There is no one right way to teach a subject, writes cognitive scientist Dan Wilingham on Answer Sheet.
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
The right answer depends on “how effectively the method is used to convey the desired content” and how well the method fits the content and how much the audience already knows.
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.
Asked to speak to a group of teachers, Willingham was sent a contract which forbade the use of PowerPoint. The organizer said that “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.”)
We’ve all been to that workshop.
Update: Keep thee behind me, PowerPoint, writes Professor Jason Fertig.