Essay on the teaching value of chalkboards

That Old Chalkboard Mojo
April 1, 2013

Teaching with PowerPoint has been an exercise in frustration for me. I find that my course preparation takes twice as long as it should, and the results are more often than not unsatisfying. It also makes me feel muffled and absent from the classroom. Maybe this is a function of my poor PowerPoint form, of being a latecomer to a technology that younger faculty use with more ease and panache. In a way, it’s not surprising that I would struggle with it. Although I’m young and pretty tech-savvy at 43, I can’t associate PowerPoint with my lived experiences as a learner. I spent my whole life as a student, from kindergarten through graduate school, plucking words out of the air to put them in my notebook, or following along as my teachers scribbled on the blackboard. The most technology-forward moments involved the occasional projection of transparencies in science classes.

Last semester I decided to conduct an experiment. For years, even before becoming a PowerPoint user, my chalkboard form had suffered from a lack of discipline and focus. What if I really rededicated myself to it? I decided to make writing on the chalkboard my primary method and PowerPoint my secondary tool. The outcome of the exercise was fantastic. I felt like I was waking up from being half-asleep as a teacher.

One of the things I liked the most about the experience was how using the chalkboard freed me to be more responsive to the needs of my students. Although I always came to class with an outline of notes to write on the board, I knew that it was changeable and schematic, subject to revision by student comments and questions. If you compared my paper notes with what actually went on the chalkboard you’d discover all kinds of emendations and additions. The chalkboard encouraged me to be more attentive to classroom conversations, to be more confident about changing my script.

Using the chalkboard also encouraged me to package or process information for my students in more versatile ways. I could come to class and write bullet points on the board as a starting point, then while interacting with my students, proceed to annotate with symbols (asterisks, arrows, underlining). If they still didn’t get it, I could erase and diagram, or erase and do a flow chart. The chalkboard is dynamic, changeable, sensitive, immediate, and completely in the classroom moment. It models note taking and underlines the value of trial and error thinking and brainstorming, skills that are vital to analytical thinking.

I also appreciated the chalkboard because it is an embodied kind of learning. It synchs the bodies of the students to the movement of the body of the instructor. The fact that there is no PowerPoint file to download or pass out, and that the eraser is eventually coming around, means that the class gets in a rhythm of following the movements of the instructor. There is a ritual of collective focus and activity. The instructor has to be much more physically present because writing on the chalkboard requires choreography, gesture and tempo. This is of practical value but there’s also something deeper. In an existence increasingly defined by the virtual, it is important to reassert physical presence.

At the end of class, I sometimes looked at the board before erasing it. So this is what had happened in class in the last hour! I could see the vague outlines of my original plan overlaid with symbols of emphasis and additions that had emerged through classroom conversations. Here it was: the exciting record of a collaborative enterprise between teacher and students. The board recorded an event that could never be repeated in precisely the same way, even if I used the same notes to try to do so.

All of this may seem ridiculous if you teach in a pedagogical ecosystem where chalkboards are still prominent. On my campus, it seems like everyone uses PowerPoint. The situation is so pervasive that once I noticed that student pens only went up when the PowerPoint was projected on screen. If I wrote a series of items on the board, not very many students wrote them down. In their minds, PowerPoint was the chalkboard and the chalkboard was just a piece of furniture. All my colleagues, in talking about course preparation, use the word PowerPoint: I was up late preparing my PowerPoints … I left my PowerPoint at home … I couldn’t finish my PowerPoint today in class.

In my circles you can’t use the word "blackboard" as a synonym for chalkboard because everyone will assume you’re referring to our learning management system. This last detail is probably the most symbolically telling: in spite of hundreds of years of use, and its iconic stature as a symbol of the classroom, the word "blackboard" has been hollowed out by a corporation.

The problem with educational technology when it becomes institutionalized and naturalized is that it easily becomes a crutch rather than an instrument to enhance community and interaction between human being. What is brilliant about José Bowen’s well known "Teaching Naked" concept is that it affirms technology as a tool for enhancing a humanistic classroom interaction. Interest in PechaKucha and Prezi, screen projection formats and templates that discard the stale formulas of conventional PowerPoint, underscores that instructors and presenters everywhere recognize that we need to allow for creativity and responsiveness in our use of educational technology. We are at our best as teachers when we question the tools we are given and reinvent them. This happens everyday in thousands of classrooms when innovative teachers bend PowerPoint to their will, instead of the opposite. The real software behind any instructional technology is the instructor; don’t underestimate her ability to elevate a rudimentary tool or ruin a promising and sophisticate one.

I’m not arguing against PowerPoint tout court. Heck, I plan on continuing to use it as one tool among others. I am just suggesting that the old chalkboard still has something to teach us. If you haven’t tried it recently, you should. It’s the latest thing and you don’t have to plug it into an outlet or find a network to use it.


Christopher Conway is associate professor of modern languages at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he teaches courses in modern Latin American literature and culture.



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