I told my students to take out their pencils and paper and “draw with me” as I sketched an outline of basic insect anatomy on the board. Barely a hand moved. This was unusual because this was an upper division class in insect identification at a Chinese university. And Chinese students are by habit very obedient.
One small problem was that many had not brought notebooks with paper to class.
The larger problem was that many had become PowerPoint-addicted. They were accustomed to their teachers projecting fully-complete and complex illustrations. They were conditioned to passively observe and memorize. They did not know how to build up concepts themselves.
"You learn in your arm as you draw the structures," I say half jokingly. But there is a teaching truth: blackboards, white marker boards, and overhead projectors are clearly superior when it comes to building concepts.
With a quiz every day, nearly every student was bringing notebook paper and pencils by the third class.
"PowerPoint makes us stupid" is a quote from Marine General James Mattis, the U.S. Joint Forces Commander in 2010. The military’s fiasco with PowerPoint came to a head and made the front page of The New York Times in April 27, 2010. War presentations had become so complex they were incomprehensible. NYT reporter Elisabeth Bumiller reported General McChrystal as saying "When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war."
Additionally, "Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi City of Tal Afar in 2005, followed up at the same conference by likening PowerPoint to an internal threat."
The view of those military commanders was that the "rigid lists of bullet points" are a problem because PowerPoint "stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making."
"Death by PowerPoint" is not just a military phrase. It accurately describes this major snooze-generator in high schools and universities. Freshly-minted professors often enter their first classrooms proudly armed with a detailed PowerPoint outline packed with illustrations taken from the internet. And they stick to their projected scripts regardless of their students’ questions and misunderstandings.
We formerly derided the aging professor who read from class notes that had yellowed over decades, unchanged from his first class. Today, some young professors use technology to make the same mistake, sometimes reading their PowerPoint slides verbatim (yawn!).
And to achieve boredom and lack-of-learning in the first degree, some young professors even print off class handouts that have mini-pictures of their full PowerPoint sequence, thus "freeing" the student from the onerous task of taking notes (and actually learning something).
One (now retired) colleague who would never use PowerPoint, closed her office door two hours before each class and wrote out her class outline afresh, modifying it for the unique upcoming class and updating both the science and the examples she would use. Teaching is communication. Different students require different communication. But PowerPoint standardizes the message, forcing the student and the soldier down one path. These scripted presentations substitute for carefully-studied and polished presentations, curtail eloquence, and dumb down the message. Again, according to the NYT report, the military actually refers to the PowerPoint bullets as "dumb dumb bullets."
Every semester that I enroll students, I have several advisees ask: "Is there a section that doesn’t use PowerPoint?" If the students know it is inferior, if the generals know it has problems, then it is time school administrators let professional teachers get back to using the media that they know works.