Thursday, March 31, 2005

In Defense of PowerPoint & Other Tools...

Melinama over at Pratie Place has a post about the problems with having kids give PowerPoint presentations. She admits that she doesn't like PowerPoint even when used by adults, but she finds it especially onerous as used by children. Many people respond in the comments, but as a fan of PowerPoint in the classroom, I wanted to write in its defense!

Computers are tools, just like pen and pencil, recitation, video, DVD, drawing, acting, experimentation, observation, and field experiences are tools. I've seen each used well, and I've seen each used carelessly. The fact that many adults write poorly doesn't stop us from asking kids to write!

Not everyone is a "computer-person" and even among those of us who use computers well and find them useful and fun, we have our preferences among programs and activities. Nevertheless, computers are a fact of life. Using a computer shouldn't come before learning to read or write or add, but kids need to develop fluency with basic computer programs in order to keep doors open for them in the "real world." Furthermore, computers do certain things better than people, and it is wrongheaded to deny this. I would never, never want to return to the time when you had to type everything by hand on a typewriter and re-type each revision by hand.

Here are some ways I've used PowerPoint in Science classes.

I've used it to give presentations myself, as I described in a post below. It's a good way to SHOW rather than just TELLING. Also, by using PowerPoint occasionally to present information, I model presentation skills for the kids.

I've had kids give presentations using PowerPoint. I've struggled with the problems Melinama bemoans: cut-and-paste plagiarism, reading from slides, you name it. Here are a few ideas for preventing these problems. They take more work on the part of the teacher.
  • As suggested in the comments at Pratie Place, set ground rules and stick to them. If you say no plagiarism or no reading from slides, mean it! You might have to look at first drafts of presentations and make kids go back and do things over in order to enforce these rules.
  • Give them graphic organizers or worksheets and require that they take notes in their own words in writing before they even begin making their presentation. Teach them how to paraphrase and summarize and take notes - one way is to have them read a short passage, then close the book and write down the important ideas. Then discuss which pieces of information each child chose to write down.
  • Model what you are looking for. Read directly from a slide, then do it the right way, with the slide supplementing what you say. Ask the kids what was different and which was more interesting.
  • I have also decided to have the kids use books for research more often than the internet, at least until they are good at research skills. Most stuff on the internet - even at many sites aimed at children - is simply not written at their reading level.
  • After the kids present, have each group of kids grade the presentation they just saw using a rubric that includes the things you found important... this will encourage them to learn from each other. You don't have to use the grades they give, it's just a tool for reflection. It also fills up the time lag that inevitably occurs when one group finishes and the next is loading their presentation.

Finally, the most important point for good presentations by kids: they should never, never just regurgitate information. They should always have an interpretative task. I have them design experiments and present their results in PowerPoint. I had them read about problems facing the anuran (frog & toad) populations globally and propose research projects to investigate the problem further. They presented as though it were a conference. The truth is, NO major project should ever be a "report of information" - I've done it on occasion, but they are rarely the best projects, and you have to work really hard to prevent plagiarism when kids are just looking up facts and spitting them back out.

Nancy mentioned in the comments at Melinama's that it can be used to teach kids to summarize - I don't know how she does it but I can imagine that requiring kids to fit a lot of information in small blocks of space could help them learn to be concise and pick out the most important ideas. But the teacher has to structure the task carefully!

If I ever teach sixth grade again, the kids' first few lab reports are going to be done in PowerPoint. I suggested this to my new teachers, and the seventh grade teacher tried it. Each part of the lab report had a slide. I think it helps the kids see the parts of the project more clearly, and it's easy to move them around if they are initially in the wrong order. Then, when the kids present to the class, they can see what other students did and learn from it. This might speed up the process of learning a new genre of writing. I'm not sure it's even necessary to have the kids present, though; I think that the process of writing it in PowerPoint might be enough to help them do it the first few times. Later, I'd move them to typing in Word.

I don't use PowerPoint often, but I do use it from time to time. I don't ask for posters, performances, poetry, brochures, or any other genre of project very often, either, though I've used each at least once in the last few years. Using a mixture of project types allows many kids to shine. Each type of project focuses on a slightly different set of skills, yet the underlying challenges are remarkably similar - especially avoiding plagiarism.


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