I love chalk boards. I never have to worry about whether the lines are dark enough or if any given piece of chalk will be dried out. Chalk just works. Unfortunately, whiteboards replaced chalkboards in most classrooms long ago and all too often smart boards are replacing whiteboards. I don’t think the old school chalk and white boards get enough credit. So, here are four ways I think old-fashioned boards are still really useful for teaching and learning.
1) Documenting student ideas. When we ask better questions we should expect students to provide multiple answers. Yet, keeping track of the diversity of student answers requires a lot of mental effort. I try to offload some of this mental effort by writing the students’ thinking on the board. When I do write the ideas on the board, I try really hard to write exactly what they say. Some students are long-winded, so I sometimes ask, “How can we simplify what you said to write it on the board?” I’d argue that this act of having to simplify their own thinking is a useful process all by itself, but it also saves me a lot of writing! I also try really hard to write all of the students’ ideas – even if they are not accurate. When we are brainstorming, I am simply documenting ideas and I can come back to the ideas later so don’t have to address misconceptions immediately. This gives me some time to think about how to help students move away from their misconceptions.
2) Comparing ideas. Once we have the student ideas documented, I can draw attention to two (or more) ideas and ask them to compare. For example, I might ask, “How are this idea (point) and this idea (point) different?” This might be when I help students become dissatisfied with certain ideas as well. While we don’t want to reject students’ ideas, we don’t want them to walk around thinking their misconceptions are correct. However, if I ask students to rethink an idea 5 after we’ve generated a 10-idea list, most of the students have forgotten who said what so we can discuss the idea divorced from the person who held the idea.
3) Drawing pictures. I am not a talented artist, but I am a careful drawer of diagrams. I’ve honed this craft over may years of trying to convey accurate thinking through pictures. While I could simply show students a pre-made diagram from a text book, I believe their is value in drawing the picture with them. When we watch someone draw, we get insight into their thinking and we can use the process as a teaching moment. For example, after drawing a certain feature I might ask the class, “Why do you think I drew that part the way I did?”
4) Modeling problem-solving. Similar to drawing pictures to demonstrate thinking, I think the board can be used to model problem-solving in a purposefully less efficient way. Rather than having a worked example ready to go, I might ask the students to propose a situation related to some content we just learned (e.g. A new situation in which to draw force diagrams or a new set of numbers to try a mathematical approach). In these situations I might ask the students to tackle the new situation/problem on their own or in groups first, but when we come together as a whole class, the board is a useful tool. I might draw the situation/problem and then ask the students what I should do next. The board becomes our common vantage point, but I have to encourage students to think about what we are doing. Rather than simply working the problem or completing the scenario, I ask them what to do next or why what we did seemed to work.
Clearly, we don’t often think of the board as cutting-edge educational technology. However, because boards are so versatile we can use them to react to changing conditions in the classroom in some ways better than digital technologies. However, just like all technologies, boards have pros and cons and how we use them matters.