Education Commentary

Back to the Blackboard

By Peter D. Relic — October 02, 1991 6 min read

Buried in Ernest Boyer’s College.’ The Undergraduate Experience in America is the uplifting statement that “the blackboard was first used by a teacher at Bowdoin College about 1823.” Mr. Boyer’s footnote gives full credit to Arthur Levine for digging up this technological innovation in education. Bowdoin, the college of Longfellow and Hawthorne, as well as Joshua Chamberlain, Joan Benoit Samuelson, George Mitchell, and Franklin Pierce, is where white chalk first screeched on a big slate board. So what?

In the 1991 version of the American education revolution, a true test of success will be how well teachers learn to use the blackboard, whatever its color. If there is to be significant progress in any area--restructuring the curriculum, reorganizing (or eliminating) administrators, a 220-day school year, America 2000’s measurable objectives to enable U.S. students to outscore their Japanese and Korean counterparts--the bottom line will be the skills, knowledge, attitudes, and values of classroom teachers. And one big tip-off to brilliant teaching is the use of the blackboard.

Most pundits leading today’s revolution seem to be on track: In Teachers for Our Nation’s Schools, John Goodlad calls for a complete overhaul of teacher education; U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander and Diane Ravitch, assistant secretary for research, advocate a radical breakthrough in the teacher’s ability to apply advanced technologies; Theodore Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools and the forthcoming Horace’s School emphatically excoriate doubters by affirming that only the teacher can be at the heart of the revolution; and the Rockefeller Foundation millions to Yale University’s Child Study Center, directed by James Comer, are targeted on creating new models of teacher training.

But haven’t we been through all these reforms before? Wasn’t this what A Nation at Risk in 1983 was all about? And before that, the new math (and new science, new foreign language, and new counseling) encouraged by the National Defense Education Act of 1958? The British primary model and open education? The middle-school revolution? The billions of federal dollars, starting with the old Elementary and Secondary Education Act? Haven’t John Goodlad and Robert Anderson already led us through the restructuring of curriculum and the reorganization of the school that, once again, we are calling for? And for all the efforts, the results have been miserable. We aim at reducing dropouts and their numbers increase; we seek peaceful campuses and they become more violent; we try to raise S.A.T. scores and they plummet.

We continue to lose our way by refusing to address the fundamental issues and by forgetting that the real key is the relationship between the teacher and the student and what they accomplish together. Thirty-five years of $20-million high-tech high schools where no one, embarrassingly and crazily, pauses to allocate enough funds for professional development to teach teachers how to teach... of critical-thinking-skills or cooperative-learning seminars where the expert imparts his knowledge solely by lecturing... of praise for norm-referenced tests which show that we are clever at defining the 50th percentile as the 60th, at least for a few years until renorming occurs and people are fired for “letting the scores slip.”

For three generations we have believed in cures, and there have been none. Now we seem to know better. Mr. Sizer tells us that national standards are only standards, and exams only exams. Mr. Boyer declares that America 2000’s goal that “all children will start school ready to learn” is the best way to give America’s teachers the chance to succeed. In Beyond the Schools, the collaborative effort by the administrators’ Richard Miller, the school boards’ Thomas Shannon, and education’s most intrepid demographer, Harold Hodgkinson, it is clear that not things but people--teachers, students, parents, community leaders--will get us where we want to go in school and society. The editor and consultant Anne C. Lewis boldly urges the nation “to focus directly on the mismatch between teachers and students,” suggesting that the first priority for research dollars should be “to help teachers adapt to diversity in their classrooms.”

But there is evidence that we might get waylaid again, for example the recent Gallup Poll showing that Americans, finally, are ready to give up the antiquated, agrarian 180-day school calendar. One suspects, however, that the longer year is wanted by parents to provide extended day care, by chambers of commerce to produce better-trained workers, and by boards of education because year-round use of school buildings will take the place of bonds for new construction. It won’t be much of an education revolution--unless one model is the small Mooresville, N.C., district where Superintendent Sam Houston leads the community dialogue which asks, “What are the quality issues? How will teaching and learning improve with a year-round calendar? How can we improve student motivation? How to eliminate calendar-based academic failure and encourage continuous progress, with students moving ahead whenever they are ready?” So what about the blackboard?

The use of the blackboard is a clear measure of the educational revolution. The teacher who writes on the board is thinking about communicating with children. She knows how to reinforce the spoken word with the visual message. Thoroughly versed in the research on effective teaching, she is an expert in planning and diagnostic testing, has a repertoire of tactile and kinesthetic strategies, and knows how to match her teaching techniques to children’s learning strengths.

When she writes on the board, she is unafraid of students asking, What does it mean? Where did we get that word?” She explains that the word is from Latin or Greek or Arabic and writes more tantalizing words on the board, or she says, “I don’t know the derivation of the word, so let’s figure out how we can find out.” She gives the chalk to several students who write on the board, and there are student-to-student exchanges, everyone in the class a teacher-learner, no single dominant person the fount of all information and knowledge. Sometimes she writes with red chalk, or plays Henry Purcell’s music while discussing words that were in vogue in the 17th century, or fills the board with references to Sumerians, Assyrians, Egyptians, and Chinese, relating English to math, science, geography, history, and the arts.

All this from the blackboard? Better to ascribe too much than not enough to the potential of the teacher who has the confidence to use the blackboard, who is educated in content areas as well as pedagogy, and is eager to provoke children’s enthusiasm for learning.

Ed Meade worked for over 30 years as program officer at the Ford Foundation to create fundamental change in education. He’s still trying when he says that technology is most useful as a resource to teachers, but that “the most effective resources for teachers are other teachers.”

Bill Smith has been trying for a long time, too. In 1972, he was a member of a four-person panel at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The other three participants were education professors. For the first hour, the three academics droned on about their research. Finally, with most of the audience completely uninterested, it was Mr. Smith’s turn. Slowly, he rose from his chair, walked to the blackboard, and wrote, “William Smith, Director, Teacher Corps.” Then he said, What really matters is people, how well teachers teach, how well children learn. All the rest matters only as it relates to people and good teaching.” Then he sat down.

For the next hour and a half, the audience asked rapid-fire questions, 9 of every 10 directed to Bill Smith. By the end of the hour the board was covered, from one end to the other, with his scratching: “Socratic teaching... Dewey... Patrick Henry Junior High, Cleveland... Piaget... Title I ... Maria Montessori ... Bruner, Jencks, Riesman... Charles Silberman’s Crisis in the Classroom... with all deliberate speed.”

I still have Bill Smith’s comments from that panel discussion in a notebook, just as I have a stack of notebooks from a couple dozen Bowdoin professors who constantly wrote on the blackboard. A century and a half later the hopeful revolution is still alive.

A version of this article appeared in the October 02, 1991 edition of Education Week as Back to the Blackboard