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ET on NPR

I heard ET on NPR this morning, discussing the use of PowerPoint in schools. Great quote along the lines of - "Teaching kids PPT in school is better than teaching them to smoke". I wish there was more time to include your thoughts on why it's a poor presentation tool. But of course they had to give time to the MSFT exec. to present her reasons on why it's such a great application. The fact that they're highlighting it's use in *grade schools* to write stories, says enough. It's not as if the NPR story was about how it's being used in high schools or colleges. If this is how kids are being taught to channel their creative energies in school - no wonder home schooling is becoming more popular!

If I find a link to the audio clip, I'll post.

-- Brooks Harper (email)


But how could they run the Chicago Cubs story higher up?!

-- Edward Tufte


Having just heard the NPR story on PP in the classroom, I am not even sure giving PP to grade-schoolers is "better than teaching them to smoke." At least your point (no pun) makes it clear some of us do not find PP the panacea to cure poor presentations. Perhaps school children should be taught how to present information clearly instead of being given technology for its own sake. -"-

-- Mike Nalley


The smoking metaphor appears in the section "Metaphors for Presentations" in "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint":

Metaphors for Presentations

Years before today's slideware, presentations at companies such as IBM and in the military used bullet lists shown by overhead projectors. Then, in 1984, a software house developed a presentation package, "Presenter," which was eventually acquired by Microsoft and turned into PowerPoint.

This history is revealing, for the metaphor behind the PP cognitive style is the software corporation itself. That is, a big bureaucracy engaged in computer programming (deeply hierarchical, nested, highly structured, relentlessly sequential, one-short-line-at-a-time) and in marketing (fast pace, misdirection, advocacy not analysis, slogan thinking, branding, exaggerated claims, marketplace ethics). To describe a software house is to describe the PowerPoint cognitive style. Why should the structure, activities, and values of a large commercial bureaucracy be a useful metaphor for our presentations? Could any metaphor be worse? Voice-mail menu systems? Billboards? Television? Stalin?

A better metaphor for presentations is good teaching. Teachers seek to explain something with credibility, which is what many presentations are trying to do. The core ideas of teaching—explanation, reasoning, finding things out, questioning, content, evidence, credible authority not patronizing authoritarianism—are contrary to the hierarchical market-pitch approach.

Especially disturbing is the introduction of the PowerPoint cognitive style into schools. Instead of writing a report using sentences, children learn how to make client pitches and info-mercials, which is better than encouraging children to smoke. Elementary school PP exercises (as seen in teacher's guides, and in student work posted on the internet) typically show 10 to 20 words and a piece of clip art on each slide in a presentation consisting of 3 to 6 slides—a total of perhaps 80 words (15 seconds of silent reading) for a week of work. Rather than being trained as mini-bureaucrats in PPPhluff and foreshortening of thought, students would be better off if the schools simply closed down on those days and everyone went to The Exploratorium. Or wrote an illustrated essay explaining something.

-- Edward Tufte


It did not seem to me that the Microsoft person understood at all Professor Tufte's position on PowerPoint. One has to see the world, or at least this situation, through a different lens; one has to think differently in order to be able to "see". Dr. W. Edwards Deming always insisted that without an aim (or purpose) there is no system. I believe there is poor understanding of what the aim of the educational system should be, hence what we refer to as a system really is not. In my opinion, "teaching" students to use PowerPoint testifies to the utter lack of a systems view among teachers and administrators and parents. PowerPoint, in the context of an educational system, is an indicator of a serious problem. Many, many personal transformations to a new way of thinking are needed before this "system" can be improved. One way to start is to read Russell Ackoff's new book, "Redesigning Society".

-- Steven Byers (email)


Perhaps the ET-related story triggered it, but did anyone else notice just how little real substance was conveyed in the four-minute piece?

-- Cris Simpson


I noticed that the PowerPoint defender's statements were at best merely descriptive, and at worst vacuous. Is it evidence of a cognitive disability? In sound bites of similar length Professors Tufte and Turkle gave opinions and connected arguments.

-- Dave Nash (email)


The NPR audio has moved to a new location.

-- Travis (email)




Threads relevant to Edward Tufte's work:

Seeing Around: New ET essay published