TCS Daily

Dumb, But Pretty

By Joanne Jacobs - January 31, 2002 12:00 AM

"Our fourth graders are doing PowerPoint presentations," the teacher says, proudly.

It's no big deal. Manipulating software isn't hard for kids who've grown up with TV, DVD, VCR, microwave, cell phone, pager and answering machine technology.

Writing is hard. But PowerPoint doesn't require complete sentences. "Kaytelyn" throws in a few bullet points and arrows, perhaps a little animation or a video clip to impress the teacher. If it looks good, it's good enough.

Thanks to graphical software, students can produce spell-checked reports in fancy fonts and varied colors. They can jazz up their work with downloaded graphics. At best, they're learning to communicate visually. At worst, they are learning that high-tech visuals are an adequate substitute for writing skill and content knowledge.

Lookism even infects math and science classes. In seventh grade pre-algebra, my daughter's math grade depended, in part, on the cover design for her Problem of the Week write-up. Solving the problem wasn't enough. Solving it and explaining how you solved it and why you approached it that particular way and how else you might have solved it and why you think you're right and how you "felt" about the problem ... All that wasn't enough. It had to look pretty to get a top grade.

In science, the lab report is another chance to shine graphically -- even if that lovely diagram refutes Galileo.

I once saw a physics teacher proudly show colleagues a music video his students had made of their hands-on project, a model car. It was multi-media technology! It was hands on! It was . . . Well, it was wrong on the physics. A teacher in the audience -- there to learn how to use technology in their instruction -- pointed out the error. The trainer agreed the students had blown the physics. But they'd done it in multi-media.

I blame the "multiple intelligences" guy, Howard Gardner. He argues that schools focus on linguistic and logical intelligence, ignoring children whose strengths lie in other spheres, such as social, spatial or musical smarts.

It was an idea ripe for abuse. Coupled with the self-esteem crusade, multiple intelligences generated infinite excuses. If "Krisstofyr" can't write a grammatically correct sentence, it's OK because he's intelligent in other ways. The kinesthetic intelligence that lets him shoot paper wads into the wastebasket from the back row may not serve him well as a sub-literate adult. But he can feel good about himself for now.

Add a third element: An abiding faith that technology must be educationally valuable. It cost so much, after all.

So teachers set out to develop high-tech, feel-good projects that call on artistic talent, hands-on skills (kinesthetic intelligence), group cooperation (social intelligence) and navel-gazing (intrapersonal intelligence). Expository writing -- the ultimate logic and language sport -- is passé. It's all about presentation.

In the Jan. 16 Education Week, Will Fitzhugh, president of the National Writing Board, mourned the demise of the high school history research paper. Among other things, he blames "fascination with PowerPoint presentations, fear of web-facilitated plagiarism and creative writing -- usually about student's feelings.

It's more fun -- and more Gardnerian -- to have students do a poster, shoot a video, make up a pioneer's diary, tell how they feel about slavery or stage the trial of Christopher Columbus. Show and tell lasts through 12th grade. Students may never learn to analyze information or argue a thesis.

Technology's pizzazz trumps other priorities. In "Oversold & Underused: Computers in the Classroom," Larry Cuban praises humanities teacher Alison Piro's use of technology. "After reading several works in utopian literature, groups of students had to create their own utopias and make a film (using AVID software) that would 'sell' their utopias to their audience, their classmates."

Students "were in the media center, using butcher paper, pencils and pens for about three days before we ever got to the technology," Piro explains. "Then we spent a whole day researching images on laser disk, video and the Internet. Then we spent a whole other three days and a Saturday working with AVID."

That's eight days working on assembling visuals and manipulating software. And then the class will need more time to watch each group's video. It's jazzy. It's fun. But is it worth all that time?

As a humbler example, I found a Spartanburg (South Carolina) County School's web site showing teachers how to create a book report template using PowerPoint. Instead of writing the title, main character, etc. on a piece of paper, little "Whytnee" can type it on a keyboard and make a fancy slide. No harm in it. But why bother?

Because, like Everest, the technology is there.


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