Tag Archives: technology

Forget technology–Let’s Talk about Tools for Teaching (Karin Forssell)

Karin Forssell, directs the Learning, Design, & Technology master’s program at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. Her students design innovative solutions to learning problems. She studies the conditions under which teachers choose to use digital tools, and the features that make them useful.

For some teachers, the idea of incorporating technology into teaching is intimidating, to say the least. It’s complicated. It’s distracting. It breaks. It is not necessary for good teaching.

In common parlance, “technology” is a word we use to describe things that are new.  To quote Alan Kay, “Technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born.”  Hence Marc Prensky’s distinction between “digital natives” and “digital immigrants.”  If you were born before the advent of the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, or SnapChat, you might well have a sense that they are different, uncharted, and not critical to good teaching.  By talking about technology, we invoke a sense of exciting novelty, but also untamed wilderness.  Untamed wilderness is not necessarily what a K-12 teacher or a university professor is looking for in a course.

And yet.

“Technology” is useful. The National Academy of Engineers defines it as “any modification of the natural world made to fulfill human needs and desires.”  By this definition, technology for teaching includes not only student response systems and MOOC platforms, but also lecture halls, blue books, and chalk.  All of these can help us address the challenges we face when teaching.  If the word “technology” distracts us from talking about improving instructional practices, would it perhaps be better to use a different word?

First, we can focus on the different “needs and desires” that instructors might want to address in teaching. For example, we might want to provide students with a sense of how ideas are connected through interactive representations.  Or allow them to quickly receive feedback on whether their understanding is correct.  They might need to engage with some ideas in ways that protect them emotionally, or interact with something that would be too dangerous in real life.  We might want to find out who among the students does not understand the concepts, and to explore why. Once we have identified the needs and desires, we may need new “tools.”

Unlike “technology,” the word “tool” evokes a sense of stability. Humans have used tools for thousands of years.  We use tools to provide us with leverage, or power, or the insight needed to act on a given situation.  They make us smart.  In courses, they help our students engage with the content we teach.

Tools are used by people to allow them to do things they couldn’t otherwise do. They amplify human capabilities. So different tools are appropriate for different skill levels, or for individuals with different strengths.  An instructor in history would reasonably be interested in a different set than an instructor in physics, given the nature of the content being taught.

Tools are designed to solve problems. Tools make it possible for us to do things more easily, more quickly, or better.  They have handles.  Whereas “technology” often feels inscrutable, a “black box” that operates as if by magic, a tool was designed to be operated by someone.  On a well-designed tool, that handle is obvious.  Of course, not all tools are well designed.  But thinking of tools as designed allows us to get inside the head of the designer.  It suggests ways that we might create a theory of mind.  (If all else fails, it allows us to blame the designer with our own dignity intact.)  For our teaching purposes, a tool that does not do what we want and expect is perhaps not the right tool for the job.

An interesting effect of talking about tools instead of technology is that it frees teachers from worrying about the intimidation, complication and distraction that “technology” can bring. Instead, we focus on the problems we want to solve in our teaching, or the challenges we choose to take on for our own continuous improvement. The beauty of focusing on the challenges instead of the solutions is that we might uncover a variety of ways of approaching the problem.

In having conversations about the nature of teaching, learning, and our students, we grow far more than in debating the merits of “technology.”


Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

Musings about Technology in Work and Life

The history of technology has shown again and again that its primary purpose has been (and is) increasing productivity, that is, doing more with less (see here, here, and here). In doing so, technology has also increased choice and creativity in both work and life.

Examples of applying technology to work to increase productivity range from the invention of the stocking frame in mid-18th century England (thus, prompting the outburst from weaver Ned Ludd and his supporters) to the agricultural harvester in the late-19th century U.S. to the latest MRI that diagnoses patient ills . In each instance, increases in textile productivity, farm output, and diagnostic accuracy meant more efficiency in labor and, ultimately, more profits for those who owned the technology and used it. Also choices increased (see here, here, and here). The Internet (and especially social media) has broadened access to information, altered how people shop, and broadened relationships and, in doing so, has expanded personal choice for anyone with a connection to the web.

Nonetheless, even expanded personal choice is secondary to the main thrust of embracing new technologies: do more and better work with fewer resources. As one CEO looking at the higher education market recently said:

The value of education technology should be measured by the extent to which it enhances the productivity of people and organizations in the field—students, professors, and administrators who can accomplish more (better, faster, and cheaper).

Ultimately, as we strive to replenish and improve the overall supply of human capital more effectively, we must ask: Are we increasing the number of people who are equipped to lead productive, rewarding lives?

True in business and, for sure, true for K-12 public schools.

Because public schools depend on voters agreeing to pay taxes to operate, efficiency has been one of its driving forces. Seeking organizational, curricular, and instructional efficiencies has been a compelling motive driving school boards and their superintendents since the mid-19th century. That is where districts now adopting new technologies and adapting business software and applications to classroom activities enter the picture.

Read what former U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan said in 2010:

Technology can play a huge role in increasing educational productivity, but not just as an
add-on or for a high-tech reproduction of current practice. Again, we need to change the
underlying processes to leverage the capabilities of technology. The military calls it a force
multiplier. Better use of online learning, virtual schools, and other smart uses of technology is
not so much about replacing educational roles as it is about giving each person the tools they
need to be more successful—reducing wasted time, energy, and money.
Note the recognition by the former U.S. Secretary of Education that technology in schools is an “add-on.” But as Duncan points out increasing teacher and student productivity–doing more work in less time and for less money–is apparent. Just as apparent is the dream of increased productivity in the hullabaloo over “personalized” learning.

“Personalized learning”, of course, is another milestone in the long road U.S. practitioners have been on to individualize instruction since the mid-19th century. Progressives in the early 20th century and during the 1960s chased after programs promising new and better ways to individualize instruction and, at the same time, increase student productivity and creativity.

The pumped up language accompanying “personalized learning” resonates like the slap of high-fives between earlier Progressive educators and current reformers. Rhetoric aside, however, issues of efficiency, research and accountability continue to bedevil those clanging the cymbals for more customized learning. Research supporting “personalized” learning” is, at best thin. Then again, few innovators, past or present, seldom invoked research support for their initiatives. As with the earliest software–old-timers will remember “programmed learning” in the 1950s–efficiency is one of the driving forces propelling “personalized learning.” The language touting such software is clothed in words about fostering student creativity and imagination, seldom garbed in the blunt language of increased productivity. But it is there now as it has always been in the introduction of low- and high-tech devices to classrooms.

Productivity in the workplace is clearly important be it in an office or classroom. For decades increased productivity was a factor in raising wages and rising standards of living. I have no animus toward increased efficiencies in teaching or learning. In each of our lives, we seek productive short-cuts to get through the day–think multi-tasking and FitBit.  The point is that technology has surely given us expanded choice, even creativity, in our daily lives but when it comes to a helping profession such as teaching where interactions between students and teachers are crucial to sustained learning, it is well to note that many of the software applications used in school then and now were add-ons that came from the business sector originally designed to get more work from less money spent.




Filed under technology

A British High School and Its Integration of Technology (Jose Picardo)

Jose’ Picardo, describes himself in his blogI am a Assistant Principal at Surbiton High School, where I teach Modern Foreign Languages and I am in charge of developing the school’s digital strategy, which can be summarised as follows: ensuring the integration of technologies that enable and facilitate teaching and learning into the life of the school and its wider community….”

Jose’  Picardo commented on a two-part post on my technology integration project. He gave me permission to use his comment. In Picardo’s comment he included a three-minute video about different classrooms in Surbiton High School, outside of London. The video shows the range of usage in both high- and low-tech tools across academic and non-academic subjects.


Hi Larry,

I’ve recently led the adoption of tablets across our school in a suburb of London, UK. Depending on who you ask, we’re either incredibly innovative or completely foolish.

Perhaps surprisingly then, I’ve always been very sceptical of claims of transformation when it comes to the adoption of technology in schools. Throughout the deployment of our 1:1 tablet programme one thing above all was always present on our minds: There is no app for great teaching.

From the start, some of the myths that we found ourselves dispelling most often were that technology would substitute teachers; that tablets would stop children from writing; and that we were somehow giving up on rigour and in to edutainment. As if mobile technology and high academic standards were somehow mutually exclusive.

Anticipating my seminar at BETT yesterday, I had asked a colleague, who is a dab hand at filming and editing, to go round the school and film instances of tablets being used in lessons (if they were being used), so we can paint an accurate picture of how they are used, as opposed to how some folk assume they are being used.(see video at:  https://vimeo.com/152408282 )

It is actual lesson footage. Nothing was ‘put on’ for the camera. If you have time to watch this 3 min video, you will notice how students weave seamlessly between tablet and paper. Tablets are not substituting paper or preventing children from learning how to handwrite.

The teacher is still the ‘sage on the stage’ most of the time. Students are still students. They are still mostly sitting in rows. Some would argue that if tablets have not transformed the classroom beyond this traditional paradigm, then what is the point? But when you tailor into the equation the multiple ways in which mobile devices support teaching and learning (in the classroom and beyond), then their value begins to become more apparent.

Our school is a great school by all measures. Our results and inspection reports confirm this. Tablets have not yet been shown to have had a great impact on exam results (to early to tell) but, to be honest with you, we will not be surprised if exam results are not dramatically improved by the adoption of these devices. Having said that, our current data leads us to expect a modest improvement.

At the end of the day, the decision to use tablet to support teaching and learning when appropriate was a value call. Good luck measuring that!


While I have no idea how representative Jose Picardo’s video and his comment are of other UK schools that have integrated new technologies into their daily classroom routines, both the comment and video  illustrate two points that I have observed in U.S. classrooms over the past few decades. First, no “transformation” in teaching has occurred (see third paragraph from end of Picardo’s comment). Second, the perpetual hope that use of new technologies will improve “exam” results  (see next-to-last paragraph of  comment).

Both of these points capture the current climate for adopting and integrating tablets and hand-held devices into U.S. classroom instruction. In the technology project I am just beginning, I stay away from linking usage of hardware/software to student achievement for the simple reason that if instruction stays pretty much the same after high-tech devices and applications are regularly used, then chances of gains (or losses) in how much students learn, as measured by existing tests, are slim to non-existent. If teaching is, indeed, linked to student learning then noticeable changes in teaching have to occur for that learning to improve. And that is why in my current project, I focus on how teachers teach in classrooms, schools, and districts  where technology integration has been identified by multiple individuals and agencies rather than how students perform on tests.



Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Kludge: A Metaphor for Technology Use in Schools


  1. (electronics engineering) An improvised device, usually crudely constructed. Typically used to test the validity of a principle before doing a finished design.
  2. (general) Any construction or practice, typically inelegant, designed to solve a problem temporarily or expediently.
  3. (computing) An amalgamated mass of totally unrelated parts forming a distressing whole.

Any definition of “kludge” that you pick among the three above–I lean toward the second one but I do like the third as well–fits what has occurred over the past three decades with the introduction of desktop computers into schools followed by laptops, tablets, and hand-held devices with scads of accompanying software. Computing devices and accompanying software have been (and are) adds-on to education; all were initially introduced into U.S. manufacturing and commerce as productivity tools and then applied to schooling (e.g., spreadsheets, management information systems). Software slowly changed to adapt to school and classroom use but the impetus and early years applied business hardware and software to schooling. That birth three decades ago of being an add-on tinged with business application has made it a “kludge.”

The initial purposes over thirty years ago for buying and distributing desktops to schools were to solve the nation’s economic problems: U.S. students performing at levels lower than students in other countries. Teachers teaching an outmoded curriculum in traditional ways that failed to exploit the wealth of information available to them and their students electronically. Unpreparedness of students entering the job market in an economy that shifted from industrial- to information-based (see the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk). These were problems that higher standards, better teaching, and new technologies could solve. To end those problems, solutions of stiffer graduation requirements (e.g., four years of each academic subject), uniform and tougher curriculum standards (e.g. Common Core), and, yes, lots of electronic devices and software (e.g., computer labs, 1:1 laptops and tablets) were adopted to speed along more efficiently the improvement of U.S. schools to strengthen the economy. The push for more business-flavored high-tech in schools has become the “kludge,” that is, “an improvised device, usually crudely constructed” and “typically inelegant” that has become “an amalgamated mass of totally unrelated parts forming a distressing whole.”

I say that because the evidence thus far that increased access and use of these technological tools has, indeed, solved any of the problems is distressingly missing. Student academic achievement surely has not risen because of teachers and students using technologies in their lessons. The dream of high-tech advocates that teaching would become more efficient and constructivist (an earlier generation would have said “student-centered” and “progressive”) has yet to materialize in the nation’s classrooms. And high school graduates displaying technological skills learned in school do not necessarily step into better-paying jobs. Thus, high-tech infusion in schools designed to solve problems “temporarily” or “expediently” has become a “kludge.”

Nowadays, the rationale for using tablets and hand-held devices in classrooms has shifted to their potential for engagement (assuming that it leads directly to achievement), the necessity for all students to take tests online, and the mirage of exiting students marching into high-tech jobs. From flipped classrooms to blended learning, to personalized lessons, the hype continues even in the face of sparse evidence. This approach, then, remains a “kludge” that policymakers, entrepreneurs, and vendors continue to push for solving teaching and learning problems.

Fortunately, there are district officials, school principals, and classroom teachers who avoid the “kludge” effect by reframing the problems of teaching and learning as educational not technical (e.g., getting devices and software into the hands of students and teachers) or grounded in economic reasons. The problems are educational (e.g., how will these machines and software be used to help students understand essential concepts and apply necessary skills)—see here, here, and here. They know in their heart-of-hearts that learning is not about the presence of technology, it is about teachers and students interacting with subject-matter and skills and using paper, pencil, tablets, and Google docs to achieve learning goals. Learning is about teachers using these technological aids to get students to say “aha” about what they have learned, to acquire confidence through practice of skills.

But the “kludge” effect–add-ons to solve deep and abiding problems in U.S. schools–continues to dominate policy action. Escaping the origin of technologies imported into schools is very hard to avoid. Technologies in schools remain a band-aid promising solutions to ill-framed problems. Too often it functions as another Rube Goldberg invention to solve the wrong problem.




Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

New Project in Technology Integration in Schools and Classrooms (Part 2)

In Part 1, I laid out my reasons for shifting my focus from disappointments and failures in uses of new technologies to best cases of such use in districts, schools, and classrooms. I also laid out two puzzles that have bugged me for a long time that may find solutions in describing and analyzing exemplars of technology fusion into schools and classrooms. In Part 2, I want to share my current thinking about how I plan to do the project in the next year or so and the obstacles that I see in front of me.

How do I plan to do the study?

The design of the project is a series of case studies drawn from districts and schools. The methodology I will use is interviews with district administrators, school principals, and classroom teachers. Also I will directly observe lessons, sit in on meetings on technology integration, and related professional development. Analysis of district, school, and classroom documents will provide the context of goals, strategies, assessments, and outcomes at different levels of schooling. Finally, describing the history of the district and schools insofar as access and use of new technologies over past quarter-century. All of these data make up each case study.

Where will I do the study?

I have chosen Northern California because it is the epicenter of techno-optimism about new technologies transforming the direction and nature of  both K-12 and university education. Major high-tech firms located there such as Google, Apple, Oracle, Intel, and others have launched major initiatives in both software and hardware that focus on improving the practice of schooling. Some of these firms have designed specific educational software, trained teachers, and offered products directly to schools (see here, here, here, and here). Specifically, I will focus on the Bay area which includes “Silicon Valley”–an area that covers San Jose through San Francisco. Early adopters and unvarnished fans of technology are in ample supply. A pervasive ideology across the region is anchored in taken-for-granted beliefs that new technology improves every aspect of daily life. Cultural norms among established firms, start-ups and wannabe entrepreneurs prize innovation, accept failure as part of life, and turn out beta versions of the “next new thing”daily. That ideology and culture is in the water Northern Californians drink and in the air they breathe. So exemplars of technology infusion in K-12 schools, powered by  hallowed beliefs in the power of new technologies to alter habits and institutions, would surely exist here.

Thus far, one high school district and one charter management organization in Northern California have invited me to do this research this Spring. Where I go after February and March, I am uncertain. So far, so good.

What obstacles do I anticipate?

The first barrier I have to get around is defining exactly what is meant by “technology integration” or “technology infusion.” Not an easy task. Multiple definitions abound (see here and here). Moreover, standards used to inspire action and then judge to what degree “technology integration” occurs in a district, school, or classroom vary widely (see here, here, and here). Rather than pick one among many definitions, I plan to find out how teachers, principals, and district administrators I interview and observe in action define technology integration and determine to what degree it is occurring in their locations.  Moreover, I will have an array of standards for technology infusion from which to choose such as the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), National Education Association (NEA), National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), and similar organizations.

Another barrier is determining whether the example I describe and analyze in a district, school, or classroom is “good” technology integration. Why an obstacle? Because conceptions of “good” teaching and learning vary among educators and non-educators. Furthermore, because I am not looking at students’ test scores and other common measures of success to determine “goodness,” I cannot say that what I find out about “technology integration” can be attributed to student outcomes, be they high, plateauing, or low.

Then there is the problem of the design and generalizing from what I find. Doing case studies and figuring out to what degree I can generalize about “technology integration” becomes an issue to think through because the sample (districts, schools, and classrooms) is both small and unrepresentative–they are, after all, exemplars of integration. One way around the issue of generalizing is, of course, comparing what I find with other district and school case studies elsewhere in the U.S. The issue is a perennial one when doing case studies.

Add even another obstacle to the list. “Technology integration”–a desired change–is a reform. District policymakers want teachers to alter how and what they teach in order for students to learn more and better than using conventional classroom approaches. In most districts, such a “reform” is often part of a larger package of desired changes that district policymakers seek (e.g., Common Core standards, school-site decision-making, revised budget formulas). Thus, sorting out the effects of “technology integration” on teachers and students becomes very tricky because it is one of many initiatives undertaken in a district or a school. The temptation to attribute any degree of success–however defined–to, say, schools and teachers integrating technology into their daily routines is a common error (see here, here, and here ). I want to avoid making that mistake.

The list of obstacles is incomplete and this post is running too long. If viewers have any suggestions for me as I begin this work—particularly around obstacles that I anticipate–I welcome your advice and counsel.


Filed under technology use

Technology Integration in Districts and Schools: Next Project (Part 1)

For decades, as a teacher, administrator, and researcher I have been a consumer and a skeptic of new technologies in both K-12 schools and higher education. My books, articles, talks, and this blog have documented the hype, adoption, and partial implementation of new devices from the 16mm film in the early 20th century, radio in classrooms in the 1930s, instructional television in the 1950s and 1960s, and the desktop computer since the early 1980s. And within the past decade, I have researched and written about the exponential growth in laptops, tablets, and hand-held devices with a cornucopia of apps and software that have swept through U.S. schools and colleges.

Student and teacher access to these shiny, new devices–ones that often become obsolete in the blink of an eye–and increased use in districts, schools, and classrooms for data gathering and instructional materials have been stunning to early adopters in and out of schools. Results of these major investments especially in the last decade, however, have been less stunning, even disappointing because the initial reasons for distributing the digital wealth have fallen short time and again. Gains in academic achievement, major shifts in teacher methods, and entry into decent-paying jobs–original goals for buying new technologies–have been missing-in-action when it comes to evaluating the return on investment in digital classroom tools. Thus, I have remained a skeptic and will continue to question the claims of high-tech entrepreneurs and avid champions when it comes to “transforming” the organization and practice of schooling.

Being skeptical, however, does not mean I have a closed mind. I have diligently looked for instances where districts, schools, and classroom teachers have mindfully infused software into their lessons to reach the learning outcomes they seek for their students. On my blog, I have featured such examples (see here, here, and here). For my next project I want to be more systematic in seeking out exemplars of technology integration in districts, schools, and classrooms. Why select exemplars?

First, the often-told story that highly promoted devices and software fall short of the promised outcomes is accurate. The literature on technology use in schools and universities is strewn with examples of broken dreams. I have no enthusiasm to contribute further to that literature since I know that others will document the holes in the Swiss cheese of high-tech hype. Furthermore, stories of failure have hardly blunted the continuing promotion of districts, schools, and classrooms that have come to rely on the latest app, software, and device. The volleying back-and-forth between uncritical advocates and skeptical users will continue into the next decade whatever I think and do. So I want to take a break from that badminton game.

Second, seeking out exemplars of technology integration leap-frogs over the current debates by examining (yes, critically) those instances where experts and local users believe that they are infusing software seamlessly into actual instruction. For them, the technology “works” (what I and others mean by “works” will be addressed later). By describing and analyzing “best cases” of technology integration I can delve deeper into puzzles that have rattled around in my mind as I researched access and use of new hardware and software over the past three decades.

And exactly what are those puzzles?

One that has bothered me for a long time is why “technology” in education is considered separate, an add-on, when that is not the case when observers look at technological tools applied to business, medicine, architecture, engineering and other professional work. For some reasons in these other domains high-tech tools are part-and-parcel of the daily work that professionals do in getting the job done well. Doctors, for example, diagnose illnesses. New technologies—hand-held devices that do EKGs and monitor heartbeats, machines that do CAT-scans–help doctors in figuring out what’s wrong with a patient. In medicine, technology helps in making diagnoses. That’s it. Not in schools and higher education. There, use of such tools is the subject and predicate. The problem to be solved is secondary. Why, then, unlike other professional work, has the use of educational technology been front-and-center in discussions about improving schools, changing teaching, and preparing students for the labor market? In looking at exemplars of educators infusing technology into their daily activities, perhaps a few clues will emerge to unravel this puzzle.

The other puzzle that has bothered me over the years is that teachers, like clinical physicians, nurses, and therapists engage in the “helping professions” where the use of their expertise is wholly dependent upon the responses of their students, patients, and clients. These helping professionals depend a great deal on frequent interactions to achieve any degree of success in improving learning and maintaining health. The introduction of online lessons, 1:1 tablets, Google glasses for doctors, robots in hospitals, and the like raise significant questions about the nature of the work these professionals do and how success is defined. Keeping this view of teaching as a “helping profession” and the crucial importance of teacher-student interactions lays out questions for me to answer in examining exemplars in districts, schools, and classrooms. In what ways do the best cases of technology infusion improve or hinder (or both) relationships between teachers and students?

Part 2 describes my thinking about how I will go about this project in the next year.



Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies, technology use

Why Your Students Forgot Everything On Your PowerPoint Slides (Mary Jo Madda)

Mary Jo Madda writes for EdSurge. This post appeared January 19, 2015.

Don’t fret, we’ve all been there: You’re up late the night before Thursday and you have to teach a lesson at 8 AM the next day. So, what do you do? Throw some text on a PowerPoint and get ready to talk through your points. Couldn’t hurt, right? You might not always read straight off of the slides—they’ll just help keep your lecture on track, and if you lose your place, the text is right there for you.

Unfortunately, whether you’re discussing Columbus with 4th graders or quantum physics with college freshmen, you may be hurting your students’ learning more than helping them.

Let’s explore why instructional design doesn’t typically work with students, or anyone’s learning for that matter, when you teach with PowerPoint—as well as how you can avoid it. It all begins with a little concept called “cognitive load.”

Too Much for the Student to Process

Imagine your student’s brain as a container. When you start tossing rocks into the container, it gets heavier and heavier—and more difficult for the student to carry or sort through. Essentially, that’s cognitive load. Cognitive load describes the capacity of our brain’s working memory (or WM) to hold and process new pieces of information. We’ve all got a limited amount of working memory, so when we have to handle information in more than one way, our load gets heavier, and progressively more challenging to manage.

In a classroom, a student’s cognitive load is greatly affected by the “extraneous” nature of information—in other words, the manner by which information is presented to them (Sweller, 2010). Every teacher instinctively knows there are better—and worse—ways to present information. The reason for these, research shows, is that when you lighten the load, it’s easier for students’ brains to take information in and transform it into memory.

Teaching with text-based PowerPoint slides while also reading them aloud, unfortunately, amounts to throwing too many rocks into the student container—and potentially causing students to regress.

The Redundancy Effect

Simultaneous auditory (spoken) and visual presentation of text, often done through PowerPoint presentations, is an all-too-common occurrence in classrooms nowadays. Think about it: How many times have you walked into a classroom or lecture hall and heard a teacher reading out the text on slides displayed on the front board?

A study in Australia in the late 1990s (the 1999 Kalyuga study) compared the learning achievement of a group of college students who watched an educator’s presentation involving a visual text element and an audio text element (meaning there were words on a screen while the teacher also talked) with those who only listened to a lecture, minus the pesky PowerPoint slides. The researchers concluded that utilizing visual stimuli involving words while a separate auditory presentation is delivered increases the cognitive load, rather than lessening it.

It’s called the the redundancy effect. Verbal redundancy “arises from the concurrent presentation of text and verbatim speech,” increasing the risk of overloading working memory capacity—and so may have a negative effect on learning.

Consider, for instance, a science lesson on food chains. A teacher may start by lecturing on the difference between herbivores and carnivores. Up comes a slide with definitions of each term. The teacher starts reading directly from the slide. The duplicated pieces of information—spoken and written—don’t positively reinforce one another; instead, the two flood students’ abilities to handle the information.

Researchers including John Sweller and Kimberly Leslie contend that it would be easier for students to learn the differences between herbivores and carnivores by closing their eyes and only listening to the teacher. But students who close their eyes during a lecture are likely to to called out for “failing to paying attention.”

How to Lighten the Load

So, then, what do you do? How do you ensure that your kids learn from your lectures rather than wind up with brains that feel like oversoaked sponges? (And keep in mind, entrepreneurs—this could apply to your product pitches as well.)

Richard Mayer, a brain scientist at UC Santa Barbara and author of the book Multimedia Learning, offers the following prescription: Eliminate textual elements from presentations and instead talk through points, sharing images or graphs with students. This video illustrates exactly what he means (see video here).

This approach, he suggests, is particularly appropriate for those subjects where geometric graphs and visual imagery are crucial for understanding key concepts, like food chains, the water cycle or calculating surface area.

Other studies, such as a separate Australian investigation by Leslie et al. (2012), suggest that mixing visual cues with auditory explanations (in math and science classrooms, in particular) are essential and effective. In the Leslie study, a group of 4th grade students who knew nothing about magnetism and light learned significantly more when presented with both images and a teacher’s explanation than a separate group which received only auditory explanation.

Are you a science teacher? Throw up a picture of a lion’s tooth and a zebra’s tooth onto the screen while explaining the differences between carnivores and herbivores. Teach social studies? Surround the number “1776” with painted images of the founding fathers signing the Declaration of Independence, rather than including straight facts on your presentation.

And if you find it difficult to eliminate words entirely from your PowerPoint presentations, especially when you want students to get those key vocabulary words down, here are some additional hints:

  • Limit yourself to one word per slide. If you’re defining words, try putting up the vocabulary word and an associated set of images—then challenge students to deduce the definition.
  • Honor the “personalization principle,” which essentially says that engaging learners by delivering content in a conversational tone will increase learning. For example, Richard Mayer suggests using lots of “I’s” and “you’s” in your text, as students typically relate better to more informal language.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use