Friday, March 21, 2014

MACUL 2014

Last week, I attended MACUL 2014 and I wanted to say that it was a pretty amazing time. For those of you who are reading this and don't know what MACUL is, it is educational technology conference held annually and this year it was held in Grand Rapids, MI. I had the opportunity to attend three sessions or workshops, two of which were amazing so I want to share what I learned.

Session 1 | 4-Dimensional Teaching: Engage Your Students Like Never Before
Presenter: John Kissinger (Dominos Pizza Franchise Manager Trainer)

Engaging Students Through Storytelling
I went to this presentation because as an educator, I want to learn as many techniques, practices, and strategies that will help me to engage students more effectively. Especially teaching in an urban school that specializes in the arts, getting students engaged in learning mathematics is an upward battle. In my graduate studies, I have learned that increasing the perceived value and lowering the perceived difficulty of a topic increases students' motivation to learn, but I have found that it is nearly impossible to get every student engaged in a lesson. When I went to this session, I didn't know what to expect. The presenter, John Kissinger, has never taught students in a school in his life. However, he does teach outside of a school setting. He is a trainer of new Dominos pizza franchise managers. He has taught topics such as food safety precautions to new employees and managers. It was through teaching such boring and dull topics like the proper temperatures for maintaining food that led him to think about new ways to deliver more engaging instruction.

He talked about the four dimensions of teaching with each dimension increasing in effectiveness of retaining/mastering content. The first three dimensions in order are "Tell", "Show", "Do". You can tell students information or explanations, show students visuals using different representations, and have students do an activity to practice or explore content. I think most of us can agree that having students do work, do thinking, etc. and having students construct their own knowledge is a more effective method of learning than just telling or showing information. So what is the fourth dimension of teaching? It is emotional engagement. According to the presenter, getting students invested emotionally in instruction or a lesson is the most effective way of engaging students and getting them to learn the content.

He asked the audience to think about the most engaging lesson they could remember experiencing when they were in school. After giving the audience some time to think and a chance to respond, almost every response involved something a teacher did that made the lesson engaging. He shared a story about a chemistry teacher he had and on the first day of class when discussing lab safety rules, the teacher washed his hands with hydrochloric acid. The acid wasn't strong enough to cause major harm, but it was enough to cause open wounds and scars. The presenter stated that none of the students would ever forget that lesson on safety. He talked about the passion for teaching and for the content we're teaching is infectious to the students. How can we expect students to learn something or pay attention to a lesson that we don't find interesting or we do not want to learn ourselves? We have to pick topics and design lessons in ways so that if we were the students, we would be excited to participate in that lesson. Therefore, he mentioned that we should not perceive the content as "king" anymore. Instead, we should put the context first. This means to spend less time giving instruction about the what, but more about the how, and even more about the why. He suggested that the main focus of a lesson should be to make a topic relevant, and contextualize it whenever possible.

This was an analogy he presented. Sell the light, not the light bulb. Instead of starting off a topic on light by describing and explaining the mechanics and components of a light bulb, the topic should begin with a discussion about the impact light has had on civilization and what it would be like if everything was still being done by candlelight. Once students are engaged and see the topic as relevant, then they are ready to learn about the mechanics and components of a light bulb. What the presenter suggested next was something I had never thought about doing, but would like to incorporate it into my future practice. What he suggested to do is to teach lessons through storytelling. This really intrigued me because it made sense. Many of us educators have watched TED talks and I think I can say that we have found most of what we have watched to be inspiring and informational. When you really think about it though, what do most of those TED talks have in common? The presenters are telling stories with visual aids. I can't be sure that every TED talk is a story or incorporates visual aids, but the ones I have seen have these elements.

The presenter gave another analogy. Imagine you want to teach a young child to not touch a hot frying pan. There are three things you could try to go about it. First, you could let the child discover it on their own by actually touching the hot frying pan. The child might learn the lesson, but then you would have to deal with the burn. Second, you could just tell the child to not touch a hot frying pan. The child might remember, but how likely is that the child will remember? Third, you could tell the child a story about another child named Billy. One day, Billy went camping and his parents were cooking dinner over a fire using a frying pan. He wanted to help his parents so he went over to the fire, and grabbed the frying pan to bring it to the table. However, he didn't grab it by the handle. He screamed, dropped the frying pan, and cried until his parents ran over to him. He was badly burned with blisters and red marks. His parents rushed him to the hospital where he spent several hours getting treated with medicine and had to get a needle put into his arm. Which method of teaching this lesson do you think would be the most effective?

From the year 2000 to the year 2012, the average human attention span dropped from 12 seconds to 8 seconds (a goldfish has an attention span of 9 seconds). As educators, we should expect students to hold their attention no longer than 90 minutes, and only 20 minutes for one topic. Our job is to create an attention-holding experience for the students, so why not try out some new methods of engaging students. Here are some suggestions the presenter gave about storytelling. The first thing you have to do is to get the students' attention by using emotion to set a hook. This can be accomplished by starting with a shocking fact, a thought-provoking question, or an engaging story. All great stories have certain characteristics. They have a beginning (call to action), a middle (trials and rewards), and an end (resolution and return). They have scripts, and they have great characters. For example, a teacher in the audience suggested beginning a lesson on electricity by talking about the pure hatred and competition between Tesla and Edison. Then the lesson could transition into what happened before their fighting started. The presenter suggested that we should try to end stories with a cliff hanger so that you leave open holes to fill later. Therefore, students are left anxious for the next lesson.

I found this idea of storytelling to be really intriguing. Teaching at a school where students care so much about the arts has made me think about how I can integrate academics (especially math) with the arts. After attending this session and as I am currently in a relationship with an illustrator/designer, it is inspiring to start thinking about how I can incorporate art and math to create stories to hopefully make instruction more engaging and effective. I'm hoping to try to turn one of my future lessons into a story and see how it works.

Making Slideshow Presentations More Effective
At the school where I am teaching, I have been using PowerPoint presentations to teach many of my lessons. I have been trying to think of ways to design the presentations in more engaging ways, but have not been able to come up with anything. After attending this session, I was able to gain a lot of useful information on how to make my presentations more effective and more engaging. I mentioned about TED talks and how the speakers would typically tell a story with some sort of visual aid. That is what the presenter suggested that a slideshow should be, just a visual aid. He talked about how many college professors teach lessons using PowerPoint presentations that display boring text in hierarchical styles, which results in the students' preoccupation with note-taking competing for their attention to the actual lesson. He isn't discouraging the use of PowerPoint or other presentation/slideshow design software, but he warned that PowerPoint can get in the way of instruction if used incorrectly. Therefore, he recommends the proper use and design of the presentation to maximize its effectiveness in supplementing your instruction.

Peter Norvig, head of research at Google wanted to display the improper use of a PowerPoint presentation. In order to show this, he created a Ghettysburg Address PowerPoint presentation to be used as a visual aid while the famous speech is being delivered. Try reading the Ghettysburg Address out loud while going through the slides, and you will notice that the PowerPoint presentation does little to nothing in increasing the impact of the speech. You might even say that the presentation takes something away from the speech. Instead of the PowerPoint created by Peter Norvig, imagine showing an image of an American flag that is torn, ripped, and waving in the wind on a battlefield while the speech is being delivered. That would be much more effective at increasing the impact of the speech.

Here is some advice for improving the design of a PowerPoint presentation for those of you who currently teach using them, or plan on using them in the future.
  1. Use only one point per slide. It doesn't cost anything to create another slide for another bullet point, so put only one point per slide. This makes it easier to focus on one simple message making the point more meaningful. Also, students aren't in a rush to copy down a hundred words into their notes before you advance the slide. More slides means less clutter.
  2. A picture is worth 1000 words. It has been found that words supported by pictures enhance the meaning and impact of the words. Include a picture that is relevant to what you are talking about at that point. If you want to teach give a presentation about Hurricane Katrina, don't show pictures of Typhoon Hainan. Incorporate the "Rule of Thirds" to make the pictures more dynamic and increase the impact they have. Having images take up the entirety of a slide increases its dramatic effect. Leave out the cheesy clipart!
  3. Got data? Leave out complex tables, charts, and graphs of data. Only include the information that you find important for your students to know.
  4. Don't make backgrounds foregrounds. Keep your backgrounds simple. Don't let the background of your slide overshadow the content.
  5. Put data into context. If you want to talk about something that impacts one billion people in the world, show an image of the earth with one fifth of it cut out. This way, students can visibly see how big of an impact that topic has. This YouTube video does a good job at contextualizing income inequality in America.
  6. Contrast. Put light text on dark backgrounds. Put dark text on light backgrounds.
  7. Fonts. Use Sans Serif fonts for presentations. These are the fonts that have letters without curved endings. Use Serif fonts for typing papers.
  8. Animations/Transitions. Use animations and transitions within and between slides sparingly. They can be pretty cool to watch, but it takes away from the content of the presentation and distracts students from the lesson. The presenter mentioned his dislike of Prezi because it is nothing but overhyped transitions. He did like its holistic style of organizing the presentation though.
  9. Less words, more story. Although there are many students who many not like listening, it is important that most of the content in a lesson is from spoken words, and not from the PowerPoint presentation slides. The slideshow should support your lesson, not serve as your lesson.
I learned a great deal from this session and it was a great way to start my first MACUL experience. I wanted to write about the other session I found to be really useful, but I'll save that for my next post as I feel that I have written way too much already in this post. I hope you find something I wrote helpful or interesting to you. Thank you for reading!

Additionally, here is a list of books that inspired the first session and also some that were recommended by the presenter:

Books about methods of learning
Design for How People Learn - Julie Dirksen
Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story - Kendall Haven
Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School - John Medina

Books about presentations and using visuals
Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences - Nancy Duarte (download this for free using iBooks from her site)
slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations - Nancy Duarte
Multimedia Learning - Richard Mayer
Beyond Bullet Points: Using Microsoft PowerPoint to Create Presentations That Inform, Motivate, and Inspire - Cliff Atkins
Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery - Garr Reynolds (also has a blog site with the same name)

Coming in my next post:
Session 2 | Using Photography and Video to Support Math Learning
Presenter: Andrew Shauver (Pennfield High School Mathematics Teacher)
If you can't wait for my post, go to and click on "MACUL 2014 Presentation" on the right hand side to check out his presentation.


  1. Jonathan,

    Thanks for posting. It was exciting to read your post and learn from the presenters that you spent your time with at the MACUL conference. I have found this to be one of my favorite aspects of our program- that we get to benefit from the experiences and insights of our classmates! Your post was richly detailed about story telling and effective uses of PPt. Thank you! I’m sure it took time to write it all down and I’m glad that you did!

    One of the striking things that you shared was the first presenter’s point about the 4th dimension of teaching. You wrote, “So what is the fourth dimension of teaching? It is emotional engagement. According to the presenter, getting students invested emotionally in instruction or a lesson is the most effective way of engaging students and getting them to learn the content.” This is an element of planning and implementation that I have become increasingly aware of in the last few months. Like math, chemistry is a dense topic with required content standards that seem totally irrelevant to my students. I like the idea very much of building story telling into lessons in order to impact the students’ perception of the content’s value and difficulty.

    I would love to hear what ideas you have about this as you plan such lessons and will plan to share my own ideas with you in the future. Looking forward to your next post!


  2. Jonathan,
    Fantastic insights here. You clearly took this conference very seriously, and what you took away is invaluable. I especially enjoyed how you came away with the importance of "story' in teaching. No doubt, a good story can make even the most mundane subject come alive.

    As for the Powerpoint stuff, I need to take some advice from that. Too often we get bogged down trying to get so much information onto our slides that we lose our students. This was a really good reminder for me.

    As always, I enjoyed your thoughful, comprehensive post.