I don't think you can appreciate the glory of life unless you can also know the dark side of life.
- Bessel Van Der Kolk
If it was never dark, we would have no way of understanding what light was. If we had never experienced suffering or sadness, it would be hard to comprehend what joy and happiness feel like. If we had never been sick, we would take times of good health completely for granted. In order for something to be truly and deeply understood and appreciated by humans, we also need to experience its opposite.
The negative aspects of things can be our best teachers, even if they are painful or difficult to go through. While they are not always enjoyable, these experiences often contain lessons that we might not learn as quickly or deeply another way, and the education we receive by going through the difficulties can often be much more powerful than the learning we might otherwise glean from more positive, "easy" experiences. It sucks, but it's true. Sometimes, when we are sitting in the middle of something painful, it is difficult to see how it will benefit us in the longer term, but looking back later, we can understand how the difficulties have made us smarter, stronger, kinder, and more resilient. Working through challenges can help us develop a sense of gratitude for the many wonderful things in our lives.
All of the above are ideas I have been processing and pondering as part of the path my life has been leading me on lately. I wondered if there were any lessons that I could take out of what I was learning in this part of my personal journey that could be applied in my classroom. I decided to try to put these concepts to use to help improve upon one of the more painful things I have had to experience as an educator: really bad presentations.
I am being somewhat facetious, and am not trying to minimize terrible life experiences by saying that what we feel while enduring a presentation with bad Slides or PowerPoints is on par with the pain we feel when going through something traumatic (although... I suppose it may depend who you ask! LOL). Nevertheless, I have heard people share feelings that mirror what I have heard others describe in terms of physical pain when they are anticipating, or have had to sit through, a presentation that is truly horrible. I wanted to do my part to help improve my students' abilities in this area to prevent grievous potential injury to their future audience members, so I came up with an idea that I thought would help.
I recently went through part of a free e-course called "Designing Presentations" on the outstanding KQED Teach website. This course does a great job of leading educators through some modules that help with learning good presentation design. I was inspired by ideas from a resource shared in these modules and modified them to share with my students. I have embedded the slides I adapted/created below. You can also access them here if you would like to make a copy.
Rather than show my students a good example of a presentation slide deck, I gave them exposure to one of the worst ones I could create - a total FAIL - with tips as to what was wrong and how to avoid the mistakes. It was tempting to then give them an assignment to create a really visually appealing slide deck of their own as a way of showing what they had learned, however, I decided to continue to let pain be the best teacher and challenged them instead to create a Google Slides presentation that was even worse than the one I had shown them.
I had no idea how much the students would love this exercise in failure and suffering! In some ways, it was "exciting" for them to feel like they were breaking the rules, and they were truly delighted by the pained sounds of their classmates groaning, cringing as they shielded their eyes from the horrible designs, colour combinations, and font choices that were shared. Pain and joy did not have to be separate. I dare say that the learning they got out of having to explain their appalling choices (and what made their decisions to incorporate them into their slides truly terrible) was exponentially more powerful than if they had simply created a "nice" presentation deck and called it a day. The value of the lesson actually INCREASED because we were actively making mistakes. Pain and failure for the learning win!
I really enjoy reading the work of Thich Nhat Hanh. In his book, "No Mud, No Lotus", he discusses how perspective can be powerful, and suffering and happiness are not separate. He says, "People often ask, 'Why do I have to suffer?' Thinking we should be able to have a life without any suffering is as deluded as thinking we should be able to have a left side without a right side. The same is true of thinking we have a life in which no happiness whatsoever is to be found... If there's no right, then there's no left. Where there is no suffering, there can be no happiness either, and vice versa." It doesn't have to be either/or. Pain and joy can exist at the same time.
None of us are able to get through life without experiencing pain, making mistakes, and suffering. But by using these principles in the classroom to teach our students about better slide design, maybe.... just maybe... we can at least spare them the pain of sitting through any more bad presentations in the future!
Jay Shetty is quickly becoming one of my favourite media personalities online. If you still need more convincing about how failure and pain can become amazing catalysts for change, take a few minutes to watch the great video below. It's worth your time!