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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 09/ 6/2010

Willingham: How to guarantee active learning? (Or, manipulatives vs. PowerPoint)

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?”

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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By Valerie Strauss  | 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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I don't mind powerpoint presentations, its the endless powerpoint handouts that I don't like. I throw most of them away.

Posted by: educationlover54 | September 6, 2010 8:20 PM | Report abuse

In what is one of life's little ironies, the education world complains that 'One size does not fit all!', when it comes to everyone having the same background knowledge while it simultaneously tries to apply every new-found fad equally to every discipline and age group

Posted by: physicsteacher | September 7, 2010 4:10 AM | Report abuse

Great piece. I cackled out loud when I came to the part about how "the latest cognitive research showed" that PowerPoint turns people into passive listeners. Maybe road signs turn people into passive drivers!

People are shameless in their claims that "research has shown" this or that. The "Whole Brain Teaching" website states, "Twenty years of education research tells us that the most effective learning takes place when a student engages the brain's primary cortices- visual, auditory, language production and motor-at the same time." Really? What is that "research?"

I went to their research page, and they cite only one specific study, which turns out to be a paper for an education course. The teacher used Whole Brain Teaching for one week and reported a 50 percent decrease in "negative behaviors."

I still haven't found any research supporting the idea that "the most effective learning takes place when a student engages the brain's primary cortices-visual, auditory, language production and motor-at the same time." Nor does such an assertion make sense. It might be true for certain situations, but there are plenty of others where a certain stillness is much more conducive to learning.

But when will schools get beyond the nonsense about "passive" learning? you point out, workshops are not suited to all topics; when misapplied, it can result in a great deal of passivity. Moreover, "participation" takes many forms, one of which is attentive listening and thinking.

Posted by: DianaSenechal | September 7, 2010 9:36 AM | Report abuse

I'm a teacher that teaches upper level high school math and engineering.

Of course we do lots of workshops and designing and drawing and building in engineering.

But whenever I read this "research" on using manipulatives in math, they always demonstrate how they can be used to understand things like pattern recognition or equation balancing.

I've never seen an effective use of use of manipulatives to demonstrate something like properly using the quadratic equation.

Posted by: someguy100 | September 8, 2010 8:21 AM | Report abuse

The false dichotomy Willingham sets up will not be missed, as he says, by most readers. It is a silly question, as he points out. It's like saying which is better a hammer or a screw driver.

However, the article is valuable for what might have gone unnoticed. What slips through the cracks as usual is the yardstick we use to evaluate teaching methods: how much information did a method convey?

I build on: "Each choice just describes a method of conveying information. What matters is how effectively the method is used to convey the desired content." No, actually. this is not what matters most.

Subtly, we take as an assumption that what teachers should be about is "conveying information," but I believe that is incorrect. For Willingham to use himself as an example is not apt, because his work of making effective presentations is not a model for most pre-college teachers. They are about something different. What most k-8 (even 9-12)teachers should be doing is educating. This includes (but is not limited to) teaching them how to sort through information, construct knowledge, organize that knowledge into deliverable packages and present to others. The test of a teacher's effectiveness is not how much information they got into short term memory, but how much brain development occurred--and that is harder to evaluate. And it also leaves room to appreciate more complex, less didactic methods.

Posted by: rickackerly | September 9, 2010 6:32 PM | Report abuse

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