the numerous recommendations and considerations were immediately plausible to me, whereas a few guidelines got me thinking about whether they would be applicable to the countless educational powerpoint presentations at my uni.

Valuable tips in the book originating from research about perception, pertain to discrimination (of perceptual unit groups, and discriminability) and change (of visual properties that should convey meaning rather than arbitrary variation). Restrictions regarding capacity and compatibility, augment the checklist of plausible tips to remember.

However, the depicted ideal of directing the audience’s attention, to make one’s point, to get the message across, to make the relevant things salient, did not immediately seem realistic in an educational setting. Rather, I pictured myself in a very contrarian scenario which we pupils called “aliquid semper haeret” (Latin for “something always sticks”, here: some content of the curriculum), where students let lessons just wash over them. Sufficient attention cannot be held there even by the best speaker, simply because a student’s classroom week is much longer than an occasional business presentation.

Also, the concept of a definable homogeneous audience and a single take-home message is questionable here. More often, the intended take home is a plethora of matter or an overview about numerous facts and relationships. Often, the “take home” is just the handout slides for post-processing at home. Then the conflicting goals of the presentation as a teaching resource vs. a learning resource become virulent. And if the presentation is optimized for first-time introduction it is not for revisiting or scanning.

Finally, the shown approach to control attention and pacing is somewhat patronizing and very linear, with all those slides that repeat the outline, highlight the upcoming entry and gray out all others, and with the perfecly planned initial “bang”, snappy ending, story and joke and “come up for air” elements. This might not even be desirable, if students are supposed to autonomously explore a subject with all its digressions and loosely related or illustrative materials, i. e., self-directed learning seems to get obstructed by such optimized “get the message across” and “to the point” presentation.

So, the conclusion seemed to be that the perfect sort of powerpoint presentations does not fit to learning scenarios. However, trying to match perfect powerpoints with perfect teaching, also leads to an interesting criterion to decide if the matter fits to this mode of instruction, at all.

Certainly there are use cases where a frontal lesson with a presentation and subsequent discussion is optimal: this is probably when a clear point can be made which can be focussed and linearized to get it across and be taken home. But if the matter is not structurable in this way,

  • e. g. if it is a large collection of facts,
  • or if it needs branching and digressions to explore complex relationships and connections,

then it should perhaps not at all be canned into this “get across” transport container of a presentation monologue. There are plenty of other, interactive and self-directed forms of learning about relationships and of learning (or googling) about facts.

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