Setting the albatross free: Teaching without PowerPoint

Photo by Katerina Holmes on Pexels.com

As a young teacher beginning my career just after the turn of the millennium, my first classroom was fitted with the ultimate in modern technology – a roller board incorporating both a blackboard and a whiteboard!  I also shared an OHP (OverHead Projector) with my colleague in the room next door and (as long as I booked it out in the paper diary in the faculty office) I could also use the TV and VHS video player on a trolley (a TV that served 6 different classrooms in the department).

In a few short years our first interactive whiteboard and projector appeared in the department, but I could only look longingly through the door at the Head of Faculty’s seemingly now limitless possibilities for resourcing their lessons via PowerPoint (without cutting into the preciously tiny photocopying budget) at their fingertips.  A year later, and I finally got my hands on this amazing piece of kit and WOW.  What opportunities it held for my teaching! Suddenly my lessons could contain a colour ‘copy’ of the historical sources on our worksheets and, not having to photocopy everything, meant I could more easily adapt my lessons and use resource beyond the textbook and established department plans.  It was a technological ‘new dawn’ for teaching.  

15+ years on, however, and I now often sit in lessons watching my beginning teachers and wonder whether this new dawn of possibility has in fact become more of an albatross; as PowerPoints have become ubiquitous in schools they appear, in many cases, to have become a millstone weighing down the teacher and their lesson instead of offering the limitless opportunities they promised.   

PowerPoints are a poor proxy for planning

Light-mantled sooty albatross by David Pinaud is licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0

In trying to reduce the workload burden of beginning and early career teachers in particular, lesson PowerPoints and their associated resources are frequently (and rightly) stored on shared departmental systems.  Consequently, it is to this resource repository that new colleagues are helpfully directed to avoid them ‘reinventing the wheel’.  When the enaction of these lessons does not pan out as brilliantly as they expected, these less experienced colleagues are then baffled by why the lesson didn’t work for them when it was so successful for their colleague down the corridor.  As they struggle to make sense of what went wrong, few initially realise that it’s because they’ve simply taught a lesson from a resource rather than a plan; the lesson has become a series of tasks to be completed in a particular order rather than having a clear rationale and overarching learning intention.  Moreover, teachers seem to become increasingly reluctant to make changes or adaptations to their lessons when they are teaching from/with a PowerPoint, pushing on with lessons, for fear of departing from the pre-ordained PowerPoint, despite formative feedback demonstrating pupils need more time to address a misconception.  Furthermore, the amount of time teachers spend making PowerPoint resources is often disproportionate the quality of learning they facilitate let alone the amount of time each slide is actually used in a lesson.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a technophobe, nor am I dismissing PowerPoints completely, I just think we need to regain a bit of perspective.  Pupils do not need every single detail of the lesson displayed visually before their eyes.  PowerPoints full of detailed instructions and every single bit of substantive content, not only add unnecessary burden to pupils’ cognitive load but fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of this resource.  The lesson plan, where the coherence, direction and purpose of a lesson are worked through and marshalled into a series of tasks to lead to valuable outcome for students, is for the teacher not the pupils. Too often PowerPoints seem to miss this extremely powerful point. 

Teaching without a PowerPoint

So, in response to their requests, here are a few tips gained from my own ‘roller-board’ years…

Around this time of year, I set my tutees the challenge of teaching some lessons without the crutch of a PowerPoint.  Every year they look back at me with horrified eyes, begging to understand how this is possible. 

  • Plan the lesson.  Think about the rationale that drives the lesson and underpins each task.  Use the extra time gained from not making a PowerPoint on your own subject knowledge enhancement and planning the questions you will ask to develop and then check for pupil understanding.  More guidance around lesson planning can be found here and here

  • Think carefully about how you organise the resources you will be using – prioritise a logical lay out – all tasks combined on one sheet/ within one booklet can help enormously with navigating pupils through activities – to support easy instruction giving.  Number tasks/ give labels to elements you might need to model, for example to allow you to quickly sketch a table on the whiteboard and write ‘B’ in the appropriate column rather than trying to write out the whole text.
Outline table on Whiteboard
  • As you start teaching with less PowerPoint support you may also benefit from practising how you will give instructions/ explain concepts as pupils will need absolute clarity from your verbal instructions – if task instructions have many different elements to them, then that’s probably a sign you need to chunk the task.  Completing the tasks that students will undertake is also helpful for preparing for giving clearer instructions and being certain that the resource does it’s intended job. 

  • If you have a visualiser to hand, use this to model task instructions, and if all else fails, have some BluTack in your pocket so you can stick the resource on the board and indicate which task you are looking at.  And then, if necessary, leave pupils a quick bullet point list of instructions on the board eg.
Quick Task Instructions on Whiteboard
  • Think about images you might need to be able to all see and use the PowerPoint just for those.  I had a bank of acetates for the OHP with key images/ graph axes I could write onto.  These were incredibly useful, and I would strongly recommend using PowerPoint as a resource in this manner.   Equally, don’t be afraid to draw out your tables/ diagrams on the board quickly. I do a great British Isles map (triangle with a circle to the West to represent Ireland).  It’s not a work of art, but it is effective and takes approximately 10 seconds to draw.
The British Isles
  • Revel in one of the enormous benefits of teaching without a PowerPoint – the fact that teachers tend to articulate and render visible their own thought process more clearly as they engage in explanations/ sketch diagrams to represent concepts/ model activities live in the classroom.  In doing so, they create a classroom which models metacognition as a learning tool.

  • And finally, a simple but critical point – make sure your board pens work and can be seen from the back of the room and you have a range of colours to help you sketch quick diagrams and emphasise different ideas.    

Should we ditch PowerPoints altogether?

PowerPoints (or perhaps I mean projection) have their place in the classroom as a pedagogic tool; as a history teacher wanting pupils to notice the finer details in rich visual evidential material, the ability to be able to share enlarged and enhanced colour images with my students has been invaluable.  We do however need to use them for the purpose for which they are intended – as a resource to support our teaching, not as a proxy for the planning and teaching itself.  We also need to support colleagues who haven’t experienced teaching without them to take the leap and untether themselves from the albatross.    

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