Powerpoint is Dead......or should be

The best teaching is three-dimensional. It has not only height and breath of knowledge but also depth. The best teachers, in my opinion don't simply state some of the facts, they inspire learners to dig deeper. With today's technology and so many facts at our fingertips, consumers of learning don't just need more teachers giving more information,  they need teachers that encourage students to keep digging, beyond their own teaching to gain a greater understanding. Today's best orators are not just conveying sound information, but giving learners new places to keeping digging into the topic.

When I started college, it was the beginning of the reign of PowerPoint (sorry Microsoft, nothing against your product, just the way it has been used and overused).  I've never really been able to articulate it until now, but the PowerPoint style of learning was shiny and new but ended up being like nails on a chalkboard by the time I finished. I always felt like it was getting in the way of my learning rather than enhancing it.  

High school for me was spent in front of a teacher and an actual chalk board, talking more than writing, and I had to actually pay enough attention to figure out what to write in my notes.  When I got to college the shiny new projectors and full color texts and images of the new slide presentations seemed like a major step forward.  Looking back I think it is more akin to the cave man graduating from writing in the sand to drawing on the wall.

Nothing illustrates this better than looking back at all of the PowerPoint slides I printed out in Physician Assistant (PA) school. I have over 30 binders and at least 40 pounds of paper of printed slides.  If I went and looked at these now I could probably glean as much information from these "notes" as I could from studying an ancient cave drawing.

Then when I began teaching, PowerPoint became even more frustrating (and to not leave Apple out of the discussion, Keynote as well). I knew what I wanted to say, but to somehow condense the material onto slides without it looking like a jumbled mess of words was nearly impossible. Every tip I read about effective lecturing told me to put less on each slide, but then every student I taught told me they wanted more. It was a loss either way. Students complained that I didn't include enough information or, even worse, that I was just reading the slides to them.

Then there were the endless hours searching Google images for some sort of illustration pertinent to the point I was trying to make. A concept I could have conveyed in a few seconds of talking suddenly became laborious hours of work looking for some sort of humorous cartoon that could be somehow tangentially affiliated with the idea.

All this work to learn that no matter how cool the graphics or how wonderfully color-coordinated the slides were, even the use of animated graphics, would not impress my students. They simply stared blankly at me as though I was a discount version of the nightly news.

In my defense, newscasts have scores of people preparing background sounds, sights, and stories, as well as collecting images and eyewitness reports,.. whereas I was just a one-man show with some slides where I couldn't decide whether to make the background green or blue. Needless to say, I was boring.

So is the problem just with me? Am I the only one that can't seem to make an effective and entertaining lecture using the old .ppt format?  Slide presentations are by far the most widely used platform in live education. Why does this feel like a major step backwards for me? Wasn't this part of the next evolution? What am I missing?

On the surface education has moved from stories around the campfire, to the papyrus libraries of Egypt, to Gutenberg's printing press distributing books to the masses, to the computer and internet age that birthed the next and greatest educational tool...(drum roll please)... PowerPoint!

But alas NO. I would like to argue that this "slide" towards PowerPoint was, in fact, a major step backwards (at least in the way most people use them). In my opinion, slide presentations are usually a big waste of time.  Not only is it a waste of my time as a teacher, it is often a waste of the students time as well.  It can be, and often is, an inhibition to learning.  

As I mentioned before, learners, especially myself, love to print off the slides so that I don't have to take notes. But by not taking notes it has almost completely removed my interaction with the material. Hence my memorization of the text suffered. Worst of all I can remember dry lecture after dry lecture where the teacher simply read all of the bullet points on his or her slides. Therefore my goal is to completely abandon this medium. 

And recently I've been totally vindicated. At the last conference I attended, of course, virtually all the lectures were PowerPoint presentation after PowerPoint presentation. The highlight was the occasional and usually irrelevant cartoon that broke up monotony of facts being spewed at me in fancy bulleted form. That was until Dr. Mel Herbert of EM:RAP fame, broke the cycle.  

Interestingly, Dr. Herbert is by far my favorite EM educator.  Coincidence?  Even the preceding speaker could not believe Mel was going to give a lecture on EKGs, essentially a visual diagnosis, without a single slide or image. And yet Dr. Herbert was the most entertaining and most informative of all of the speakers. He gave us a succinct and enthralling overview of dangerous arrhythmias. How did he do it? He used the art of storytelling.

For a long time we've known brain is most adept at remembering stories. Stories are important. The story of our life is what makes us who we are today. Stories also make our interactions meaningful. Laundry lists of facts take hours of practice to memorize and yet that great vacation down at the shore with your first love, you'll never forget, even if you try.  

My goal is to abandon slide presentations all together. I know I'm not the smartest or most entertaining lecturer and I haven't invented or discovered anything new, but what I do have is perspective and experience which is wholly my own. No one else has been where I've been and seen things through my eyes. I want to pass that along to you. I want you to learn through the stories of my life and work. 

How am I going to do it?

Well, you're looking at one avenue, this blog, and then there is EMPALife.com , which is a site I've created. I know I'm not the only person to spur the slide projector, but I am happily adding fuel to the fire.

If you take a look at the site, you will see I enjoy the flexible platform of Squarespace.  You will also see many great websites, illustrations, and YouTube videos integrated into one source that make sense to me. Hopefully I give these folks enough credit for doing the work I am simply piggybacking on top of. 


And then there is my favorite avenue.... the "campfire" approach.

I love learning by hearing other people's stories of their own experiences.  I also love to sit around and pass along war stories of my time in the ER. If you like this, pull up a chair, grab a beer, and talk to me. If you can't remember how to do this I'll send you the Power Point;) 


Original post of this blog on EMPALife.com


Adam Broughton, PA-C is a 9 year veteran of the emergency department as a physician assistant in a community hospital north of Boston as well as in the city at a tertiary care center. He has taught as an adjunct professor at Gordon College and Northeastern University for undergraduate studies in anatomy and physiology (currently including human cadaver dissection) as well as emergency medicine for PA students. Adam is also often preceptor for PA students in the ED as well. His passion for teaching has grown out of a passion for learning. His most important titles and roles, however, are as husband of his beautiful wife, Kristen, and dad to their energetic and imaginative children William, Trevor, and Annabel.