Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Technology in the classroom....the Blackboard

A subject dear to my heart--using technology in the classroom to help children and adults learn. The old saying, "...back in my day...." really is an euphemism for "don't spend any more money." But some schools do add technology the best they can--richer school districts can do more.

There are good history books on education in the United States--much of it will make you wonder how we ever got a school system at all. And in 1968 Paul Saettler wrote the definitive "A history of instructional technology." Probably to that time, the most complete book on that subject.

I hope you will forgive me for taking a very simplistic view of history of instructional technology for this blog. Dr. Saettler did the complete work and you can refer to his book if you wish.

Let's start with the Sophist....somewhere around the fifth century BC. As far as anthropologist have recorded, the Sophist who taught philosophy tended to use stones and twigs in the sand to illustrate ideas. Logic became their guideline with their teaching. But the Sophist appear to be our first teachers who used something besides words to teach. With me so far?

Johannes Gutenberg around 1440 invented the printing press and sparked the learning of reading and writing for the masses. But it was an expensive process to print books and books were not available in schools, only to the upper class.

By and large wherever groups of people wish to live, schools become part of society--it is the method by which we indoctrinate our young into the ways of becoming an adult in our society. In the early days of this country two types of schools seem to have emerged. In Boston Horace Mann started the Boston schools somewhat to prepare students to enter Harvard which was nearby. But Benjamin Franklin saw the need for knowledgeable workers and started the American Academy....a more general type of schooling.

Finally! Both schools used pieces of slate so that the students could write their letters and numbers. Each student held their own blackboard so to speak. Aha! an early technology. The slate was cheap and easily replaced if broken. Soon as school buildings were being built in larger numbers in our growing population, slate was used on the front wall so that the teacher did not have to go around one by one and demonstrate each letter or number. Paper was expensive and the slate was cheap.

Writing (penmanship) and spelling became a valued education. Businesses needed workers who could write well and clearly. Although paper was slowly introduced along with turkey qills and ink wells, the blackboard remained a tool for the teacher. [I've already written how a Boston parent became concerned when his child was given a metal nib to write with--what if there were no metal nibs available--how would they learn to carve a turkey gill?]

Blackboards became the standard in schools. Children would come to the front of the room to demonstrate prowess of arithmetic solutions or to spell a word. A major joy for many children were to be picked to "clean the erasers" and go outside to make a cloud of dust!

In spite of the overhead projector becoming a force in the classroom during the early seventies, the blackboard remained the prime teaching tool for teachers along with books until the nineties. The only advancement to the blackboard was the advent of color chalk. In some school districts if the teacher wanted to use color chalk she had to buy it herself.

Blackboards demanded their own maintenance. Erasers had to be cleaned and the blackboard itself needed a wipe down with a damp cloth every week or so. Although the kids loved to do this it was the teachers who from time to time did the maintenance. And chalk dust was always a problem. When I first started teaching in 1955 I was required to wear a shirt and tie and a jacket. My jackets were always covered with chalk dust. Always..... I got around this requirement by buying a lab coat from the university store and wearing it. It was white and chalk dust didn't show.

In the early nineties, a new type of board was introduced into schools. Called the white board or more formally...the dry erase white board. It used special pens that could be erased without dust and were easier to see (hence read) in the back of the room. Early white boards had some glare but soon even this problem was overcome. With a blackboard the teacher could see when chalk was running low but with these new white boards, the pens would dry up it seemed always in the middle of a lesson. Teachers would descend upon the store for backups pens. But on the whole it was a big improvement. The biggest problem was to use a permanent marker on the board that would not erase. There were chemicals that the janitor could use but it was a pain. Teachers soon learned to keep the permanent markers separated by the dry erase markers.

However, visit most schools today and you will find that they have blackboards in each of the classes. The evolution of the blackboard to the whiteboard is still in transition.

In the next blog let's look at the evolution of the dry erase white board to...... It's there and would you know it, Bellevue schools have them in most of their classrooms. It is cool.

Did your teacher ever write your name on the blackboard? You probably ought to thank that teacher for the honor.

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