Read This: Some educators question if whiteboards…raise achievement

Fairfax County public schools began installing interactive whiteboards several years ago, one of which landed in Sam Gee's classroom at W.T. Woodson High School. On a recent morning, the popular history teacher dimmed the lights, and his students stared at the glowing, $3,000 screen.

As he lectured, Gee hyperlinked to an NBC news clip, clicked to an animated Russian flag, a list of Russian leaders and a short film on the Mongol invasions. Here and there, he starred items on the board using his finger. "Let's say this is Russia," he said at one point, drawing a little red circle. "Okay — who invaded Russia?"

One student was fiddling with an iPhone. Another slept. A few answered the question, but the relationship between their alertness and the bright screen before them was hardly clear. And as the lesson carried on, this irony became evident: Although the device allowed Gee to show films and images with relative ease, the whiteboard was also reinforcing an age-old teaching method — teacher speaks, students listen. Or, as 18-year-old Benjamin Marple put it: "I feel they are as useful as a chalkboard."


Not long ago, a reporter from the Washington Post contacted me and asked a few questions about my perception of the role that Interactive Whiteboards are playing in classroom instruction. Anyone who has read the Radical for long enough can probably guess in advance what my answer was!

Essentially, my beef with Whiteboards has always been a simple one: I just don't think they're as engaging and effective as classroom teachers believe them to be—-and considering the tight budgets that schools are wrestling with, that makes them out to be a cold, hard waste of already limited cash.

Now, I'm willing to be proven wrong. In fact, I've asked over and over again for people to describe to me the best IWB supported lessons that they've ever seen taught. Sadly, no one has given me much reason to believe that IWBs are changing anything significant about the work being done in our classrooms.

Take the spotlighted quote from the Washington Post article above. Do you notice how the instruction being described in Mr. Gee's IWB-equipped classroom is still completely teacher-driven?

Our schools have always been defined by a culture of presentation: I'll stand in front of you and give you the information that you need to learn. You sit in front of me and absorb it. While IWBs might make the presentation a bit more flashy, it still doesn't change the fact that we're presenting and our kids are absorbing.

Making matters even more complicated is the reality that our kids have grown up in a participatory culture. They text all day long. They IM each other while watching television and doing their homework all at once. They check their Facebook pages a million times a day. They connect to others over the Web to play video games.

When you drop kids who are driven by participation into classrooms that are defined by presentations, "engagement" is unlikely at best.

Which is why we shouldn't be surprised that the students in Mr. Gee's classroom weren't terribly interested in the work that he was doing at his Whiteboard. Their lack of interest is a direct result of the lack of any kind of opportunity to participate.

Long story short: Technology alone can't reform American schools, no matter how many dollars the Feds drop into the laps of our states and our districts. The only way to "Race for the Top" is to change the way that we're teaching—and that's, sadly, something we've never been all that good at.

8 thoughts on “Read This: Some educators question if whiteboards…raise achievement

  1. GinnyP

    If there is no “inter” to the “active” (we language arts teachers know “inter” means back and forth, across boundaries, as in teachers AND students), IWB are just Interactive White Boreds.

  2. Kindenberg

    Back to Jake’s question: where are the alternatives to the teacher-driven classroom? While there are numerous sites with ready-to-go classroom activities designed for the IWB-enhanced presentation style of teaching, there seems to be very few resources with collaborative educational ideas and concepts. Or am I just looking in the wrong place? Bill, enlighten us! 🙂

  3. Alana Carpenter

    I agree technology should be used as a tool, not a teacher replacement. I think allowing the children to be involved in the learning process is the only solution. Group work can be distracting, but education is not supposed to be an unsupervised play date. Teaching is meant to be a collaborative effort. As educators it is our responsibility to utilize the tools readily available and to work together in the teaching and learning process. When teachers are no longer interested in trying learn new ways to teach and learn and only rely on standing in front of a student audience droning on about what is and what is not it is time for a replacement. Not with a new expensive board, but a different teacher.

  4. Alex Case

    In general, I agree:
    However, it is possible to make the classroom more interactive with IWBs. The most obvious thing is to get the kids up there using it, but you could also have them create content and put it up there, do things based on what they say rather than what you planned to say, put the things they think and say up there (e.g. votes as a graph, things they dictate to you, etc)

  5. Dave LeComte

    Well this subject addresses a key issue with technology in the classroom. Repeat after me. “Technology is a TOOL, and not an end result”. A Technology tool provides a teacher the opportunity to enhance their lesson with interactivity and authenticity. They can help provide relevance and engagement into the classroom.
    But this happens far too infrequently, partly because of teacher expectations that the device will revolutionize their teaching. They see all the golly-gee features and decide to center their instruction around the tool.Learn how to use the device to enhance your own teaching style and the benefits will manifest themselves

  6. Paul C

    My principal spent some money several months ago on IWBs because he had to spend it right away and he had the idea in his head that they are the edtech of the future. I think that he feels embarassed when new teachers to our school ask whether we have them and he has to explain that we don’t. I hope he’ll read this post when I email it to him.
    As extra example, I was chagrined to hear one of the IWB fanboys excitedly describe all of the wonderful images and animations that came with the software for the board. “Even without a board”, he added, “you can use them all in your classroom!” Sounds like $3000 of our tax money poorly spent to me.

  7. Jake

    I have heard you talk about about your feelings on IWB’s for quite some time, and I must admit you make quite the compelling argument. And, to be quite honest, I agree with you for the most part. However, what I haven’t heard is what are some strategies that DO work. Every professional conference (with the noted exception of the DuFour Conference) talks incessantly about what DOESN’T work but I just haven’t heard a lot about what does.
    I have heard the occasional strategy that is sort of effective but what I experience more than anything when I try and get my kids to interact (in class) with material is they spend the majority of time gossiping.
    To sum it up, I would just like to hear about some strategies that you (or anyone else that reads this) does that is not the Sage on the Stage model. Am I making sense?

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