"There is no one way"

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Interactive White Boards

An expanded and illustrated version of this post was published in The Mathematics Teacher, November 2010. Read it here. ---------------------------------------------------------------------

Teacher Magazine published "Why I Hate Interactive Whiteboards", a passionate article by one Bill Ferriter. Hatred seems like a strong reaction to an inanimate object -- but as it turns out it is tied to frustration about budgetary priorities, about the lack of evaluation of IWB's effectiveness, and about the lack of accompanying training. If that's as far as he took it, I might agree, or at least not be moved to respond, but the heart of Ferriter's argument is as follows:

"...interactive whiteboards are an under-informed and irresponsible purchase. They do little more than reinforce a teacher-centric model of learning. Heck, even whiteboard companies market them as a bridging technology, designed to replicate traditional instructional practices (make presentations, give notes, deliver lectures) in an attempt to move digital teacher-dinosaurs into the light. I ask you: Do we really want to spend thousands of dollars on a tool that makes stand-and-deliver instruction easier?"

Whether they are a defensible purchase depends on many factors, but to condemn the boards because they can be misused is unreasonable. (As regular visitors to my Web site know well, I'm a big fan of instructional tools, but of course I am well aware that any tool can be misused. That is not the fault of the tool.)

Ferriter seems to think that teachers should never "stand and deliver". I don't agree. In my view, we should be the guide on the side, sometimes, and the sage on the stage, sometimes. Student exploration can lay the foundation for powerful teacher exposition -- teacher explanation can be the necessary trigger for a student-centered activity. The blanket rejection of either side of this coin is self-defeating.

Ferriter's one-sidedness is captured in this quote: "If we could turn control of learning over to students, we'd probably see motivation and academic growth levels rise all at once." Frankly, I have yet to see a successful classroom where control of learning has been turned over to students. It's more the opposite: the best student-centered, constructivist learning happens in classes where expert teachers orchestrate a complex mix of instructional strategies, not in classes where the teachers have abdicated their responsibility to lead.

In any case, back to the interactive white boards. Here are some uses of IWBs which have made me a more effective teacher:

- I can look at last year's lesson, and be reminded of how it actually played out, thereby reducing the risk of repeating the same mistake.

-Within a lesson, I can back up to an earlier board, or to a previous day's board, to discuss a mistake I might have made, to have a deeper discussion, or as a prompt for a writing assignment.

- Smart board software makes it easier to share lesson plans with fellow teachers.

- Students have access to what was on the board that day, which is particularly useful to those who have trouble taking notes, and to those who were absent. When interacting with my students, I'd rather focus on the math than on so-called "note-taking skills", which can undermine students' focus on the concepts.

- I can use extremely accurate figures on the board, which is very helpful to students who are not as adept at interpreting my approximate sketches. This is true in almost any part of math: graphs in algebra, any sort of figure in geometry, the ten-centimeter circle in trig, etc. (See a short video on the latter here.) Yes, it would be nice if all students had a strong enough understanding to not need accurate figures to support that understanding, but that's not the reality of the classroom.

- I can easily demonstrate geometric transformations such as translation, rotation, reflection, and scaling. This is of course useful in many parts of math. (See a short video of a colleague using the IWB that way here.)

- I can use manipulatives on the board with unbelievable ease (as compared to needing special overhead projector versions of the manipulatives.) I can demonstrate an activity, students can share their discoveries, etc. whether using Lab Gear, geometric puzzles, pattern blocks, etc. This is an example of whole-class discussion laying the groundwork for student collaborative discovery -- or offering a way to wrap up such discovery.

- I've also seen other teachers find excellent uses of the IWBs which I haven't yet fully explored -- e.g. to clarify algebraic manipulations by cloning parts of an expression to use in an equivalent expression on the next line.

In short, while IWBs are not the answer to all our problems, they can certainly be useful. Save your hatred for something else!



  1. Hello Henri,
    Great post! There's always a temptation to bad-mouth tools when they don't work well, but what you shared is exactly what's needed: good examples of how these tools are used.

    I hope you are doing well. CLIME is exhibiting this year in the vendor area (#230) in San Diego. We're promoting Math 2.0 - Using dynamic math tools in a Web 2.0 World. If you're at the conference stop by the booth and say hello.

    Best wishes,

  2. Good response, Henri.

    Came to this post from a colleague's recommendation. The company I work for (math-whizz, whizz.com) has a particular interest in making ed tech work effectively, and not simply allow the head teacher to brag at the next conference. An IWB (or ANY other classroom tech, including our math software) is a means to an end.

    When ed tech is treated as an end in itself it's bound to seem an expensive luxury. But the IWB is simply a novel way of combining interaction and large-scale display of a computer screen.

    I remember my math teachers relying on over-head projectors for accurately sketching geometry, writing equations, etc. This actually put them at one remove from the class. They were physically and figuratively separated from the information on the projection screen.

    An IWB can return the teacher to the students' attention and do all the wonderful things that he or she might otherwise wish to do on a computer. But, as with talk-and-blackboard-chalk and student-oriented constructivist approaches, the key is the teacher's effective guidance and leadership of the class. I completely agree with you on this.

  3. Ihor: I won't be in San Diego. How can I find out more about Math 2.0?

    Duncan: Search for "calculators", "tools", "laptops", and/or "technology" on my site to find more writings on educational tech.

  4. Henri: You can read my latest blog entry that has references to previous entries where I discuss it.


    Math 2.0 was started by a group of math bloggers and tweeters (led by Maria Droujkova who started the Math 2.0 interest group http://mathfuture.wikispaces.com) who want to share the power doing math collaboratively using web 2.0 tools.

  5. This ties in with my new project: Escape from the Textbook! http://www.mathedpage.org/escape/

  6. Henri.
    Escape from the Textbook! What a great title. Harold Jacobs was my hero in helping escape those doorstoppers back in the early 70's. Today it's technology that's forwarding the action. You're project is a perfect example of a math 2.0 endeavor. One guy that's doing something that I think is Math 2.0ish is Dan Meyer. Check out some his WCYDWT (what can you do with this) challenges. He's got a great readership with lots of interesting comments.


    I'll share your project as part of resource page at the conference. Will let you know if I come across folks at the conference interested in participating in your initiative.

  7. Great! Thanks for all the info.

  8. What an excellent response you've made to that (igno)rant against whiteboards by Bill Ferriter! I should like to post your response in full at a discussion forum where Mr Ferriter's diatribe was discussed.

  9. GS:

    Yes, please do. Make sure to acknowledge me and to direct people to this blog and/or to my Web site (www.MathEducationPage.org).