Friday, September 4, 2009
Schools have always been terrible places, from the seventeenth-century Puritan schoolhouses where the kids had the Bible beaten into them to the clique-ridden high schools of the 1980s which—if The Breakfast Club is as accurate as I think it is—were inhabited primarily by walking cliches who broke out into dance montages at the slightest provocation. But it's usually believed that schools are improving gradually. Hitting children with rulers is not common practice anymore (except maybe at Catholic schools) and everyone in America has access to public education (which sucks, but it's probably better than nothing).
However, there is something that has been infiltrating schools for the past several years, a teaching tool that is spreading like swine flu, only more damaging. It requires a bunch of money, wastes everyone's time, and might be actually making our children dumber—if the United States fails as a country thanks to the next generation, this practice will be at least partly responsible. I'm speaking, of course, of PowerPoint.
PowerPoint is basically a glorified slideshow. Actually, it's not even “glorified”: it's a computer program that lets you display slides, just like an overhead projector, only more complicated and less useful (you can write on an overhead projector with a marker, for instance). As a technology, it's right up there with the motion-activated paper towel dispenser. Putting a boring or poorly conceived presentation into PowerPoint does not make it better. In fact, it usually makes it worse—everyone has had to endure a meeting where someone stands in front of the room and simply reads from the screen (which the audience can see and read for themselves) in a monotone voice. The best thing that can be said about PowerPoint is that it saves time compared to writing things on a blackboard, unless the computer or projector has a problem, in which case PowerPoint turns into an enormous time waster. Essentially, schools are spending money on equipment and software in order to teach kids how to give boring presentations littered with clip art, graphs and bullet points, always more bullet points.
I had to “learn” PowerPoint in a tenth-grade Health class so I could give a presentation about calories or some other such bullshit. I put “learn” in quotation marks because if you're even remotely computer-literate, PowerPoint is incredibly easy to figure out. It's not some complex machine that takes years to master, or something that will help students later in life, for that matter.* But the bureaucrats on whatever sub-sub-committee decides what schoolchildren will be learning are computer illiterate and stuck in jobs where they have to deal with PowerPoint, so they figure that PowerPoint is both a difficult skill and a necessary one. (That's one theory for why PowerPoint is on the curriculum. Another idea is that these people simply hate children.)
Educators have gotten more forward-thinking in the teaching of PowerPoint, however. My little sister had to learn PowerPoint in middle school, and by this point, some poor kindergarteners are huddled in front of a monitor making a PowerPoint book report on If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.
But hey, classes have always been boring, and we've always taught our children worthless skills (like calculus), right? PowerPoint would be fine if it was merely boring, but it's actively destroying the brains of children.
For instance, instead of writing a report using traditional methods (just writing one, on paper), students might now be expected to make a PowerPoint presentation. They don't have to think about connecting their ideas using transitions and paragraphs, since they can lean on bullet points. They spend time looking for interesting images instead of choosing correct words. They fuck around for hours with fonts and layouts and use unnecessary “wipes” between slides like George Lucas. Then a bunch of class time is wasted by everyone presenting these slideshows individually while their classmates stare at the clock and have depraved sexual fantasies about one another.
And I've never had a teacher who bothered to teach how to make presentations interesting, a skill that has nothing to do with technology. Talking in front of groups of people is a useful skill, but more often than not students just learn how to read from a screen, and teachers won't bother to correct this behavior. The boring student presenters of today are the terminally boring adult presenters of tomorrow.
Recently there's been some positive signs of rebellion against PowerPoint. A Dean at Southern Methodist University is trying to eliminate technology, especially PowerPoint, from his classrooms because, big surprise, everyone hates having computers in classrooms. Older professors have to learn useless bullshit like how to hook up a computer to a projector and students get bored to the point of insanity watching slide after slide go by. The linked article references a recent survey of students that found "The least boring teaching methods were found to be seminars, practical sessions, and group discussions," things that are squashed when teachers use PowerPoint.
This guy, who wrote a book on PowerPoint and who looks like an asshole, says that boring presentations aren't PowerPoint's fault, but the fault of boring presenters. Well, duh. Homicides aren't the fault of handguns either, but handguns certainly don't help, and we don't allow handguns in our schools. That should go double for PowerPoint.
*Actually, learning to use and put up with PowerPoint might actually be useful, but that's only because businesses and institutions have stupidly adopted it as the main mode of discourse. For instance, the Pentagon has switched over to PowerPoint and has started making (more) faulty decisions as a result. It's possible that PowerPoint is responsible for the Iraq War. That's how much it sucks.