Thursday, March 19, 2015

Presentationzen- what makes messages stick

A couple of years ago I attended a workshop on presentations. One of the books that was cited was Garr Reynolds' Presentationzen: Simple Ideas on Presentaiton Design and Delivery. I have finally obtained a copy of this book and it has found the way to the top of the reading pile. This book is full of thought provoking ideas. One that I find particularly appropriate for teachers is his summary of the concepts included in Chip and Dan Heath's book, Made to Stick.

Six principles are identified that help information stick. As teachers, one of our primary concerns is getting information to stick in the minds of our students, so it is important to consider them. The principles are:

  • Simplicity
  • Unexpectedness
  • Concreteness
  • Credibility
  • Emotions
  • Stories
Simplicity- Often in teaching, we surround information with lots of talk and/or text. We do not tell our students what the critical points are. Novice learners are unable to determine the main elements. (All K-12 learners should be considered novice learners of the material, the purpose of teaching what we teach is to provide adequate background to approach the world and learn about it. NOT to delve deep into a subject area and achieve expert knowledge, regardless of the rhetoric of the Common Core creators statements.) If we deal with presenting the material in a simple way, we provide clarity in terms of what our expectations are. From there we can provide enrichment for those that get it quickly, but the basics should be basically imparted to our youth.

Unexpectedness- Judy Willis has written and spoken extensively about the power of the unexpected. One of her favorite examples is to walk backwards in class on the day you introduce negative numbers. Visuals, music, unusual classroom set ups, and objects can all be used to present an unexpected twist that will stimulate the student's brain to say, "What's up today?" In presentation terminology the surprise gets the attention of the audience- it's the hook. From there your job as presenter is to take the learner on a journey of discovery of the information.

Concreteness- Real examples. How many of us have used or heard a teacher answer a question about when are we going to use this with one of the following responses
  • on the state tests/ end of the year tests.
  • when you take other classes in this subject (a favorite of math teachers).
If you haven't heard it, you probably haven't been paying attention. Students are looking for why is this real. We give them a blow off answer that does not satisfy them. We need to dig deep and identify real reasons the students will need this information. Stories about how we use the skill or information work. Fake word problems that set up situations that no one in their right mind would contemplate do not. You are better off just telling them you are teaching them to exercise their brains which pays off in not being brain dead. Real reasons, especially ones that are pertinent to their young minds are important- they are concrete.

Credibility- First, students must see you as an authoritarian source of information. Your degree or the fact that you stand in front of them will not cut it for many students. You need to establish that you like them. You need to develop rapport with them. You need to do what you say and say what you do. You need to be seen as fair. Your answers need to be correct. If you make a mistake, own up to it and move on. Be everything you want of them- return papers in a timely fashion, be respectful and honest, be hard working, love learning new things. Hold students to appropriate behavioral standards and exhibit them yourself. The behaviors, not the words, create your credibility.

Emotion- Let your information be full of emotion. Paint pictures where they feel the importance of the information. Let it strike a chord. This is part and parcel of the unexpectedness and stories. Build an emotional bond with your students personally and build emotional bonds with them intellectually. If you want them to learn about life in the Soviet State, have them close their eyes and imagine a life where they have been told what their jobs will be, what they will earn and where they will live. What is their reaction? Then teach it. If you want to teach a bout Mendelian genetics, ask them to think about not being born because their genes did not match what a parent wished for. If you want to teach about time, give them the power to tell you when to go to lunch or recess. Middle schoolers might get off on thinking about creating a fence to encircle district 13 as it did in Hunger Games and needing to know how much fencing is required (perimeter). These intros create an emotional bond.

Stories- Stories bring our ideas to life. History is so much richer told through stories. A factual rendition of the lead up to the Revolutionary War is far less compelling and memorable than learning about how a broken egg prevented John Hancock from being arrested years before the Declaration of Independence was signed. Learning about wash stations in a chemistry lab seems far more important when it is told around the chemical burn I received in my eye while working in the dining hall in college which nearly cost me my sight or the Spanish Inquisition technique of throwing lye into people's faces. Solving for percent of numbers is more compelling when students are given the opportunity to buy things on sale. Romeo and Juliet is more interesting when seen through the eyes of teenagers being told to do something they do not want to do. Stories enable concreteness and emotion to inhabit the minds of students. Paul Smith's book, Lead With a Story, centers around this idea of using stories to captivate, convince and inspire. If you can inspire, your ideas will stick with a student.

Reynolds' book centers on presentations not teachers, but the keystone of much instruction is presentations. Creating memorable presentations is critical in teaching. Keeping these ideas of SUCCESs in the forefront of our planning will help our teaching memorable in the minds of our students.

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