In 2015, the construction crew renovating an Oklahoma high school uncovered an unusual time capsule. Beneath newer wall coverings, the workers discovered slate blackboards marked with schoolwork and colorful chalk drawings from 1917. Multiplication problems appeared beside a treble staff denoting an A-major scale. A spelling list, written in cursive, included the words “whoa” and “notion.” Drawings of Thanksgiving turkeys and a girl blowing bubbles adorned the spaces between the lessons.
I never considered the chalkboard’s prominence in my education until I visited my old school in 2015. It shouldn’t have surprised me to find a whiteboard where the chalkboard had been, but the change was startling. No matter how young, most parents today still conjure the image of a chalkboard when they imagine a K-12 classroom. In popular culture, chalkboards are a visual shorthand for school. They appear in stock photography accompanying articles about education and inmovies and television shows set in schools.
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In the early 1800s, slate blackboards represented change. For centuries, students had used handheld tablets of wood or slate. Teachers moved about their classrooms, writing instructions and inspecting students’ work on individual slates. When the Scottish educational reformer James Pillans became the rector of Edinburgh High School, in 1810, his use of a blackboard was revolutionary. He explains in an 1856 memoir, Contributions to the Cause of Education:
I placed before my pupils, instead of a crowded and perplexing map, a large black board, having an unpolished non-reflecting surface, on which was inscribed in bold relief a delineation of the country, with its mountains, rivers, lakes, cities, and towns of note. The delineation was executed with chalks of different colours.
Widely recognized as the inventor of the blackboard, Pillans doesn’t specify how he constructed the apparatus. Popular lore, as recounted in Lewis Buzbee’sBlackboard: A Personal History of the Classroom, holds that he connected several handheld slates to form a single large surface. Pillans used his innovation to teach Greek as well as geography, noting, “The very novelty of all looking on one board, instead of each on his own book, had its effect in sustaining attention.”
The teacher, after making a single mark on the board, thus inquires,
How many marks have I made?
Adding another mark,
How many marks have I made?
Slate blackboard manufacturing began in the U.S. by the 1840s, and rail travel soon made it possible to ship blackboards across the country. In a single year during the 1890s, 11 factories near Slatington, Pennsylvania, produced nearly a million square feet of slate blackboard, according to mineral industry statisticspublished in 1898.
Green chalkboards first appeared in the 1960s. Generally made of porcelain enamel with a steel base, these chalkboards are lighter and more durable than slate, and thus easier to ship. They were ubiquitous in American classrooms for three decades, until whiteboards began to replace them.
Whiteboards had been available for decades before educators embraced them. In the 1960s, catalogs for hardware retailers advertised the wet-erase Plasti-Slate, an “always-fresh writing board for home or office.” The corporate world got on board when dry erase markers became available in the 1970s.
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Enthusiastic adopters appreciated the whiteboard’s smooth surface and the contrast between dark-colored markers and white background. They said good riddance to dust on their clothes and the squeaky sound of chalk against chalkboard. Other educators held onto their chalk. My mother, who became a teacher in 1971, was a chalkboard devotee. When the middle school where she taught was renovated in 2001, teachers were asked to choose between chalkboards and whiteboards. My mom opted for a chalkboard and used it until she retired in 2012, at which point the district installed a whiteboard.
For teachers like my mother, the chalkboard’s appeal is largely aesthetic. My mom found chalkboards easier to clean and considered their green color more calming than white. (This perceived calming benefit is among the reasonschalkboards remain popular in Japan, where they are still present in 75 percent of K-12 classrooms.) Likewise, my mother enjoyed the feel of the chalk in her hand and liked how her handwriting looked on the chalkboard.
The link between whiteboards and digital culture helped many U.S. schools adopt smartboards. By 2014, 60 percent of K-12 classrooms had interactive whiteboards, a figure that’s expected to increase to 73 percent by 2019. Interactive whiteboards, or IWBs, are a topic of debate in education journals andamong teachers. Proponents cite their potential to engage tech-savvy kids, encourage class-wide participation via remote clickers, and expand access to lesson materials. For example, my daughter’s fourth-grade teacher delivered a geography lesson that would have astounded James Pillans. Projecting a Google Map of the state of Washington onto the whiteboard, he zoomed in on various regions and alternated between map and satellite views. He used Street View to conduct virtual tours of points of interest, like the State Capitol, in Olympia, and the University of Washington campus.
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Used to their potential, interactive whiteboards are not so much display surfaces as portals to a vast array of information. In the internet era, information proliferates more rapidly than we can access it. Knowledge feels vast and messy, something to be explored and revised; computer-powered whiteboards become students’ connection to the scrappy, idea-driven world of technology. As Ken Robinson puts it in his TED talk on creativity in schools, education is “meant to take us into this future that we can’t grasp.”
Exciting as that may be, perhaps it also makes us uneasy. IWBs are unlikely to replace chalkboards or whiteboards as symbols any time soon, because chalkboards still remind us of a time when it was possible to believe that everything a child needed to know was containable on a flat surface. They represent a view of knowledge as finite, something to be transmitted and received. They’ve even lent a name, “chalk and talk,” to the traditional teaching style derived from this view of knowledge.
My daughter hopes to become a teacher. The very idea makes me imagine her at the front of a classroom writing on a chalkboard, but of course this is fantasy. Teachers of the future are perhaps likelier to use robots than chalkboards. (Some worry that teachers will be replaced by robots, though scientists assure us this will not happen.) Wall-mounted display boards will be unnecessary for teachers who use technology to interact with students remotely. Creators of such technology understand the power of the past to reassure us about the future. A leading vendor in the e-learning market reveals as much in its name: Blackboard.