Oscar Wilde on Exams

October 25, 2010

In examinations the foolish ask questions that the wise cannot answer

Teaching and presentations

August 31, 2010

Watching the video of the talk given by Garr Reynolds at Duarte Design recently, I picked up on a couple of side comments he made about teaching

  • using a whiteboard rather than slides when teaching
  • good teaching is where the teacher talks less

These are good points and I’ve reflected on similar lines here, here and here.

Teaching shouldn’t just be about talking to learners – they should be engaged. I’ve felt for a long time that a good teacher or trainer will draw his learners into a conversation rather than lecture at them and although classes should be properly planned and prepared the best teachers are flexible in their approach and don’t simply put up lists of points they’ve prepared in advance. That’s why I too, often prefer to use the old-fashioned approach of developing points on a flipchart or whiteboard as a discussion develops.

However, slides do have their uses. There are different teaching situations and what visual aids are appropriate depend on the context. Giving a lecture to a large group of students is not that much different to making a business presentation, and the use of well designed slides is usually a good approach.  With small groups in the classroom, slides still have a role but should be used carefully.

Who needs Powerpoint?

May 28, 2010

I do, but only sometimes.

It seems that everyone expects speakers/trainers/teachers to have a deck of Powerpoint slides to use when they’re talking. They’re often badly designed and used poorly, but they can be a useful way of making a talk more visual and interesting. However, they can also be a distraction and if overused their impact is reduced.

I probably overuse Powerpoint. It’s easy to do this. Preparing a talk or session on a training course can easily turn into preparing a set of slides which form the structure of the talk and end up being used a speaker prompts. The problem with this is that your talk starts to follow a rigid framework imposed by the default Powerpoint template. I think that Nancy Duarte and Garr Reynolds have it right when the recommend “going analogue” when preparing a talk – i.e. using paper to plan it out. This can free your thought process and allow you to think about how to present your ideas without getting stuck in a Powerpoint induced rut..

From an audience point of view, watching contiuuous streams of slides projected on a screen can become tedious. Its much more interesting if there is some variety in the way material is put across. You’re more likely to keep their attention.

I’ve been running a course this week. It was a revision course for occupational hygienists preparing to take an examination. A lot of topics were covered during the week. For the first three days I’d used some slides for some, but not all of the sessions. I’d tried to avoid too many “lectures” and involved the delegates in discussions and group activities.

On the fourth day of the course we started with an open session. I’d asked the delegates to go through past some exam questions the previous evening and decide which questions they’d like to talk through in the class. This meant that I only had a broad view of we’d need to talk about. The session inevitably threw up some topics where the delgates didn’t have much knowledge and were looking to me to help them fill the gaps. I could have started opening up relevant presentations from my laptop but instead we just had a general discussion and where I needed to fill in some details I relied on description and the old fashioned “talk and chalk” approach, using a flip chart. It was really refreshing to do this from my perspective and the delegates seemed to like it too.

I didn’t switch the projector on all day . For the other sessions I used techniques such as brainstorming, breakout groups an, where I had to “lecture” I stuck with the flip chart.

Slideware such as Powerpoint is a useful tool, but it’s only one item in our toolbox. Unfortunately it’s overused. Its refreshing to use other techniques and I think we all benefited from a “Powerpoint free” day.

Virtual Flip Chart

May 14, 2009


The problem with Powerpoint and the like is that they are passive tools. They’re great for presenting pre-prepared material (if used carefully and the slides are well designed – big ifs!) but don’t allow for input from the audience and for the presenter to display something that arises during the presentation itself.

I’ve believed for a long time that training should be interactive – it should be more like a discussion or conversation than a lecture. One technique I use quite a lot is writing on a flip chart. I either use it to summarise points made during a discussion, to pull together findings and key points from practical exercises or for “brainstorming”.  The problem with this is that my handwriting is not so great and, despite my best efforts, tends to deteriorate as the discussion progresses. So, for a while, I’ve been on the lookout for a software tool I could use as a sort of “virtual” flipchart. As usual, I don’t like paying for anything (especially software!) so I’ve been trying to find a good, but free, program  that would fit the bill. I’ve considered using Freemind, a mindmapping tool that’s been around for a while, but I find that the charts it produces are rather cramped. There are a number of web based tools I’ve tried out, but they’re not really amenable for use in the class, requiring an Internet connection which, in UK hotels, is expensive, and there’s also the risk of the system or connection failing. However, I think I’ve found something that will do the job for me. Dropmind is another online mindmapping tool, but a downloadable desktop version is also available and it looks promising.

As I see it, the positive aspects of using a mindmapping tool on my laptop with a projector include

  • legible charts!
  • the charts can be changed as we go along, something that isn’t really possible with a flip chart
  • the charts produced can be saved for reference in a more convenient format and can be printed out

Inevitably, there are negatives, too. The ones I foresee are

  • using a computer based tool will tie me to the laptop and restrict movement around the room
  • the projector would still be switched on. One of the nice things about using a “real” flipchart is that it introduces variation – turning off the projector makes a nice change.

There are bound to be other pros and cons. I think I’ll give it a try and see how it goes down.


Stand-up comedy routines are really nothing more than a type of presentation. Like anyone else addressing an audience, comdeians’ routines are about putting across their “ideas” or “points”, albeit in the form of a series of jokes or as humourous observations or stories.

Good comedians have to be effective presenters. They have to “grab” their audience’s attention and then keep it. And they have to be masters of timing.

I was watching Dara O’Brian’s performance on his DVD – Dara O’Brian – Live. One of the things he is particularly good at is engaging and involving the audience. He picks on individuals (note – keep well to the back if you take in one of his shows!!) holding a conversation with them, but without losing the attention and interest of the rest of the audience. There are some lessons here for presenters of lengthy “keynote” speeches and lectures.

Another feature of stand-up comedians is that they can manage to keep an audience engaged and interested for relatively lengthy periods without using slides.  They aren’t obsessed with Powerpoint but rely on the quality of their material and power of their delivery. Again there are lessons here for presenters.

Picture credit –wvermeulen via stock.xchng


May 5, 2009


The following article by the philosopher AC Grayling appeared in The Guardian on Saturday:

Knowledge and genius

I think it makes some very valid points which are relevant to education and particularly so with respect to the training of professionals.

In the article, Grayling states:

there is no automatic connection between knowledge and intelligence“.

I agree wholeheartedly with this. Simply being able to reel off facts isn’t proof of ability to perform a task. Yet there is too much reliance on rote learning  in my own profession where trainees are required to learn masses of facts when studying for their professional qualifications, while there is very little testing of their ability to apply the knowledge to solving problems.

An enormous amount of information available to us in the modern world – and it continues to expand exponentially. It is not only unrealistic to expect a professional to absorb and remember a mass of facts, it is, in my opinion, poor practice. It is more important to know how and where to locate information than to memorise it – and then to be able to use it to analyse and solve problems.

Turn off that projector!

March 31, 2009


The best type of learning is active. People learn best by doing, rather than simply listening. Unfortunately too many training course involve sitting and listening to the trainer while watching an endless stream of  poorly designed PowerPoint slides. After a while the audience inevitably starts to lose concentration.

Slides have a role to play in training, but they should be used carefully. They are usually used in a passive way where the trainer talks over the slides. This can be OK for a short while, to introduce concepts or sum up a discussion, but it can get tedious after a while, even if they are well designed.

There are ways of using slides actively. For example by showing pictures on screen which can then be discussed by the class or by using them as the basis of a quiz. But there are plently of other ways of including active elements in a class. For example, brainstorming, exercises, practical demonstrations and role plays.

Introducing variation in courses keeps the audience more involved and interested and breaks up the monotony which can be associated with using one teaching method.

Sometimes it’s a good idea to turn off the projector!