Redesigning a Powerpoint (when we should be redesigning learning)

David Phillips makes a few good points in his TEDxTalk. As a TEDx organizer, I have given the same advice to several of our speakers over the years. In fact, the TED team distributes a guide with a lot of the same advice to their own speakers, which is also shared with the TEDx community. Fewer points per slides (even if that means more slides), using contrast for emphasis, and so on are prominent advice in all of that literature. So, in that sense, his talk wasn’t particularly groundbreaking.

The battle between the size of the title versus the size of the text in the body of the slide is one I hadn’t consider. Phillips’ audience and talk are clearly in the context of the business world, rather than Education. While the shark tank might be interested in the key features of a new product, students need to know the enduring understanding, so they know which ‘box’ to put this content in. More importantly, they need to know where the content sits in the big picture of the course. Students are documenting their learning as they go along, differently from a group of people who are waiting to be ‘wowed’ by the next product idea.

I used the concepts from this unit to redesign one of the few slide decks I have for my DP Biology course, on the control of flowering by a photosensitive pigment called phytochrome. It’s one of the more confusing bits in the course, I (and my students) find.

I originally had animations introduce the next idea, thinking that it might make more sense for students to compare with previous statements. It is not always ideal to follow Phillip’s suggestion of multiple slides in lieu of more content per slide because you might end up in this constant loop of “Mr. Mello, can you go back one slide?”. You could address that by having kids on their laptops following along the presentation at their pace, but that introduces a barrier between the presenter and the audience. It’s all about balance!

Along the same lines, students benefit from having content written on the slide because they may not be able to rely exclusively on what the presenter is saying. With increasing focus on inclusion and teaching English Language Learners in the mainstream classroom, a large proportion of students benefit from having ‘what is being said’ on the slide’. Getting the slides later may not be helpful, because it delays the understanding, prevents clearing up misconceptions as they arise, and generates inequality in when content is accessed.

I see the benefit of reducing the contrast on previous statements so that the focus remains on the latest idea presents — an easy animation to introduce in Powerpoint, but required using shapes in Google Slides. One of the biggest lessons for me in this unit: directing attention to a specific part of the slides, and not just simply ‘at the slide’. 

Another big takeaway, possibly one I will use forever:

I am, I always have been, and I always will be the presentation. This [points at projector screen] is my visual aid” – David Phillips

A few years ago I delivered a Pecha Kucha at a school event. These are designed as 20 slides for a total of 20 seconds in each slide and are a great format for school presentations because they limit the total time, the time in each slide, and the use of text.

In 2003, yearning for “More show. Less tell,” architects Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham of Tokyo’s Klein Dytham architecture invented PechaKucha. The initial purpose: to streamline long design presentations.”

What I love the most is the idea that the person is the presentation. Without the commentary, it’s just 20 images. Want a fun advisory game? Find 20 random, school-friendly images, and have students make up a story on the spot, 20 seconds, and one slide at a time. Here’s the one I did on the story behind the Tattoos of NIS.



In subject classrooms, I would argue that instead of spending energy creating powerpoints that are more design-friendly, teachers should focus on redesigning learning experiences such that a PowerPoint isn’t required. Something where students are collaborating, solving problems, taking different approaches, and arriving at the same learning objective through a variety of paths.

3 thoughts on “Redesigning a Powerpoint (when we should be redesigning learning)

  1. Hi Luis,

    I really enjoyed reading your post. I was feeling the same sentiment today about the benefit of having content written on the slides. I have slides that go along with my Reading & Writing Workshop lessons. The slides definately go beyond the number of words per slide suggested by Phillips. The reason why I use the slides is to support the EAL students. I feel that it is helpful for them to see the words. Plus, if a student is absent they can access the lesson easily. I also post the slides to Google Classroom, which allows the students to refer back to those lessons. There were helpful points, but it is good to hear that you share some of the same thoughts.

    Thanks for sharing,

  2. Hi Luiz,

    Thank you for your post. Firstly, your post reminded me there’s a difference between the secondary and elementary teaching worlds. As an elementary teacher, some of your ideas are a bit foreign to me. That being said, I appreciated your concise summary of the learning points for this topic. I also liked your argument teachers should be creating better learning engagements instead of better slide decks. I wish I knew the easy answer as to how to accomplish this with all the online teaching and learning happening these days. Do you happen to know the magic formula??!! Thank you for your patience with me but did you include a before and after of the redesigned PP you did? It wasn’t clear to me if the one displayed was your before or after.

    Thanks again,

  3. Hi Luis,

    Thanks for the invitation to come and respond to your blog post. I had students present a Pecha Kucha as part of a summative assessment a couple of years ago and I think they are a powerful presentation tool! I agree that there are times when PowerPoint can become almost more of a burden than a tool. I’ve found, just as you mentioned, it’s sometimes hard to find the right “balance.” In my new role I haven’t had much need to use PowerPoint with students in class, however, I have had to make several presentations to teachers and parents. I think with these presentations it’s easier to eliminate text and use images almost exclusively to help reinforce what is being said.

    One thing I would like to do in the future is to share these presentation ideas with students. All too often I have been faced with lines of text on a PowerPoint slide that a student reads from. I think through sharing Phillip’s approaches we can have students create more visually appealing presentations that stop distracting from the information they are sharing.

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