Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Pondering Presentations (and bad blog post titles) Part 2

When we last visited our intrepid rant, we uncovered feelings of anxiety that seemed interrelated with the use of technology by those crazy kids to quickly create presentations using tools that are much more natural to them than they are to the educators (please Google “digital natives” for the 5 million blog entries, books, and YouTube videos on this subject).

But rather than continue to pick apart some of the flaws in presentations-as-assessments, let’s see if there is a correlation between the assessment tool and the tendency to foster an environment that promotes critical thinking skills in students. In fact, let’s just compare presentations to one other tool:

Traditional papers, especially those with multiple drafts, seem to have this call to critical thinking built into the process. First, it is apparent when someone is not saying anything of relevance for paragraph after paragraph (the irony of this multi-post blog is not lost on me). Second, the drafting process itself forces the reflection on both the content (is this really what I want to say?) and writing style (is that the best way to say it?). Finally, the traditional written paper has set modes of attribution and citation that encourages the use of outside resources to broaden the scope of the individual mind.

In summary:
· Built-in checks to validate the presence of thought
· Built-in reflection on content and style through drafting
· Built-in assumptions and methods for incorporating the thoughts of others into your own

Conversely, while the typical presentation is made better when these things are present, they are not necessary. Presentation assessments typically (and frankly ideally) have fewer words so that lack-of-thought can remain hidden. Use of multimedia, pictures, sounds, clever (and not-so-clever) transitions tend to compound the issue, particularly when educators are liable to be impressed by things that have nothing to do with the content of the presentation (but a lot to do with the presentation mechanics).

Informally, there seems to be less of a drafting process with presentation-based assessments. Where formal papers may typically have one-on-one meetings with a teacher, peer reviews, work-shopping strategies, etc., the typical project timeline for presentations often consists of a combined research-and-preparation period (individually or in groups) followed by a class presentation. Feedback by the class is limited and feedback/assessment by the teacher is done in the form of written comments given afterward. There is little presumption that a presentation is “drafted” or will be refined throughout a creation process.

Furthermore, the growing tradition of “borrowed” photos without citation and a lack of feedback from teachers about attributing ideas properly also feed the trend to use other ideas and claims as one’s own thoughts. Not only does this reinforce a cultural trend of plagiarism, but it eliminates the critical process required to properly present the ideas of another and critically compare them with one’s own.

Unfortunately this issue is happening at all levels of education; thus we as secondary educators find ourselves encountering students who have less and less exposure to the assessment strategies that most naturally call for the upper levels of Bloom’s famed taxonomy and more and more experience with assessments that can be done quickly, without drafting, and with minimal critical feedback to evaluate proof of accuracy or originality of thought.

So what is the solution?
1. Let’s isolate the problem from its apparent technological origins. This has very little to do with the mechanics of Keynote or the tendency for teenagers to tweet in 140 characters rather than handwrite letters. Technology is an emphasizer of trends, seldom a trendsetter in its own right.

2. Design assessments timelines that build in the critical thinking process and identify when that process has not been followed. Two examples:

a. The teacher from the illustration in the last blog modified his assignment to require a written paper (with traditional citations, page length, drafting etc.) as a preface to the presentation. Thus the teacher engages with students during the “thinking” portion of the education and the presentation becomes a distillation of the thought that has gone before.

b. Embed another process for showing critical thinking into the presentation assessment. This might include a question and answer period used by both teachers and students after the presentation, formal reflection writing afterward on a prompt of the instructor’s choosing based on the presentation, or a separate analysis of literature about a research topic as pre-work.

c. Require drafting and peer-review of PowerPoint presentations.

It is easy to blame the trends of society at large or the looming media-consumption tablet explosion on our lack of student’s willingness to engage in critical thought. But if we have fallen into the all-too-comfortable trap of lowering expectations due to the lure of the shiny and pretty, we may need to take time to identify our ultimate learning objectives, reflect on our experiences, and match our assessments and activities with our desired outcomes. It is the same bar to which we should hold our students, whether they are thumb-typing a book report at the elementary level, researching for term papers in high school, or presenting with Keynote in middle school.

PS: Yes, this is a long multi-post blog. But according to Mark Bauerlein’s article “Too Dumb for Complex Texts?” (Educational Leadership, February 2011), we need to encourage reading of complex texts for at least one hour a day (we’d link to it but we don’t think he’d like that… oh whatever…click away). Consider today complete for you.

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