PowerPoint Versus Narratives

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos writes an annual letter and in 2018 he repeated his rule that PowerPoint is banned in executive meetings. Bezos has also talked about this in public discussions. What does he prefer to those slide presentations? Narrative structure.

Narrative structure is something Bezos believes is more effective than slides. It is said that in Amazon meetings, you're not reading bullet points of text on a slide. Instead, Bezos says that everyone sits silently for about 30 minutes to read a "six-page memo that's narratively structured with real sentences, topic sentences, verbs and nouns." And then comes discussion.

You have probably heard the expression "death by PowerPoint." Slides (using PowerPoint, Keynote, Prezi, Haiku Deck or any other) can be deadly boring, but I still find presentation tools to be effective when used effectively.

Narratives, storytelling and discussion are great ways to learn and retain information. We know images also activate other areas of the brain and neuroscientists find that we recall things much better when when we see pictures of an object or topic than when we read text on a slide.

Text alone on slides is boring. It is bad presenting. But using slides with text, along with images, is one way to structure narrative and discussion. Every tool has its proper use and best applications. PowerPoint is no different.

Active Learning

Active learning is an approach that strives to involve students in the learning process more directly. That sounds so logical that I suspect some people would say "Isn't that what every class is doing?' It certainly is not a new idea, but it is not the norm in many courses and classrooms. 

I think the active learning approach was introduced by Reginald Revans as "action learning." Either term can describe an approach to have students do more than passively listening by being actively or experientially involved in the learning process.

logo

Frequently, this approach has students read, write, discuss, or be engaged in solving problems, and engaging in higher-order thinking tasks such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. A very simple definition might be having students doing things and thinking about the things they are doing.

I am doing a presentation this week that I titled "Predator and Prey: Active Learning Is Social Learning at the Active Learning Symposium at Rutgers University.

I base it on the premise that active learning is often social learning. The session will be primarily hands-on using a problem solving activity identifying animal species based on viewing skulls.

cat skullIt is a hands-on "active" presentation with people who have little or no background in osteology (the study of bones and skulls), but that is not what I am usually teaching when I do this activity.

I have used this activity with elementary school students, high school students, undergraduates and adults outside of a school setting.

I have usually used it in critical thinking classes, but the learners will also learn something about the skulls and species. When I use the activity to teach about osteology, it is an active way to involve the learners in critical thinking. Groups quite naturally are active and become social in the process. 

The action learning process typically addresses a real problem that is important, critical, and usually complex and involves a problem-solving set. The process promotes curiosity, inquiry, and reflection.

I'm not locked into labels and if someoen told me that my active learning activity was actaully experiential learning, or action learning, adventure learning, free-choice learning, cooperative learning, service-learning, or situated learning, I would say that is a good possibilty (though I know these terms are not strictly synonymous). My interest is in the learning, not the label.

Innovative Teaching or Innovative Learning

innovateI am preparing a keynote presentation innovation for a faculty at a community college. The campus recently opened a small innovation center with the hope of getting students and faculty to consider new ways of teaching and learning.

In doing some research on this area, I immediately was struck with the split I saw between topics about innovative teaching and innovative learning, as if they were different things. That made me pause. Are they different, the same or inextricably linked?

My talk - "Creating a Culture of Innovation" - will look at how society drives innovation in higher education through the challenges it presents to educators. Increasing demands to lower costs, improving completion rates, competition from alternative credentialing, and the possibility in my home state of New Jersey and other states for free two years of college will all dramatically force shifts in classroom demographics and approaches to teaching and learning.

Innovation requires innovators. In higher education, they can be faculty or administrators who promote pedagogical approaches, such as adaptive and active learning. The innovation of adaptive learning is not so much that adjustments are made to the learning process based on feedback from the learners. Good teachers have been during that forever. The innovation comes from the ways that technologies have been aiding that monitoring of feedback and automating some of the adaptive paths.

Innovation can emerge from philosophical shifts, such as moving to the use of Open Educational Resources.

Innovation can also come from the learning spaces and new technologies made available to teachers and students.

You can find many different approaches to innovation in education, and some of them have come from outside education. One that is out there is agile teaching. Agility is a topic that has been a concern and approach in the business tech world.   

I continue to see examples about the changing world of work that concerns innovation and have many educators considering how they might prepare students better for what they will encounter after graduation. This does not mean job training or vocational skills. It more often is concerned with the learning process, methods of evaluating learning and seeing student applying their learning to new situations. 

For those things, you might be using blended/hybrid courses whose structure is such that theory is always put into practice. Courses using makerspaces and other active learning environments address some of these concerns more than traditional lecture courses.

But I have been hearing about the departure from lecture-style, sage-on-the-stage courses for two decades, and yet I know many courses still follow that model.

In earlier posts here, I have written about innovation or innovators in education or the ideas about the disruptors that make an innovative university, I have said that companies tend to innovate faster than their customers’ lives change. For example, they create newer and more powerful phones that have features customers have not asked for. Apple believes it knows what you want before you know you want it. 

But I don't think that model works in education. Our students are often ahead of us with not only technology, but sometimes with innovative ways of learning. Are they ahead of many of their teachers in using their smartphones as computers and portals to information, and apps as tools? Yes.

Are All Schools Prep Schools?

What do you think of when you hear the term "prep school?" Do you think of elite, private schools that look and act like little Ivy League colleges?

A university-preparatory school or college-preparatory school (shortened to preparatory school, prep school, or college prep) is a type of secondary school, but the term can refer to public, private independent or parochial schools primarily designed to prepare students for higher education.

But aren't all high schools preparation for college? That answer has varied over the centuries. While secondary schools were once only for middle and upper class kids who might go on to higher education, schools also went through a period of being "comprehensive" and trying to provide preparation for those going on to college, and for for those going on to a job. 

In the early 20th century, there were efforts to imitate German-style industrial education in the United States. Employers wanted wokers who were "trained" more than "educated." Teachers of high school academic subjects and some colleges thought the preparation for college was being watered down. So, vocational education emerged as a way to prepare people not planning on college to work in various jobs, such as a trade, a craft, or as a technician.

Historically, the German Gymnasium also included in its overall accelerated curriculum post secondary education at college level and the degree awarded substituted for the bachelor's degree (Baccalaureat)[1] previously awarded by a college or university so that universities in Germany became exclusively graduate schools.

Préparatoires aux grandes écoles (Higher School Preparatory Classes), commonly called classes prépas or prépas, are part of the French post-secondary education system. These two very intensive years (extendable to three or four years) act as a preparatory course with the main goal of training undergraduate students for enrollment in one of the grandes écoles. The workload is very demanding - between 35 and 45 contact hours a week, plus usually between 4 and 6 hours of written exams, plus between 2 and 4 hours of oral exams a week and homework filling all the remaining free time.

 

Learning Theories Into the Wild

Bloom visualized

I have been thinking about how some learning theories have gone "into the wild" in the way that some plants and animals have. People sometimes release pets, fish, birds or plants into the wild. Most of those will not survive, but some that do end up thriving to the point that they become an invasive species that harms the environment. 

Benjamin Bloom, an American educational psychologist, along with collaborators published a framework for categorizing educational goals back in 1956. That "Taxonomy of Educational Objectives" has become known simply as Bloom’s Taxonomy.

It has been taught to many students in education programs. I learned it in my undergraduate education courses. I had workshops about using it in professional development when I was a secondary school teacher. I taught workshops using it when I was doing professional development for college faculty. 

Some educators might groan at the mention of Bloom's Taxonomy because they have heard it so many times. But this framework by Bloom and his collaborators has stuck. It originally consisted of six major categories: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation.

The categories after Knowledge were presented as “skills and abilities,” with the understanding that knowledge was the necessary precondition for putting these skills and abilities into practice. Each category also contained subcategories set up from simple to complex and concrete to abstract.

But what has stuck as Bloom's framework and gone out into the wild are those six main categories.

Do an image search on "Bloom's Taxonomy" and you will get a wide variety of visualizations of the framework as a pyramid, stairs, wheels, pie slices. (see illustration above).

Since 1956, the six major categories were changed from noun to verb forms. Benjamin Bloom died in 1999, but new versions and interpretations have continued to be developed. I have seen technology-based versions. One version released in 2001 renamed the "knowledge" level as "remembering," comprehension was retitled understanding, and synthesis was renamed as creating. The top two levels of Bloom’s changed position in the revised version. 

One sign that a theory has gone into the wild is that other people start creating variations and visualizations. Imitation may not be the most sincere form of flattery, but it is an indicator that a theory is being accepted and considered in the public. Like any species, once something goes into the wild, it begins to change. It adapts to new settings and gets further away from the original.

DOK
A few years ago, I was working on designing online training for teachers. One of the concepts we were going to cover was Norman Webb's "Depth of Knowledge" (DOK). It is a theory of cognitive rigor. That is a combined model developed by superimposing two existing models for describing rigor. The model is widely accepted in the education system in the United States. Cognitive Rigor is the superposition of Bloom's Taxonomy and Webb's Depth-of-Knowledge levels and the two are often compared. They are used to categorize the level of abstraction of questions and activities in education.

I had found a number of visualizations of Norman Webb's "Depth of Knowledge" online, but I wasn't sure which one was the "official" version and could we use it in our training. Most of them were a wheel design, but others were charts and a few had a steps design similar to how Bloom's Taxonomy is shown. So, I contacted Webb via his University of Wisconsin website.  I was not sure if I would get a response, but thankfully he emailed this response:

"Thanks for your interest in my work. I did not create the DOK wheel. I believe someone in Florida used my work to create the DOK wheel. Because the wheel is not mine, I cannot grant or deny its use. I think the DOK chart is misleading and I do not recommend its use. Depth of Knowledge depends on more than the verb. The complexity also depends on what the verb is acting on. For example, “draw” is in the DOK level 1 sector. But a student who draws a blueprint of a new building is doing more than recall of information. Explain also can be at different levels--explain by repeating a definition (DOK level 1), explain by putting a paragraph into your own words (DOK level 2), or explain by describing an analysis of the factors contributing to the economic down turn of the US (DOK level 3). So I cannot provide you the requested permission and, in fact, I discourage you from using the DOK wheel. It is a simplification of my work that does not fully represent the issues of content complexity. The only possible use of the chart I can see is if someone took a verb and asked how it could be placed in each of the four sectors."

Ultimately, we used his reply and a simple chart version of DOK

intelligencesA third theory that I would say has gone out into the wilds of education is the theory of multiple intelligences. It differentiates "intelligence" into specific modalities. It was proposed by Howard Gardner in his 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Gardner chose eight abilities/intelligences/modalities: musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic.

Later, he suggested that existential and moral intelligence may also be worthy of inclusion. Gardner did not like the idea of labeling learners to a specific intelligence, but of course that is what many people have done with his work in the wild.

Before Gardner presented his theory, brain research became more connected to learning theory. When the lateralization of brain function went "into the wild," and many variations on right brain / left brain learners were put forward. Much of this kind of extending of a theory has been questioned, but the wild version of the research is still out there.

In the wild, it is generally called "learning styles" and though the right hemisphere is associated with cognitive skills (creativity, emotion, intuitiveness) the right also controls the left side of the body, so right-brained people are often left-handed. Right-brain dominant people are generalized as artistic, innovative and often random. 

Gardner still maintains that his theory of multiple intelligences (not to be conflated with learning styles) should "empower learners," rather than label them in ways that might actually restrict them.