The Culture of Presentation

By Steve Eskow
Editor, Hybrid vs. Virtual Issues

In her 2004 essay “How Computers Change the Way We Think” (Chronicle of Higher Education, 30 Jan. 2004), Sherry Turkle says:

Indeed, the culture in which our children are raised is increasingly a culture of presentation, a corporate culture in which appearance is often more important than reality.

Turkle uses Power Point as illustration: a program that can take a jumble of notions and notes and simulate coherence.

As a case in point, I submit the following “Framework for 21st Century Learning” from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills site. The letters A, B, and C as well as red circles have been added to facilitate my comments.

Click the image to zoom in.

The copy above the “framework” incorporates many of the buzz words that were clichés in the early 20th century: holistic, blending, innovative, multi-dimensional.

The Framework presents a holistic view of 21st century teaching and learning that combines a discrete focus on 21st century student outcomes (a blending of specific skills, content knowledge, expertise and literacies) with innovative support systems to help students master the multi-dimensional abilities required of them in the 21st century. [bold emphasis added]

The use of discrete is puzzling since the word is most commonly defined as “consisting of distinct or unconnected elements,” while the Partnership insists the “components” are “fully interconnected.”

Turning now to the “arches” and the “pools” that make up the “framework”: Before such 20th century computer programs as Power Point made it easy to turn simple ideas into rainbows of color — into “arches” and “pools” — the “framework” would have been a simple list:

I. Student Outcomes

II. Support Systems

Without the rainbow, attention would focus on the ideas themselves, their relevance and coherence, with questions such as: The “core subjects” — the 3R’s — are now to include “21st Century Themes” (see A in the chart). What are these themes? And can the traditional 3R’s be sufficiently enlarged to incorporate the new themes and the demands of “skills” and “literacies”?

We turn to the list of “support systems” (see B in the chart) — with “systems” not metaphorized as “pools” — and we might be startled to find “curriculum and instruction” (see C in the chart) listed as a “support system” rather than as the master concern moving the exercise. “Curriculum” is the “framework,” not arches; and “instruction” is the driver of the entire enterprise, not one pool among many.

One of the great gifts of the new technology is the power it gives all of us as teachers to use design and color and imagery to clarify and illuminate ideas and concepts for our students.

New dangers come with the new gifts.

We need to be sentinels warning of the dangers of “the culture of presentation.”

17 Responses

  1. As always, Steve brings to light important insights about the downside of dazzle. As one who’s been involved with P21 from the early days, I would suggest that the nuances of discussion go beyond what can be expressed in either outline or graphic formats alone. The conversations that I’ve heard when “the rainbow” is discussed almost always turn out the same way: while there is general if not universal agreement on the outcomes (think of the rainbow as a bridge, remove the keystone or any other pieces and the bridge collapses), there is a profound lack of agreement on the strategies the “support systems” will pursue to reach these widely desired goals. This is why curriculum and instruction is seen as a process that will widely vary, even when people say they want the same goals. Powerpointlessness is indeed a trap, but in this case the graphic was the first step of a conversation, not the desired endpoint. Thanks again, Steve, for keeping our eyes on the prize: deeper and more useful understandings!

    • Ferdi, your comments are intriguing. I’m struck particularly by how the rainbow/arch metaphor generates ideas not inherent in the list approach, e.g.”remove the keystone or any other pieces and the bridge collapses.” Would the entire educational structure really “collapse” if “life skills” were not included, or would the rest of the framework remain intact and useful? That is: there is more than “Powerpointlessness” at work here: the “arches” and the “pools” are important editorializing: they are “content” as well as diverting decor.

    • Quite honestly I have never been able to make much sense of the Rainbow of 21st Century Skills. The danger of educational presentation graphics is that they should always assist with building a valid mental model and not just be graphics for the sake of pretty pictures. When people try to use the example to construct their own model and it had no real intention for such use, the result is often increased confusion rather than increased understanding.

      I think the rainbow was an attempt at putting some level of dimension around the ideas of core subjects and some of the new ways these needed to be delivered and the receipt measured. Yet, the implication is that Information, Media and Technology skills (purple keystone) have no relation to Life and Career skills (red), or that they are somehow tied together or jointly supporting Learning and Innovation Skills (4C’s). My mental model would need to reverse that thought in that the 4 C’s listed would be more in support of the other two or that they would somehow be mutually supportive. The bridge does not work for me, nor do the pools at the bottom which are collecting runoff rather than somehow representing the channels by which all the other stuff happens. I wish whatever artist created this diagram was available to further explain.

      Falling back to the previously assumed powerless and pointless list, there is no example mental model offered to assist with learning, but neither is there a poor attempt at a model offered to often do more harm than good. Ironically one of the FableVision authors was presenting at the last P21 conference last month and was trying to get the audience (P21 members) to help build a new model for their 4Cs and 3Rs. I assume we are not the only ones who don’t like this one, but then I also suppose nobody has offered up an alternative or they would probably change.

      • Bill, you say:

        ” I assume we are not the only ones who don’t like this one, but then I also suppose nobody has offered up an alternative or they would probably change.”

        Despite all the marvels of 21st century technology, teaching and learning still take place in time and space.

        If there continue to be “core subjects”, are they still the organizing frameworks within which the “outcomes” are pursued? If so, the core subjects are not just another piece of an arch, they are foundational.

        If the core subjects are not the organizing elements, the containers for the “outcomes,” how else might instruction be organized?

        Rainbows and pools are part of the problem, not the solution. They suggest that unity and coherence have been achieved when what is actually presented is an unorganized and incoherent wish list.

        One alternative might be a colorless outline listing a chronology of what is taught where and when.

  2. Steve, this article gets to the heart of the problem of technology. Much of what passes for innovation is essentially presentation — the same old gas guzzler in different fiberglass bodies, the same old emperor in new clothes, the same old book between new covers, the same old presentation in PowerPoint or Elluminate or YouTube.

    Your earlier article re 21st century skills poses a similar observation about buzzwords that generate whole “new” theories and paradigms — that end up being nothing more than a rehash of old ideas.

    You’re right. We need to police ourselves in this new environment where everyone has the freedom and power to publish. We need to turn a critical eye toward any idea that purports to be “new.”

    Like the free marketplace, the web has a natural, self-sustaining mechanism to separate information from noise. Content with substance and value usually rises to the surface and remains there for a very long time while content with little weight sinks into oblivion.

    But this mechanism is far from perfect. Many great ideas are on the web but failing to reach the surface, and many poor ones are basking in the limelight. The fault is with our first generation search engines such as Google. The algorithms they’re using aren’t very “smart” or they’re crippled to function in a way that turns a profit for the service.

    The next big step will be gen II search engines with smart algorithms that will cut through much of the bull and determine real value. This step will require ongoing input from the communities of experts in the various disciplines and fields.

    This could be done automatically. For example, the Gen II engines would “learn” who the experts are and follow their lead in “rating” articles and comments published on the web. Thus, hits alone wouldn’t be the deciding factor. Much of the engine’s work would be behind the scenes, in the deeper dimension where experts are constantly being monitored, rated, and applied.

    Ultimately, the internet may not be able to rely on profit-driven services such as Google or Yahoo for Gen II engines. Open development may be the answer, and a consortium of worldwide educational organizations — independent of governments — dedicated to turning the web into a reliable source for the best and latest information may be the way. (Added about an hour later: Today’s libraries, as they shed their 20th century functions, might be a natural force behind the collaborative development and maintenance of an open, international Gen II search engine.) -Jim S

    • Jim, this matter of the need for a “Gen II” search engine is new to me, and seems of great importance. Are you going to do more writing about the matter?

      • Steve, let me dig a little deeper into this topic. I haven’t found much in my past searches on how current engine algorithms are formed. But I do know that they’re not as “smart” as they ought to be. My guess is that the next generation will be smarter, driven by a meta-algorithm based on layers of fuzzy logic and dynamic databases of “experts” that may include nonhuman sources.

        Gen II search engines would eliminate the commercial factor and include ratings based on databases of experts. When — not if — this happens, frameworks, such as the one you address, might not make it to the surface. -Jim S

  3. Bravo, Steve. I find these “rainbows” and “pools” as well as other presentation dazzle distracting rather than illuminating. Am I a relic of the past or just rational? It takes me forever to dissect this sort of diagram. I’d rather have a simple outline.

    On another note, I find such expressions as “…with innovative support systems..” to be empty. What the heck does innovative mean here? Generally, it seems to mean (without sullying this particular instance about which I know nothing) whatever the presenter hasn’t seen previously, or it may be just an empty adjective. As most of you who have studied education history covering a century or more know, there’s little that’s really new.

    In my own personal opinion, the trick in improving education through technology (as opposed to, for example, raising salaries to improve the hiring pool and seeking true leaders to lead our schools and districts) is to find what has worked in the past but wasn’t well implemented or couldn’t be sustained. Then, use technology to help with implementation or sustainability.

    If professional development is a problem, then build into your technology what you would have put into your PD. If time or student-teacher ratios were the problem, have your technology provide for more efficiency that previously possible.

    You can bet that plenty of great education ideas were jettisoned because they could not be scaled or otherwise repeated and continued year after year anywhere, not because they weren’t worthy ideas. These ideas may have required super teachers or very low student-teacher ratios or excessive time during the school day or expensive materials. Technology holds the PROMISE of fixing those problems. It’s up to us all to see that that promise is fulfilled and not squandered.

    False technology solutions abound. They sap budgets and poison the pool for upcoming good technology solutions. Forums such as ETC Journal help to avoid the false solutions.

    We’re on the verge of having solutions that will improve education, save money, and allow teachers to enjoy their work much more than is possible now. Let’s keep speaking out until our voices are heard in the legislatures and school boards where important decisions are being made.

  4. “Am I a relic of the past or just rational?” This rhetorical question triggered my interest – and made me take a different stance towards the influence of computation on the way we “think” – or, to be specific, rather “the way we construct and present an argument”. We use styles, figures of speech and structure to strengthen our arguments – each and every comment and the article itself is full of such examples. In an equivalent way, we employ some kind of “pictorial rhetoric” to make our graphic representations convincing. This is not necessarily a shift to a new culture of presentation. It seems to be a very old discussion indeed: Plato’s critique of the sophists with new protagonists.

  5. Important insights here, Stefanie.

    “Pictorial rhetoric”: the latest version of sophistry.

    Perhaps, then, we now need careful attention to this new rhetoric generated by our new tools, so that we can deal with it in education as we deal with oral and chirographic and typographic rhetoric.

    Question for you:

    Do you find the Partnership’s “pictorial rhetoric”–the rainbow, the colors, the arches, the pools–“convincing”?

  6. Steve, I think your inquiry has uncovered a major flaw in this “framework” and others that attempt to illustrate complex processes but fall short. For example, you point out, correctly, the key role of instruction, which is a process. All the other items in the framework are either inputs or outputs. Here’s a quick systems diagram to clarify this point:

    The missing dimension in the framework is the how, the process. The rainbow and pool are whats, inputs and outputs. Without the how, we have a bunch of ingredients but no way to turn them into a chocolate cake.

    And you also point out, correctly, the overarching function of the curriculum in the system.

    Stefanie, you, too, point out, correctly, that we’ve long used graphics to communicate ideas. And the implication is that it’s an extremely valuable aid to thinking.

    In combination, both of your comments underscore the importance of visual rhetoric, or what Stefanie refers to as “pictorial rhetoric.” To facilitate understanding, we need to be able to “see” or reconstruct abstract ideas as visual representations. These serve as metaphors, analogies, or models, and they help us to envision complex processes.

    Poetry, or language rich in imagery, is a kind of sensory rhetoric that helps us to explore, understand, and appreciate abstract concepts. One of the benefits of the creative arts is a rich vocabulary of symbols that provides a powerful tool for making sense of and, if necessary and desirable, manipulating reality.

    This argues for an education that relies on the arts as a dynamic tool for facilitating the sciences. In the end, we can only invent what we can imagine. -Jim S

  7. Jim, your “ingredients/chocolate cake” imagery is most suggestive.

    Certainly the cake will fail to materialize if the processes–measuring, mixing, cooking–are wrong. As you point out, the cake will fail even if the ingredients are right—if the “processes” are wrong.

    There is more use to be made of this analogy.

    The insistent foundational premise of the 21st century rhetoric is that the new cake–the 21st century cake–needs to be profoundly different than the old 20th century cake.

    Perhaps before we mix the ingredients, or organize them with rainbows and pools, we need to agree on what old ingredients no longer work and need to be discarded, and what new ingredients are required for the 21st century cake.

    John Dewey proposed beginning the process of educational reform with an analysis of the “situation”: the structures of experience, the life of the time, for which students need to be prepared, and moving from that analysis to the design of educative experiences which prepare for that life.

    Have we identified the new dimensions of life in the 21st century–life today–that require new ingredients?
    Have we identified those dimensions of educational practice which no longer work, or no longer are relevant and need to be discarded–or are we adding the new ingredients, e.g. the new communication technologies, to the old curriculum, e.g.the 3r’s, and hoping that such an addition will result in curricular coherence?

    Keith Hoskin and Richard Macve point out that “the first institutions that were ‘disciplinary’…were elite colleges in the late eighteenth century, where…innovation lay in bringing together for the first time three educational practices: constant rigorous examinations, numerical grading of examined performance, and…writing by students….” And the organizing site of these practices was the face-to-face classroom.

    Do these three 18th century pedagogical practices still organize instruction in the 21st century? Should they?

    It may be that the only 21st century innovation in the Partnership proposal is the “pictorial rhetoric” that dyes the old pedagogic garments in bright colors and passes them off as new

  8. Seems to me, Steve, that we keep longing for moist, rich, delicious chocolate cake while pouring ingredients for chop suey into the blender.

    I can’t help but think that if we want students with excellent life and career skills, learning and innovation skills (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity), and information media and technology skills . . .

    . . . then we ought to have administrators and teachers with the same skills. Otherwise, it’s like asking an egg roll to become a chocolate eclair.

    Do we really want teachers and administrators who are independent learners as well as innovative, creative, critical thinkers?

    If the answer is yes, then we ought to expect them

    – to step outside the box and ask, “Why?”
    – to explore surprising, controversial solutions
    – to experiment with new and different methods
    – to not be satisfied with the way things have always been done

    and they ought to be given the freedom, support, and encouragement by leaders and colleagues to do so.

    Are we prepared to do this?

    I doubt it.

    We’re stuck in boxes that value standardization over innovation. We view the problem of education from a factory perspective. If a worker on the production line fails to create a part that meets exact specs, the next worker in line won’t be able to use it to complete his task. And if this problem is multiplied up and down the line, the entire assembly process would grind to a halt.

    But what if we step outside this factory model and forget standardized specs and assembly-line methods?

    Would we be able to discover new and better ways to bake chocolate cake? -Jim S

    • Jim asks two questions:

      But what if we step outside this factory model and forget standardized specs and assembly-line methods?

      Would we be able to discover new and better ways to bake chocolate cake?

      Maybe we would, but we won’t really ever get a chance to know.

      Think about the hiring practices of schools. Who makes the choices when hiring the kind of key personnel required to make such changes? It’s usually a committee of people who are thriving under current conditions. These are not the kind of people who will say, “Hey, let’s look for someone who is really going to shake things up!”

      Now, let’s say that somehow a mover and shaker somehow gets into a position of authority and is able to make the kinds of changes you suggest. What happens next?

      At the K-12 level, the surrounding world comes unglued. The local newspapers start screaming about lowered standards. Parents flock to the school board meetings in protest. School board candidates who promise to restore a quality education are elected to throw the bums out.

      At the college level, roughly the same thing happens, with faculty councils (etc.) rising up in arms.

      Even if somehow a new process survives such a process for a few years, it will take much, much longer until those changes get down to the classroom. In the meantime, what is actually happening is what has always happened. Then, someone notices that achievement results aren’t what they should be, and the new process gets the blame, even though it was only beginning to be implemented and the old process is actually what is to blame. Once again, a movement is made to restore the status quo, and teachers once again see that if they just wait things out, all fads will go away.

      Last night i heard a teacher in a highly respected private school tell how they had spent two years and a lot of pain and trouble implementing a challenging new program designed to dramatically improve educational quality. At the first faculty meeting of this year, the head of the school announced that they were dropping the program. The head of one of the departments, someone who had struggled especially hard to be a leader for that change, stood up and said “I f—–g quit,” and walked out, never to be seen again.

      I once read a book that said that in the entire history of education, no theory of education reform has ever failed, because none has ever been implemented as designed. With that kind of track record, it takes a really courageous educational leader to step forward and even suggest such change. Perhaps “courageous” is not the right word. “Foolish” might work better.

      • LOL! OUCH!

        John, you’ve hit the bull’s eye with this comment. It’d be funny if it weren’t so painful. I hurts when I laugh,

        Perhaps the best education ought to be defined by what should not happen rather than what should. For example, teachers ought to teach whatever they want, however they want, as long as it’s related to doing what practitioners in the given field or discipline actually do.

        The negative goal could be as simple as: Whatever you do, don’t kill the students’ natural interest in the subject. For example, at the end of the term, after doing stuff that historians do, the student should still be interested in history. -Jim S

      • John, your picture is all too accurate. Grim but accurate.

        We’re ETC: the last word in the trilogy is “Change.”

        Perhaps we need to spend more time and thought on “Change”: how to encourage it, which approaches discourage it, which approaches are almost certain to fail.

        Is the change picture as bleak as you paint it? There are computers in the schools, there are online courses and online schools: are these evidence of movement in new directions?

        One small hunch about the resistance you describe:

        I note that many reformers, advocates of large changes, seem certain of the failures of the present system and the superiority of their proposed changes–certain before the evidence is in.

        Might this style of critique and advocacy tends to generate the posture of defence of the present and rejection of the new?

        Do we agents of change need to be more humble, more tentative, less certain that we have the keys to a better future?

        Would we create more support for our work if it could be framed as research, as the search for new and better directions, rather than proposed as utopias already found?

  9. Steve Eskow’s Nov. 3 comment above has been made into the new Change – Do Some Approaches Discourage It? post, I’ll reply there.

    (The WordPress software does not allow replying to a comment after a certain number of indentations)

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