February 25, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Presto, by hand!

By |2019-10-29T17:24:33+01:00October 26th, 2019|"Psych Dept."|
Above and below: Notes and assorted doodles from the author's notebook when she was a student at Rome's La Sapienza university, just a little before smart pads and phones.

ome 15 years ago, I was in a faculty meeting in which colleagues were discussing whether it was strictly necessary to call for a thesis as a final project in a particular major. Someone suggested students be required to give a Power-Point lecture instead.

Why Power-Point? I asked myself.

Why not just an old-school lecture, or why not let the students distribute handouts? For that matter, why not a blackboard and chalk? Why does a lecture necessarily have to be linked to a Microsoft software program? Just because it’s possible doesn’t make it essential. Sure, graphs are useful in economics, just as pictures and images help with archaeology, biology, and art history. Maps may be needed in political science or history. But surely not all lectures depend on visual aides.

When I was a student, slides were used in some lectures, with the overhead projector making the teacher’s eyebrows quite dramatic. That I mostly remember the eyebrows and the shadows should tell you how notoriously boring most of those lectures were.

I admit I’m something of a Luddite when it comes to the ways and means of education. I see teaching as primarily a relationship between teacher and student, and the more machines in the way, the less I like it. It’s the same at a conference. Why listen to someone drone on while reading from their computer screen when I can read what they have to say a lot faster and then be on my way — probably to something considerably more interesting? And if the Power-Point presentation doesn’t match the speaker’s text, or uses an outline, I’m quickly confused.

It’s strange, at least to me, that discussion on education is increasingly focused on how to get newer and better technology in the classroom. There are now “dynamic blackboards” that can transmit information directly to a student’s device.

There are now “dynamic blackboards” that can transmit information directly to a student’s device.

At the same time, most of my colleagues still forbid the use of laptops or mobile phones in their classrooms.

I admittedly come from another generation. I first used a computer when I was already in my late 40s. Yet even I can see that for some students taking notes on a keyboard is faster and more convenient — though I’ll always prefer my own handwriting for its gestures, arrows, and emphases.

I know some students are probably busy on social media or sending texts to friends. So? If I’m not engaging them enough to get them to listen, the problem is mine to resolve. But is disattention really new? Which of us from the pre-electronic era didn’t at one time or another put a book inside their notebook to provide relief from a tedious class? Who never wrote letters or doodled? I certainly did. Why should we, the teachers, forbid computers when we impose Power-Point on our students?

The invention of the portable computer and then the smartphone, like the creation of writing itself, has the potential to revolutionize education. Not because of fancy learning programs. I still agree with Socrates that learning is a result of relationships.

But now, for the first time ever, facts, information, and data can be fished out of your pocket. Want to know how much DNA we share with other humans? Look it up. (It’s 99 percent, by the way, which has its own set of interesting implications). Want to know the date of the Declaration of Independence, the author of “War and Peace,” or the capitals of all the countries in the world? You can look it up right there and then.

But here’s the catch. Learning how the Declaration of Independence came about, how its key points were formulated, and how the public reacted is far more interesting than knowing the exact date on which it was signed. This kind of knowledge is a matter of understanding, not mere fact gathering.

This is a great educational opportunity because we no longer have to make students spend hours memorizing facts. We teachers can now use that time to explain facts, context, and implications. We can help students understand how these facts affect each other. We can help students learn to discriminate between reliable and unreliable sources of information. Only by teaching in this way can we hope to hone our students’ critical faculties.

I was late to the digital age and still use an analogue clock. I have a smartphone with a touchscreen but still prefer its T9 keypad. My fingers rebel against the touch keyboard. But I’m very grateful this new technology has simplified my access to information. It gives me more time to understand the knowledge I get.

But no matter how much easier certain aspects of my life may be, I still stick to my key point that teaching is a relationship. It goes nowhere without the bond between the person imparting knowledge and the listeners. And it is for that reason that I always think twice before placing a digital filler between me and my students.

About the Author:

Elaine Luti has been a psychotherapist in private practice for more than 30 years. She has taught psychology at various universities in Italy. Her interests include calligraphy, cooking, singing, and reading. She has grown children (and grandchildren) and lives with her husband in Rome.