On Chalkboards

Embrace change

In 1830, a group of students at Yale University in the Mathematics department rebelled against being required to draw reference diagrams on the chalkboard during exams. Prior to the introduction of chalkboards installed at the front of the room - what was then a new technology - students could merely reference the diagram they were referring to in their exam answers from their textbooks. Thirty-eight students out of a class of eighty-seven refused to write on the board during their exams, in what became known as the Conic Sections Rebellion. As a result, these students were summarily expelled, and Yale warned other Universities not to accept them as transfer students. Sturm und drang about something we would laugh at today.

It was not just students who did not like the introduction of chalkboards - professors too griped about the extra effort to write on the board, and were afraid to turn their backs on students (for fear of assault by spitball perhaps). Of course, individual tablets have been used by students for centuries - there are records of students in India in the 11th century using writing tablets to take notes. Even Socrates bemoaned the use of such tablets by his students and followers, fearing oral persuasive skills would suffer. But in the early 1800s, the technology was finally available to manufacture large expanses of slate, and attach them to the wall in the front of the classroom, and this lead to students being expelled from Yale for refusing to use them. What did their parents think?

New technology in teaching has always been resisted, by teachers and students. Always. But each one has been eventually accepted, and gradually became part of the furniture. Literally. In the case of chalkboards, they became permanently affixed to the wall in all classrooms that could afford such an innovation. Sticks of processed chalk were produced specially for the purpose, generally made of calcium carbonate derived from mineral chalk rock or limestone, and chalk erasers were produced to clear the marks made on the boards. Students were asked to help the teacher by "clapping" the erasers together at the end of the day, so as to clear them of chalk residue. I once watched a teacher use two pieces of chalk, one in each hand, to draw a perfectly symmetrical cross section of a coleus root tip. Truly, my Botany professor was a chalk grandmaster.

As teachers learned how to use them to the advantage of their students, chalkboards became a grand success, once called "Among the greatest benefactors of mankind."

I submit that there is a direct line between chalkboards and the technologies we use today to connect with our students. All of them have been resisted. And all of them eventually become part of the furniture. We are in constant development and transition in the use of technology to support teaching and learning, and we will continue to be. Learning how to accept that, and embrace it, is the job of every teacher at every level. If we did not know that before, surely we do now.


This regular weekly newsletter will address this and related subjects. It contains almost entirely my opinions, formed from nearly 30 years of teaching experience - from kindergarten to law school. Thanks for coming along for the ride.

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