Misunderstanding Chicago

The teachers I work with – the veterans, anyway – measure their careers as the pendulum swings. They’ve seen us swing between whole language and phonics, standardized assessment and teacher autonomy, constructivism and direct instruction, enough times to just bunker down and wait out the uncomfortable stretches.

Me, I haven’t seen much, but I’ve got my eye on a new pendulum. At this end you have districts struggling to implement system-wide e-mail, districts still taking attendance on paper, still finding novelty in PowerPoint.

A lot of edubloggers are struggling mightily to push that pendulum across this dizzying chasm. They’re pushing us toward connectivity, global communication, and tech integration. They’re a determined bunch and I have little doubt they’ll get us there. At a certain point, though, many years from now, they’ll realize that their returns are diminishing. Like widgets to a blog, they’ll keep adding internet apps to their projects and tech elements to their rubrics but student confusion will increase and satisfaction will decrease in spite of their best efforts.

The question for 2007 is, “can I integrate more technology into my lesson?” The question for 2057 will be, “can I integrate less?” Bank on it. Options will be unlimited. It’ll be on us to make the cuts, painful cuts for some.

Which brings us to last week’s discussion of the Chicago Graduate School of Business and how so many people have misunderstood CGSB, in particular, and instructional design, in general.

Summarized, CGSB has asked future applicants to include a four-slide PowerPoint presentation but they needn’t bother including a) embedded hyperlinks, b) video, c) audio, or d) animated GIFs, among other multimedia elements, because CGSB is printing the slides to paper.

The implications of that one paragraph have cut our happy home to pieces.

I’ve called it ingenious and I’ll stick with that.

Others think it’s an example of good intentions (a school looking to include new media in its admissions process) undermined by an attachment to old media (printing the slides out on paper). Teachers on that side of the gym would rather see a four-slide PowerPoint presentation include (presumably) video clips, a podcast introduction, slide transitions, etc.

Do you want to review all those applications?

I don’t think my opponents appreciate just how rough it would be for a magnet business school to accept broad, multimedia-heavy presentations from thousands of applicants. How does one even cap that? Five minutes of video and five minutes of audio per applicant? Ten minutes total? Two minutes total? For the sake of the admission panelists’ home lives, constraints are gonna rain down somewhere.

This particular constraint – that the slides function exactly as well on paper as they do digitally happens to be the smartest the panel could’ve imposed. It’s so smart, in fact, I can’t help suspecting it was completely accidental. A few reasons why:

The Theory

It is much harder to include less than include more. In design, we want to encourage “less.” We want to discourage “more.”

  • Screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy, The Princess Bride, pretty much every Stephen King adaptation since Shawshank) calls it “killing your darlings.” The process of cutting scenes he loves but which don’t pull enough weight to justify their screen-minutes is that painful.
  • The question plagues me throughout even my best lessons: could we learn this much and have this much fun in less time?
  • Ever had to explain the punchline of a joke? How much does the joke suffer for having told it twice?
  • Advice I’ll give my kid (in chronological order):
    1. when mommy’s eyebrows arch like that, do whatever she says;
    2. if you can tell someone the same thing in fewer words, do it;
    3. don’t touch the stove when it’s hot.
  • “I would’ve written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have time.” [often credited to Twain]
  • “Brevity is the soul of wit.” [Shakespeare]

If we want to assess a difficult task, we want to assess one’s ability to include less.

It takes talent to include less. I know ’cause, sincerely, I don’t have it. I’m not sure who does. Ten out of every ten presentations I’ve attended and lessons I’ve observed I can spot

  • slides the presenter should’ve cut,
  • better ways to design the slides that stay,
  • slow transitions that should be tightened,
  • general verbal tics (um’s & ah’s) that everyone should work on,
  • specific verbal tics the presenter should work on (“… so what we see here is [long pause while the presenter tries to catch up to her own point]”)

Check this out. Most people are red. Some people are yellow. I’ve never watched a green presentation. Ever. (And I’ve seen Kawasaki in person.)

Most people get boring-er as their talk winds on.Nowhere is this more apparent than in your average long-form blog post. Believe me. As of this footnote I’ve gone through this post three times, cutting and compressing, all the way from paragraphs down to word combinations, and if it underwent any fewer than four more drafts I’ll be astonished. Some people can keep their quality at the same level the whole way through, but even that is unacceptable, the carny equivalent of watching the same awesome magic trick over and over again. Returns inevitably diminish.

Less is preferable to more in every case except for those who can perform increasingly amazing magic tricks.

My opponents encourage more words, more minutes, and more pixels.

If they opened up their assignment, if they allowed multimedia PowerPoint slides with embedded audio and video, CGSB would create a warm damp environment for bacterial design. People would ramble throughout their video introductions, stumble through their podcasts, and shoot their slides full of bullets, never once wondering “could I do this with less?” because no one had required that kind of reflection.

Even assuming the applicant had the skill and equipment to a) script and record the audio, b) edit the video, and c) design the PowerPoint template, there are more reasons to distrust the open-ended multimedia project.

I think I can illustrate it. Let’s assume a four-slide set (designed in Keynote ’cause I know the score):

… in which I introduce myself.

… in which I embed a hyperlink to my blog.

… in which I deliver a video introduction covering several significant events in my life.

… in which I play back a classroom discussion.

First, can you imagine assessing thousands of these?

Even assuming the applicant created multimedia content worth consuming, unless she has seriously sweated the themes of her content and where they overlap – if, for example, “good planning” cropped up as a selling point in both the video and the audio – we’re still trafficking in wasteful design.

An open multimedia project is a hedged bet. It almost guarantees you’ll say the same thing poorly several times across different mediums.

The point here is that constraints, for lack of a better word, are good. In design, requiring fewer materials almost always improves matters.

CGSB makes fewer words, fewer minutes, and fewer pixels a requirement.

After slogging through my opponents’ open-ended multimedia barn party, feeling keenly aware at all times that I was wasting pixels, minutes, and words, CGSB makes me feel comfy and warm.

Especially for a business school, which, according to its press release, values brevity, concise communication, and two-minute elevator pitches, locking this thing down to four slides seems obvious.

But restricting those slides to their visual snapshots (whether we find those snapshots on four pieces of paper, four digital jpegs, or four 8×10 glossy photos doesn’t matter) is downright inspired and, were that requirement adopted by other universities, could kill bad design while its designers are young.

Under these constraints, CGSB has forced me to consider the question, “what is essential?” and then its corollary “can I say it with less?”

CGSB has forced me to reckon myself, to determine my essential attributes and sell them quickly. Particularly for a business school, such a perfect marriage of form and function indicates either Mensa-level intelligence or luck I’d like to take to the track.

I’m smart but so are my competitors. I work hard which plenty can also claim. I like to work hard which fewer can claim. I’m a meticulous planner – probably want to pump that somewhere. I’m kind of creative. I’m kind of funny. It’d be awesome if I could get all that in four slides and spin a joke on its surface.

To paint this portrait of a Meticulously Cheerful Creative Worker, I’m going to highlight several accomplishments in extremely brief detail. This surface-level detail will a) look prettier than if I talked about each of them in an embedded video, and b) make the admissions panel want to meet me.

These accomplishments have been carefully chosen. There is no time or screen real estate to waste.

In just four slides and several dozen words I’ve hit everything my sprawling multimedia wonderland did and I left the admissions panel wondering, what the hell else has this guy done?A: Very little.

Each of those slides earns its keep. Sure, they overlap across the image of a workaholic overachiever but each adds something unique. The world record required planning, graduating quickly required hard work, and that lesson required creativity in abundance.

I thought a family photo album would be a fun theme to run through the project. I thought it was kind of a fun joke – this toddler breaking records, graduating university, etc. – but your mileage may vary.That ain’t me, incidentally. If I ever meet the Orgell Family of Flickr St., Internetville, I owe ’em all a beer. That kid, too, if he’s of age.

The content and length of this post are becoming enemies, so I’m gonna wrap it up.

Isn’t it cool how the tech-lite version of the project required intense thought and communication while the open-ended multimedia melée required intense technical skill. Any guesses which CGSB values most in a candidate?

In the comments back when, Scott McLeod likened the four-visual-slides-only constraint to forcing a Ferrari to drive the Autobahn at Amish buggy speeds. It’s a fair analogy, except that constraint doesn’t benefit either the Ferrari or the Autobahn.

The constraint CGSB has imposed benefits everyone. It’s easier for them to assess, easier for the applicant to satisfy, it’s more closely aligned to their values, and if that sum isn’t sufficient, it makes good design a requirement of admission at a cherry college. I’m not sure I can calculate the long-term effect there.

So here again, mountains of tech are available and we will avail ourselves of even more. But even though Microsoft allows you to embed video and hyperlinks, you are also free to reject themSerious, what Microsoft doesn’t know about design could choke a goat..

In an e-mail to Scott McLeod, it seems CGSB would like to accept multimedia presentations but lacks the digital infrastructure. This alone a) makes Michael McVey’s original charges of Ludditism seem rash and b) confirms my suspicion that this has all been a lucky accident.

It’s unfortunate. Soon they’ll encourage more tech and consequently promote waste rather than demanding less and making strong design a condition of admission. Whether or not I’ve convinced anyone of CGSB’s incidental wisdom here, you and I both lose.

In a few years the pendulum will reach the end of its swing (hastened there by CGSB’s future policy revision) and begin its path back towards restrained tech use and greater emphasis on the teacher as classroom leader. The current whipping boy of low tech integration will abdicate his post to excessive tech integration. The tech frenzy will subside and people will wonder, how much tech is just enough. CGSB has found that happy place, though just for a moment.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Dan, Dan, you must have hit your head harder than you thought; you’re getting long-winded; you’re not really trying! How’s this?

    post title: “Revisiting Chicago”
    Opening sentence: “First, read last week’s discussion of the Chicago Graduate School of Business” (include link, duh);

    Cut EVERYTHING prior to “I think I can illustrate it” and edit that to “Let me illustrate. Which of the following two 4-slide sets does MORE with LESS? Discuss.”

    Keep the first paragraph that follows each set of slides. Cut everything else. Oh, keep footnote #3. Give credit where it’s due.


    Keep writing, Dan. I guess I’m about twice your age, and not so quick off the starting blocks as I was: it’ll probably take me a decade or two just to pick up the video/slide-making skills you’ve picked up in (it seems) a few short months. But by then I’ll (hopefully) be retired so I’ll have plenty of time to re-read your posts.

  2. dan –

    such a long post on the topic of the importance of brevity…well thought out though!

    TANGENT: in 2057 there is little doubt in my mind that the classroom teacher as designer of curriculum will no longer exist. i suspect you and i and our generation of teachers will see the changes sooner rather than later. curriculum will be delivered online, created by true experts in their field. the person who sees the students every day will help them work through their projects & assignments, more of a mentor / learning coach than a creator of learning content.

    that pendulum you were talking about – it’s going to break in a big way.


  3. Dan – this is great. (long, but great) I am running a Digital Storytelling unit with high schoolers this fall and this post will be on the reading list. You captured the finer points of storytelling in an amusing way. cheers!

  4. Not having been in a classroom since leaving college…

    Do all teachers have computers on their desks these days?

    Do students do a lot of stuff with PowerPoint?

    What sort of access do students have to computers?

    My kid starts kindergarten in a couple of weeks, and I have no clue what his experience will be like.

  5. The one criticism I could volley, you already cut off at the pass: “The content and length of this post are becoming enemies, so I’m gonna wrap it up.”

    This is fantastic.

  6. I found your blog because you commented on mine… Great post and a compelling and refreshing argument. I look forward to continued reading of your blog

  7. Ah, the much-needed / desire back story about your interest in effective design / presentations.

    I am typing this @ school, look at a handout entitled, “Presentation Template / PowerPoint Guidelines”.

    Not mine, another teacher’s.


  8. Heh, just came across this, an old favorite of mine, while doing a google search for things to do with my kid over the break, keywords: “chicago free toddler winter break”.

    Google’s search algorithm really is a mysterious beast, isn’t it?