PowerPoint and the Sixth Grader

The last few days, I’ve been watching slide shows on great Renaissance artists put together by my sixth graders.  It’s been an interesting experience.  Some of them are bad, some of them are good, none of them are great.  I’ve been wondering why.

I’ve been wondering why so much, that I sat down with a colleague this morning to try to understand what’s been going on.  Between us, we came up with a theory.  Parents and kids wanted a rubric (rubric comes from the Latin word for “red” so shouldn’t Rubric be in red?), so we designed a rubric that’s easy to follow, but concentrated on final product — so many slides, so many pictures, delivered in this amount of time, and so on.

What we failed to do is rubric-ize the research process — the deep dive, in the language of Design Thinking.  We didn’t do a good enough job of teaching kids how to go about collecting, collating, organizing and sorting information.  The presentation — the final product — gets all the attention in the Rubric, because that’s what the students want: “How will I get graded? What must the final product look like?”

But all my best presentations — yours too — have been as a result of getting deeper into the research process, and digging for the kinds of details that make for compelling stories.

Can you make a rubric that shows someone how to do research?  Is there a process that allows for that?

Steve Martin in a movie (I forget which) says that “sometimes you have to change from the outside, in.”  He helps another character into a new sport coat, showing him how to dress to impress.  Is there a way to learn how to be a researcher by searching from the outside in?

I’m sorry I don’t have an answer.  I wish I did.  Maybe you, the readers, do.

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  1. I don’t have a rubric for research, but for any lengthy project (and research is usually lengthy) I plan checkpoints. These focus more on the process rather than the product. Are your notes organized? Have you created a plan? Is this the best plan for the purpose? These checkpoints are usually good grades since I don’t put a grade in the book until they have done that step “properly.” It’s less about the rubric and more about them thinking of the process and giving me a chance to stop them and talk to them about where they are going.

  2. I have read Edward Tufte’s critique of PowerPoint/Keynote/Prezi/Slideshare and all the rest of the bullet-point machines. I think he’s right, that it does lead to shallow thinking. All of them allow only one particular path through a given set of material to reach an intended goal.

    Yesterday I had a chance to see a group of student film-makers at work, and I was deeply impressed with what they were doing with adult-level film-maker tools. The quality of the tools clearly results in better work — as long as the thinking behind the tools is operating at a level that supports those tools.

  3. You’ve read Edward Tufte and his criticism of how the very nature of PowerPoint support shallow thinking? It’s not just your rubric that is driving the design of kids’ work, it’s the tool as well. Research is not a summary, it’s a synthesis.

    And I’m not talking about using Prezi or Keynote – it’s the bullet point, slideshow metaphor…

  4. I was so thrilled to see this come up in my RSS reader – I think you have tackled some incredibly important questions regarding communicating with students through two powerful entry points.

    First, is the issue of teaching someone to do research. If we take it from an inquiry perspective, I’m wondering: Is there such a thing as a good researcher? If so, what makes them “good”? When we start to consider what we see good researchers do, we realize that what they DON’T do is use 5 sources, or check six websites, or read 8769 pages of text. (you yourself mentioned “digging into details” without mentioning numbers) If we look into our assessment toolbox or how we communicate to students about their work product and process – we can generally use checklists, scoring charts, and rubrics. The first two are dependent upon numbers (assessing the quantity or presence of “things”). I’m wondering if perhaps the rubrics you gave students about their final product (“so many slides, so many pictures, delivered in this amount of time, and so on”) is actually a checklist or scoring chart. You’ll get this many points if you do these things and thus your concerns about quality were realized because students were told how to assess quantity, not quality. Given we can’t count what makes a good researcher, we have to eliminate the first two tools. This leaves us rubrics.

    One option is to give the students a block of text and tell them: these are the habits of good researchers. Go do them. Many students will be fine with that. Some however, struggle with getting started and some want to be great researchers. Given that range, a quality rubric can help students see what it takes to go from a novice researcher, to an amateur one, to a professional researcher, and finally a mentor or master researcher. You’ll note that the first level is not “bad researcher!”. We all start out as “Novices” and novice doesn’t mean bad. It just means new.

    Consider the research rubric at the bottom of the page here: http://qualityrubrics.pbworks.com/w/page/33157865/Presentation-Rubric-Revised

    The students are asked to do a research a topic and present their learning. The research rubric is structured so students can find themselves and improve the quality of their research – without having to wait for an adult to give them feedback. You’ll see that we combined features of a checklist and rubrics. The checklist (you must do these things) is at the bottom and the rubrics articulate both product and process. Are the rubrics objective? No, not really. But we don’t determine if we like a TED talk based on how many times the speaker looks up at the audience.

    While it is far from perfect – as no rubric is perfect – it does establish for students what is expected in terms of quality. Most importantly, it’s about them as a researcher. Not their grade.

    Which leads to entry point #2: The connection between grading students’ work process – which I’ll leave for people with more compelling arguments about grading than I posses.

    • Woe is me. I just deleted the first half of my own comment by over-editing. Alas.

      Part of it was about recognizing that a researcher may do a great job at understanding “dinosaurs” but may not understand “American Civil War” very well. They could be expert researchers in one field, but not in another. That led to further insights, and then…

      I had a marvelous, philosophical reflection on what researchers do, and then I created a list of questions that researchers try to answer. They don’t need to know the answers to all these questions, but they try to answer at least some of them on any given topic.

      Only the list of questions survives:

      • Can I tell the difference between a true piece of information and a false one?
      • Can I tell the difference between a respected source of information and a minority opinion?
      • Can I tell when an internet source is lying to me?
      • What is the difference between content and context?
      • Can I place this event in its correct time?
      • Can I place this event on a globe or map?
      • What 2-3 other things happened before or after this event which might be relevant?
      • What 2-3 other things were going on in the world at the same time?
      • Who is my audience?
      • If I were telling this story, what sort of questions are people likely to ask me?
      • How can I answer those questions ahead of time?

      I like your rubric a lot, actually. It demonstrates very well that a kid may be a great researcher on the subject of “dinosaurs” but only a so-so researcher on the subject of “the American Civil War.”

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