Special Report
Teaching Profession

Teachers Hold the Real Keys to Whiteboard Effectiveness

By Mary Catherine O'Connor — June 13, 2011 7 min read
WHITEBOARD LESSONS: Sandra Simoneaux uses an interactive whiteboard to teach math to her 3rd and 4th graders at Parker Elementary School in Oakland, Calif. Ms. Simoneaux says she uses the whiteboard in one manner or another for 90 percent of her daily teaching. The board allows her to connect students to digital content on the Internet.

Sandra Simoneaux holds her right hand, with her thumb and ring finger together, up in the air as if she is about to lead an orchestra. She holds it there for a few moments until her class of 18 rambunctious 3rd and 4th graders at Parker Elementary School, a public school in Oakland, Calif., settles down. She then turns back to the interactive whiteboard at the front of class to continue the day’s lesson, which includes math, language fluency, and comprehension, and which utilizes the whiteboard’s touchscreen, writing pens, an interactive quiz, and its ancillary student-response system.

Her students at the 230-student school aren’t normally so restless, she later explains, but they had some steam to blow off since they’d just spent the full morning taking the first part of their California Standards Tests, or CSTs. In fact, she spends this class session preparing for the next day of testing, by using the interactive whiteboard, or IWB, to work through CST-style multiple-choice questions with the class.

Despite the students’ restlessness, all eyes are on the board and the children’s excitement is palpable at key moments throughout the class, such as when Ms. Simoneaux announces it’s time for a math quiz. As sets of two students walk to the IWB to vie against each other during timed math problems, their classmates cheer them on. And the moment Ms. Simoneaux has the slightest hiccup with the whiteboard software, a number of students yell out suggestions on how to fix it.

Clearly, the students like using the interactive whiteboards. But is the technology improving their education? One doesn’t need to look far to find detractors, who consider interactive whiteboards to be nothing more than expensive overhead projectors.

While some multiyear studies have linked the technology to gains in academic achievement, many experts stress that IWBs are only as good as the teachers who use them.

“Some people think [the IWB] is a magic bullet that will solve everything,” said Patrick Ledesma, a school-based technology specialist and special education department chair at the 746-student Holmes Middle School, which is part of the Fairfax County public schools in Virginia. He is also a current teacher-ambassador fellow for the U.S. Department of Education. But once interactive whiteboards have been installed, “teachers will do what they’ve always done, unless there is training or support to do things differently,” he said.

“An IWB is just a tool, and if it’s not used correctly, you can’t blame the tool, you have to blame the user,” he added. “If you’re a teacher who used to lecture at a chalkboard, you’ll do the same with the IWB.”

Reinforcing Lessons

Ms. Simoneaux, for one, is a proponent of the technology.

Now in her third year with an interactive whiteboard, she says she uses it, and the student-response system, to get immediate insight into the pace at which her students are learning. When a question she poses using the response system gets a slow response (the tally of answers is shown in real time on the screen), she immediately knows that her students aren’t “getting” the problem at hand. It needs reinforcement. With a paper-based quiz, that’s something she wouldn’t know until after the class was already over.

Plus, the response system “gives them a chance to think for themselves,” by removing the physical prompts that students could rely on in the past, Ms. Simoneaux said. During preparation for the state test, she used to ask students to answer multiple-choice questions by holding up the number of fingers that corresponded with their answers (one finger for A, three for C). But rather than giving their own answers, many students would just copy the responses of the best-performing student.

A student raises her hand to answer a math question as teacher Sandra Simoneaux uses an interactive whiteboard to teach math to her 3rd and 4th graders at Parker Elementary School in Oakland, Calif.

Ms. Simoneaux also appreciates the way in which talking through practice test questions with her students provides an even pace. “My favorite is my ability to isolate the test questions and focus the children on the question I am addressing,” she said. When she used paper tests, “several children would always rush ahead to finish rather than go at my instructional pace, and they’d miss the strategy I am teaching.”

And because the entire class works through each problem interactively, she said, “the children also get to share their strategies with their classmates, so I am not the only voice of knowledge.”

Of course, a teacher could isolate questions this way with a laptop and projector, but the IWB allows her to annotate the problem and then move on to the next one, without having to stop and erase the board. And the IWB software archives each slide, so nothing is ever lost, and she can quickly scan back to an earlier problem or lesson to reinforce a point.

Animating Learning

For some instructors at the 350-student Urban High School of San Francisco, IWBs have extended their teaching outside the classroom and allowed them to better connect with individual students’ roadblocks and learning styles. The boards are used heavily within the foreign-language, math, and science departments.

After seeing an IWB demonstration at a tech-centric conference six years ago, some of the school’s foreign-language teachers “came back to me and said we have to have these,” said Howard Levin, the private school’s director of technology. “That’s a tech director’s dream.”

When IWBs first emerged, though, Mr. Levin had pooh-poohed the technology, pointing to glitches and fearing the whiteboards would promote teacher-centered learning. But after testing out the boards on a pilot basis at the school—teachers rotate through each classroom in the tight urban building, which meant all had a chance to experiment with the IWB—he saw ways the technology could enrich learning.

“The biggest thing [IWBs] helped me with was giving visuals,” said Meghan Mahoney, who used to teach math at Urban High and is now serving as a consultant to other teachers there on how to use the boards. Because of their shared classrooms, Urban teachers can’t preload static whiteboards with, say, graphs that illustrate a geometry problem. But the IWBs allow teachers to create slides in advance with problems, questions, graphics, audio, or video, and then use the time in class for teaching, rather than manually creating those elements.

Math and science teachers at Urban High use graph templates, provided in the IWB software, to teach, for instance, trigonometric ratios, because they provide the type of precise measurements one would find in a textbook, but also allow the teacher to annotate or animate the graphs.

Ms. Mahoney says that manipulating visuals—cutting, pasting, and flipping shapes, for instance—allows teachers to focus on their visual learners without appreciably slowing the pace for those who don’t rely as heavily on visual indicators.

Interactive whiteboards that feature wireless tablets allow teachers to walk around the room and interact more with students, while also being able to toggle through the electronic material and add content to the board.

Accessing Archives

But Mr. Levin thinks the greatest value IWBs offer—no matter the subject area—is the ability to access archived classroom material. That allows students to experiment with how and whether they take notes in class vs. watching and listening to the teacher. When teachers heavily annotate their IWB slides, and then make each class session’s slides accessible through the school’s intranet, some students find that they can absorb more content by refraining from note-taking and then access the archive to reinforce the material.

And Ms. Mahoney notes that teachers can work one-on-one with students who are having trouble grasping certain concepts by scrolling through class archives. That way, they can point to specific sections and say, “I was with you until you got here, and then I got lost,” she explained. With a textbook, that process could be less effective because the teacher’s notation would be absent.

Of course, the use of interactive whiteboards requires professional development, but just as important is repetitive use, says Lori Caron, a 3rd grade teacher at the 565-student Silver Hill Horace Mann Charter School in Haverhill, Mass. She suggests using an interactive whiteboard as often as possible, so that it becomes second nature, and really exploring the possibilities.

“You can add pictures of documents [using a document scanner], integrate online content,” Ms. Caron said. “It lends itself to so much more than just writing things on a board.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 2011 edition of Education Week as Teachers Hold the Real Keys To Whiteboard Effectiveness

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