There's No Erasing the Chalkboard

Blackboards will endure as symbols of learning long after they’ve disappeared from schools. An Object Lesson.

John David Mercer / AP

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.

Reports of the discovery spotlighted the chalk, acknowledging the blackboards merely as surfaces for the drawings. But slate blackboards, and the green chalkboards that replaced them, are themselves relics of a bygone era. Even small schools in rural communities, like the elementary school I attended in Nebraska in the 1980s, have exchanged chalkboards for whiteboards and interactive Smart Boards.

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 in movies and television shows set in schools.

By the end of the 1990s, whiteboards outsold chalkboards by a margin of up to four to one. Even digital whiteboards—computerized display boards with interactive features—outsold chalkboards by the turn of the millennium. Since then, chalkboards have all but disappeared from schools. Why, then, do they remain such potent symbols for education? Perhaps it’s because of what they represent: the idea of stable knowledge in a rapidly changing digital age.

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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’s Blackboard: 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.”

By the mid-19th century, blackboards were in common use. As is the case for all technology, they came with a learning curve. Manuals like Josiah Bumstead’s The Black Board in the Primary School (1841) and William Alcott’s Slate and Black Board Exercises (1842) helped teachers adopt blackboards as instructional tools. The manuals offered lessons like this one, from Bumstead:

            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 statistics published 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.

But whiteboards didn’t start appearing in schools until the 1990s. The reason for their adoption? Computers. Late-century articles heralding the advent of the classroom whiteboard all cited the effect of chalk dust on computers as the impetus for eliminating chalkboards. Chalk dust was a rising concern as the average number of computers in public schools increased from a ratio of one computer for every 30 students in 1988 to one for every five in 1999. By that year, chalkboards were scarce enough that the Chicago Tribune interviewed fifth graders who had never seen one in real life.

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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 reasons chalkboards 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.

Of course, handwriting itself is disappearing from school curriculums, made less relevant by the same digital technologies that have rendered the chalkboard obsolete. As author Anne Trubek observes in The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, handwriting is increasingly valued more as an art than a practical skill. Brides hire calligraphers to address their wedding invitations, graphic designers study lettering books, and restaurants display hand-lettered menus—typically written on chalkboards. These days, most chalkboards are sold to restaurants, not to schools.

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 and among 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.

But critics question the academic benefit of such features over the tried-and-true functionality of chalkboards. At a cost of up to $5,000 per classroom, schools invest far more in installing interactive whiteboards than in training teachers to use them. Detractors regard IWBs as glorified chalkboards that at best replicate teacher-centric instruction and at worst idle in sleep mode most of the day. Indeed, the new building where my son attends middle school does not have interactive whiteboards because in the old building teachers were not using them.

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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.

This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.