4 weeks ago

Style Over Substance

Remember the first time you used PowerPoint? Being able to take some written content and magically have it include images (likely clipart), have it spin around and transition to the next slide with glitter or swivel? Admit it. The very first time you thought it was pretty cool. You may have even had your class do a report with the tool and had kids stand up in the front of the class as their presentation was displayed on a projector screen. I will timidly raise my hand and admit I did it. There was a moment when I thought these presentations by my students represented quality work. However, soon after the shininess of the tool wore off, it was clear that their actual work wasn’t any different. Adding an animated flag of Canada to a slide telling me its population was 37 million didn’t represent anything more than a student’s ability to copy and paste and insert. What surprised me was how long this facade of quality work lasted. Many teachers, years later still had students creating presentations that underscored a lack of depth and creativity but were disguised, and by this time, not so cleverly with copyrighted images and wordart.

Style over substance is not a new issue for education or society at large. Think about what video did to music. It killed the radio star. I remember reading about Christopher Cross who by all accounts is a rather plain-looking, overweight artist and his fame took a dive since he wasn’t able to present himself in a way that appealed to a now visually-oriented audience. I remember as a teenager in the late 70s finally seeing a picture of my favourite bands and artists and often being surprised by how they looked. In reality, their looks and image was inconsequential. Today, we live in a world where style and substance are almost always linked for better or worse.

I’ve been doing a lot more writing for my job of late. Specifically completing two white papers. Both are work I’m proud of. In one instance, I co-wrote one paper and produced a 20-page document. Co-writing is tough work, trying to sync up two voices and styles is not easy. I credit my writing partner for handling this with greatness. The whole document was built and shared in a Google doc. The other paper was structured a little differently. I worked with principals in the Metro Vancouver area for about 6 months and ended up leading a smaller subset in focusing on 4 specific recommendations for post-pandemic considerations for high schools. I wrote the introduction, collated the subcommittee work and published it. You can read it here.

A quick glance at this paper and you can see it contains some images and graphs as well as some other formatting that makes it quite readable and user friendly. I have had a lot of great feedback about this work and as I mentioned am quite proud of it for a number of reasons, most notably that the ideas in here are sound, useful and represent some outstanding collaboration among thoughtful educators.

The contrast between the two papers is most striking in their presentation. It’s made me think about some of the things we consider excellent work and perhaps lack a discernment to decide if indeed it’s worthy of our praise. Info graphics are a great example. Take any idea and turn it into an info graphic and suddenly it is better. Take a quote and put in behind a nice background and suddenly it’s insightful. Here a couple of my favourite examples:

I like to play with this idea and have started the hashtag #deanquotes to share mundane things I hear and create an image quote.

Another example is this info graphic I made in a recent post:

This was one of my most widely shared posts of late. I think there are some interesting questions I explored by this simple graphic also played a big role in its viewership. Had I wrote out the same idea like this:

“The benefits of online learning include: flexibility, access to experts, diverse community, affordability and efficiency” I doubt it would have resonated as much.

I suppose I’m not arguing for or against anything but want to create more pondering and awareness. The fact is that style and substance need to work together. Daniel Pink talks about buying a toilet brush and how we choose to buy a toilet brush that is beautifully designed when ultimately its purpose and function don’t change. But why not buy a nice-looking one?

I take great pride in my presentations. I look for great images and media, I spend time choosing fonts and just making my slides visually appealing and in turn, more useful. But a great looking slide deck still requires a thoughtful and challenging narrative to be effective. That said, I want my work to be able to stand alone if need be. In the same way you can tell a great musician if they take away the band and just have a guitar or piano, do you still recognize their talents and quality of their songs? That’s what I want. I know that often I look at some work in education and feel it lacks substance and uses style to hide its lack of depth. That’s what I’m desperately trying to avoid. I think I’ve been fooled on occasion and don’t want to be guilty of trying to fool others.

Let’s continue to share our work in ways that incorporate good design that is beautiful, elegant but most importantly rich in ideas. Don’t choose style over substance but blend them together in ways that impact yourself and others.