Willingham: How to guarantee active learning? (Or, manipulatives vs. PowerPoint)
By Daniel Willingham
Pop quiz. For each of the following pairs, which will lead to better learning?
A verbal explanation of a concept
A verbal explanation with manipulatives
A lecture with PowerPoint slides
A workshop where participants produce a product
Readers of this column are probably savvy enough to recognize that this quiz has no right answers.
Each choice just describes a method of conveying information. What matters is how effectively the method is used to convey the desired content.
Furthermore, some methods fit certain types of content better than other types. And the form-content combination may also be more or less effective, depending on what the learner already knows.
Consider the first choice. How could manipulatives not help? They don’t help when they don’t represent that target concept well, or when they have flashy but irrelevant properties that distract the student.
Manipulatives can be great, but they have been oversold. Sometimes they help, sometimes they are irrelevant, and sometimes they actually detract from learning.
In my experience, workshops are quite useful when participants already know something about the subject at hand, and when there is a product to be produced. For example, a workshop is a sensible way for an expert to help people write better resumes.
In my experience workshops are not very useful when people want to learn the ABCs of a subject. They just don’t know enough to get going on a product.
That this seemingly obvious point bears repeating was recently brought to my attention in a forceful way. I was invited to address a group of teachers. I agreed. I was sent a contract which forbade the use of PowerPoint.
I called the organizer and was told—I am not making this up—“the latest cognitive research showed” that PowerPoint turns people into passive listeners and that participatory activities such as workshops were better.
I said that PowerPoint turns people into passive listeners when it is poorly used. (I also thought “and workshops based on topics that shouldn’t be workshopped will turn people into zombies drooling with boredom.” But I’m pretty sure I didn’t say that out loud.)
Any pedagogic method can be used well or poorly. Depending on what one is trying to teach, some methods will be much easier to use well than others. Blanket evaluations of pedagogic methods—for example, participation equals “active learning”—are inaccurate.
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| September 6, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories: Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, Learning | Tags: Daniel Willingham, PowerPoint and use, PowerPoint in the classroom, Powerpoint and manipulatives, daniel willingham, manipulatives in the classroom
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