Promethean Presentation

Promethean learning

Last week I participated in a conference focused on using smartboard technology in the classroom. It was sponsored by my school district and Promethean, and presenters were drawn from the teacher ranks of the 60-plus schools in our system. The conference’s purpose was to share ideas for creative use of the electronic boards, providing teachers with the opportunity to show off resourcefulness, ingenuity, and creativity.

And show off they did.

Of the dozens of sessions from which to choose, I was able to attend six during the single-day event. I came away with some good information, mostly in the area of applications and websites that could be useful in the classroom presented via the electronic whiteboard. What struck me most during the day, however, were three things:

  • Teachers do not good presenters make;
  • How surprisingly many of the web resources presented are blocked by our school system’s Internet filter;
  • And, most troubling of all, how absent the student was from the presentations.

Curiously, during the morning welcome, our host for the conference, an individual from the administrative office, asked the four-to-five hundred attendees for our indulgence when it came to the session presenters; she pointed out to us that the session creators are not “professional presenters,” and that we should remember they are our colleagues who are giving up their time for the conference. This preemptive apology for speaker quality, begging our patience, seemed curious to me only because all of the presenters spend their careers in front of people, uh, presenting.

I let the thought pass into my mental background until lunchtime, when I found myself talking about the morning sessions with a friend over the pretty decent lunch provided to us. One of the first comments from my colleague was an observation that the sessions were pretty amateurish when it came to presentation quality. We compared notes, and found that both of us were underwhelmed by the quality of the presenters and most of the materials. All but one of the three I had seen appeared uncomfortably unfamiliar with the actual content, had difficulty navigating through the software and websites highlighted, and came off unpracticed, unrehearsed.

The trend continued into the afternoon, with one session so painfully disorganized and the presenter similarly diffuse I had to sneak out when she wasn’t looking (I wasn’t the only one, just the first). I couldn’t help but be struck by how uncomfortable, how uncertain, and how unconcise many of the presenters were, and found myself picturing myself in each’s classroom, imagining what it was like for their respective students. Curious.

Compounding this weakness was the frequent head-butting against our school system’s Internet filter. The filter prevents all users — students, teachers, and administrative staff — from accessing sites of questionable educational value, such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, any social networking sites, and thousands of other urls. Ironically and unsurprisingly, the filter is effective only against adult navigation since most of the students are privy to the latest proxies — allowing them to constantly keep a couple of steps ahead of the filter blacklist — while we adults find even clearly education-related websites inaccessible to us.

The creative session teachers had found many websites which are useful for classroom learning that are also on the filter blacklist. Some they used for lesson prep at home, but were unable to demonstrate them live since we were in a school building. Others, such as one used for backchannel discussion during a lesson, can only be used after submitting a “trouble ticket” to IT at least 24 hours before the class so an exception to the blocking can be made. Unfortunately, apparently no one had submitted a trouble ticket for our session and we were unable to see the app in use. We ran into blocked websites more than once during the day. This made me wonder why no one had bothered to turn off the filter for the conference time-frame, which, in turn, led me to wonder why professional educators must get permission from IT to use cutting edge (or even everyday) teaching tools at all. Who is being protected?

Most perplexing about all the presentations was the glaring absence of the learner in the lesson ideas presented to us; he was playing hooky all day. There certainly is nothing wrong with emphasizing to the conference participants how the ideas, techniques, and applications being presented can make our lives easier; answering the “What’s in it for me?” question is always an effective selling point. But everyone there was an educator, and I expected some science might make an appearance at some point during the day. I was frustratingly disappointed.

Very few, if any, of the presentations I saw addressed the perspective of the learner. No one presented to us what students thought of the techniques we saw, much less presented information about whether the technological classroom solutions are an improvement over low-tech alternatives. A couple of my presenters did a good job putting us in the place of the students, enabling us to experience their innovative lessons from the students’ desks, but this is problematic since we’re still prone to judge lesson delivery and content from our schema, not that of the student.

Additionally, not one presenter referenced any research on which he based his lesson design. Not one presenter mentioned any plans to conduct research to measure the effectiveness of the lesson design. This is troubling, given that electronic whiteboards are under fire in regional school districts under budget pressures, with many questioning their usefulness. This was a missed opportunity for the conference underwriters, and also indicates how little science goes into lesson planning in general.

I’m glad the school system held the conference, so that a focus on these potentially useful technology tools is encouraged. However, I came away with the disquieting feeling of an opportunity missed, compounded by the impression the sessions were a window into our classrooms as our students see them. I am a Constructivist, and consider everything from the learner’s perspective, so I admit to a bias here. I found myself not fully engaged in most of the sessions I attended due to the “teacher”‘s less-than-stellar presentation skills, unrehearsed presentations, and uncooperative technology tools. I couldn’t help but wonder how their everyday students perceived their lessons.

There hasn’t been a lot of research on the effectiveness of these whiteboards performed as of yet. Earlier this year, well-known education researcher and writer Robert Marzano noted as much, but announced his own about-face with regard to the value of smartboards:

“In Marzano’s study, the Promethean boards were most effective when they gave students multiple opportunities to use the boards and the interactive features. Nearly one-fourth of the teachers, though, were more effective without the whiteboards.

“That finding highlights one of Marzano’s key conclusions from the study. The teachers who were most effective using the whiteboards displayed many of the characteristics of good teaching in general: They paced the lesson appropriately and built on what students already knew; they used
multiple media, such as text, pictures, and graphics, for delivering information; they gave students opportunities to participate; and they focused mainly on the content, not the technology.

“ ‘These are things good teachers would do without technology,’ Marzano says. ‘Technically, you don’t need to use the technology, but it’s just so hard to do all these things without it.’ ”

This affirms the value of conferences such as this one, but even more so emphasizes the importance of developing teachers’ teaching skills over and around the use of these technology tools. It bothers me that these teachers who are motivated to not only be early adopters of technology, but “show it off” to their peers, may not be as effective in the classroom as they should — and could — be. How beneficial would a conference as well attended as this one be if it focused on improving a teacher’s presentation skills in front of a class? And just think how great it would be if the same 400-500 teachers had attended sessions grounded in pedagogical methods based on science, in which the presenters identified the research driving their lesson designs for the attendees to reflect on, discuss, disagree with, and extend for their own use.

I also have been worried about an effect I didn’t foresee when I helped spearhead the widespread use of electronic whiteboards in my own building a couple of years ago: being tethered to the front of the room. A Washington Post article just a week before the conference raised serious questions about electronic board use:

“They argue that the most ubiquitous device-of-the-future, the whiteboard — essentially a giant interactive computer screen that is usurping blackboards in classrooms across America — locks teachers into a 19th-century lecture style of instruction counter to the more collaborative small-group models that many reformers favor.”*

The article goes on to say “the whiteboard [reinforces] an age-old teaching method — teacher speaks, students listen. Or, as 18-year-old Benjamin Marple put it: ‘I feel they are as useful as a chalkboard.’ ”

One goal I had in attending the conference was to see what others were doing to enhance the learner-centric classroom with the gadgets rather than reinforcing the instructor-centric room. Regrettably, only one of the presenters I saw focused on this at all (and did an excellent job in the process).I’m surprised the Promethean representatives didn’t appear to do much in the way of countering this recent article (which received a fair amount of attention in the region). I know that when I was in technology sales, I would have made sure we had designed sessions as a riposte to the article.

* I would argue that the Post writer is mistaken in identifying the lecture-focused classroom as being tied to the nineteenth century: it is still alive and well in the twenty-first century.