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.