What’s a whiteboard for, anyway?

Every classroom has a whiteboard – but do you really know how to get the most out of it? And have you ever been trained in the best ways to use one? Lauran Hampshire-Dell realised that she did not and had not – and that the same went for most other teachers. So, how should we be using whiteboards?
7th February 2020, 12:04am
What's A Whiteboard, Anyway?
Lauran Hampshire-Dell


What’s a whiteboard for, anyway?


I was 10 years old when a whiteboard appeared in my classroom. Suddenly, the days of rainbow-hued chalk dust lingering in the air were gone; the thrill of being allowed to annotate OHP sheets was no more. Instead, there was this inert, wipeable white rectangle. It was alien, untrustworthy, and I was completely in its power.

It was not until I was finishing secondary school that I got my first look at an interactive whiteboard. I was impressed; how couldn't this improve teaching? Imagine being able to save notes and use the internet in lessons! To me, it was as monumental a change as the iPod I was now carrying around in the pocket of my pink Woolworths coat.

Technology, though, was not done yet. By the time I came to teach my first lesson, things had moved on even further: I could display my beautiful PowerPoint presentation and I was able to annotate alongside it. Some teachers could even touch the screen and make flashy things happen. We became conductors of an orchestra of pixels. The future had truly arrived; teaching was transformed.

Or so we hoped. But there is a problem, here, isn't there? Because, in fact, I never got any training in how to use a whiteboard (or an interactive whiteboard, or even a blackboard). I have never been let into any secrets about best practice, either.

In truth, I have no evidence that my whiteboard makes a meaningful difference to the learning in my classroom and I have read no reliable evidence about how it could make that difference. It turns out I am not alone.

Which makes me wonder: what is a whiteboard really for?

Back to the drawing board

In my career thus far, I have used my whiteboard intuitively, just as I use my oven or the shower. And just as I don't burn food (often) or accidentally cause a flood in the bathroom (it only happened once, OK?), nothing whiteboard related has seemed to go wrong in my lessons.

But before Christmas, as I directed the weary eyes of 30 secondary students to the model answers I was writing on the whiteboard, I had a sudden doubt: was this good teaching? Specifically, was doing this activity on the whiteboard good teaching?

And then this feeling of doubt spiralled: was anything I was doing on the whiteboard effective teaching?

As my students' eyes glazed over, mine widened. What if I had been doing it all wrong?

I started keeping track of my whiteboard usage. On average, I used it for a huge 27 minutes of a 60-minute lesson. As an English teacher, this use was mainly colour-coded paragraph modelling, key word exploration, storyboarding and essay planning.

Was this normal? I asked teacher friends and, in terms of time, it was pretty standard for chalk-and-talk-style teachers like me. For content, I was on a similar page, too: most seemed to use their whiteboard for on-the-hop modelling, scaffolding and to explicitly show what was in their minds.

So all was fine. Except ... my teacher friends are all secondary, and they are all chalk-and-talk teachers like me. And I know from experience that teachers use whiteboards for everything from quizzes to awarding behaviour points to watching YouTube videos. All my queries had really established was that I had a pretty securely locked echo chamber.

I needed a bigger audience. So I created a survey that delved into whiteboard experiences of teachers and distributed it through social channels and through teacher friends. I ended up with more than 500 responses from teachers across the phases, subjects and sectors. My echo chamber had been dismantled. So what did I find?

For starters, no one ignores their whiteboard. Every single person who responded used it (39 per cent relied on their wipeable one, while 33 per cent used an interactive one; the rest were lucky enough to have both).

How much they used their whiteboard on average, though, differed:

  • 16 per cent used it for up to 10 minutes per lesson.
  • 29 per cent use it for 10-20 minutes per lesson.
  • 17 per cent used it for 20-25 minutes per lesson.
  • 38 per cent used it for more than 25 minutes per lesson.

The fact that the majority used the whiteboard for more than 20 minutes per lesson on average was good news for me (I was aligned with the majority - hurrah!) and good news for schools: they may not have been using them properly (we shall see), but at least the expensive toy on the wall was being used for something.

And we like our whiteboards. Of the teachers who responded to my survey, 84 per cent said their whiteboard was essential to teaching and 76 per cent said their whiteboard had never impacted negatively on their teaching. Of those who had experienced a negative impact, the most common issues were technical failures (didn't they just turn it off and on again?!), messy modelling and bad behaviour when their back was turned.

So, we all use whiteboards and think they are essential and that negative repercussions are minimal. Great. But what are whiteboards really used for? Unfortunately, this is where nice, neat conclusions are out of reach.

More than 60 different usages were mentioned by teachers, and listing them would take up all the space I have been given for this article. But here's a flavour: modelling examples; quizzing; response planning; practising spellings; reiterating key vocabulary; managing behaviour.

Among these usages, there were some interesting splits between the phases: primary teachers showed a bias towards using their boards for practising spellings, setting and checking learning objectives, and giving sanctions or rewards. Secondary teachers were more likely to use their boards for modelling examples, giving whole-class feedback and supporting their questioning.

Quite why we have such a wide spread of use may be down to the fact that this appears to be one part of a teacher's practice for which no one is interested in dictating a set approach. Of the respondents, just 20 per cent had received any training on how a whiteboard might be used for teaching and, for those, most of the training was how to work an interactive whiteboard, not how to teach using it.

Teacher autonomy is to be applauded and, through experience, you would hope that we have intuitively found sensible uses for whiteboards. But has that happened?

Taking all 60 uses and seeking out research-backed justification for each was, fortunately, beyond the scope of this feature. I do have a day job. But what I did do was take the top three uses and look to find whether there was enough evidence to suggest that we should keep doing them. Here's what I found.

1. Modelling

A huge 91 per cent of teachers surveyed told us that they used their boards for modelling. Modelling in the primary classroom often includes discussions about WAGOLL/WABOLL (what a good/bad one looks like), lists of success criteria and collaborative pupil work. The secondary classroom isn't so different: teacher-led live modelling of longer work, the unpicking of question structures and references to mark schemes are all used to support students.

Providing models has a lot of research behind it - it made it into Barak Rosenshine's Principles of Instruction and features in numerous round-ups of best evidence from cognitive science about what works in education. The underlying idea is that the teacher is the expert and needs to demonstrate explicitly a task or skill before a student is able to replicate it.

"Students need cognitive support to help them learn to solve problems," Rosenshine writes. "Modelling and the teacher thinking aloud as he/she demonstrates how to solve a problem are examples of cognitive support.

"Worked-out examples are another form of modelling that has been developed by researchers …Worked-out examples allow students to focus on the specific steps that can solve the problems and thus reduce the cognitive load on their working memory."

The Education Endowment Foundation's (EEF) Teaching and Learning Toolkit also explains that modelling is key for metacognition. We should be showing our "planning, monitoring and evaluating before, during and after task completion" : all things that students have not yet developed mastery of, and that both they and we may not even know that we do.

This would make sense to any teacher throughout history, but is a whiteboard necessary to the process?

Rosenshine is not explicit and neither is the research but, reading between the lines, much of what is discussed would be near enough impossible without working through the problem visually, and the easiest way to do that for a class of 30 is through a tool that broadcasts that model to all of them at once. Research into dual coding and multimedia learning also supports a visual element to teaching.

Alex Quigley, national content manager for the EEF and a former teacher, even says that more than one whiteboard might be useful. "It may be an ugly, messy map of ideas and roughly connected arrows", but multiple whiteboards allow us to "do things great teachers have done for a long time: explain, model and construct meaning".

If you are going to use the whiteboard for modelling, remember to:

  • Make it legible. That means learning how to write legibly and large enough on a board so all can see, and that is actually pretty difficult. Have you ever gone and stood at the back of the room and tried to read what you scribbled? I would recommend it. Be mindful of those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and how your seating plan should be adjusted accordingly, and any other reasonable adjustments you should make.
  • Be mindful about what you include on the page. You should think about what graphics you use to model a point. US educational psychologist Richard Mayer, a distinguished professor at the department of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara, developed the theory of multimedia learning and advises the following: "We want graphics that are simple, easy to understand, don't have more information than you need. A lot of the time, a simple line drawing is the most effective type of graphic. Even though textbooks love to have really complicated photographs or complicated figures, it is better to keep things as simple as you possibly can."

2. Behaviour management

"Do you want your name on the board?" asks every teacher ever in the history of teaching. Admittedly, that's not true, but it often feels as though the blackboard, then the whiteboard, has been a key ally in the fight for a peaceful classroom. And 66 per cent of our respondents used the whiteboard in this way.

Sometimes it is used to award students house points, reward points and now electronic points like Class Dojo rewards. But often having your name on the board is a bad sign - a visual reminder that three strikes means you're out.

You won't find any neat studies telling you why this is, or is not, a bad idea: behaviour management is a difficult area to properly assess due to the subjective nature of the art. But if you look into the research around attachment and trauma-aware teaching, public shaming of the like described above seems unwise. It creates a confrontational situation that can trigger a fight-or-flight response from a student, it can reinforce feelings of shame, it can be interpreted as a challenge - meaning escalating behaviour - and it can be a blunt tool with which to fight an often complex problem.

As James Bowen, director of policy at the NAHT school leaders' union, wrote in Tes: addressing behaviour in an overtly public way inevitably means that "there are some pupils who will subconsciously, or even consciously, prioritise saving face in front of their peers over quiet acceptance of a teacher's instruction, however reasonable".

That said, plenty of research points to clear boundaries being key to behaviour management. This was highlighted in the research document for the new Ofsted school inspection framework. Creating a public record of where boundaries have been crossed - or rewarding where they are met - seems like a useful way to make those boundaries explicit.

At work here, too, is peer influence.

As Brett Laursen, professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University and editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Behavioural Development, told the Tes Podagogy: "A focus on group norms is a good idea. By group norms, we mean what's acceptable behaviour in this particular group. It's easy to get people to do positive things when the group norms are fairly benign and when there's frowning upon misbehaviour."

However, he does have a warning: "The teens in a classroom are not blank slates. They have histories together and the teacher is going to have to work with the histories of the children in the classroom."

So if you are going to use the whiteboard to create norms, the way you do so should match the context of the individuals you have in front of you.

Should we be using the whiteboard in this way, though? The jury, it seems, is still out.

If you are going to use whiteboards for sanctions and rewards:

  • Try and read up on trauma- and attachment-aware practice. This way you should be fully conversant with the possible dangers of the approach and any changes you might need to make. A good starting point is the Tes podcast "What every teacher needs to know about the impact of trauma" (type "Tes - the education podcast" into your podcast platform).
  • Ensure the whiteboard is only one small part of the process. Simply shaming and rewarding publicly and doing nothing outside of that is unlikely to work.
  • Be wary of how far you can impact the peer influence in the room. Ensure that any intervention takes into consideration the existing relationships of those students in front of you.

3. Teaching key words

At the end of the teaching day, I can be found wiping bizarre combinations of random words off the whiteboard (a particular favourite was "NO ALIENS!!!" in capitals above "grass?" and "epizeuxis" ... just a typical creative-writing lesson).

I'm not the only one, either: 83 per cent of the teachers surveyed used their whiteboards for reiterating key words, correcting spelling, giving must-use words, decoding subject vocabulary and improving synonyms.

This is unsurprising. Vocabulary is having a big moment: there can't be many teachers who haven't been startled on an Inset day by the copious research that shows just how powerful a predictor vocabulary can be for later success. And at a classroom level, most teachers recognise that a broad vocabulary base can ensure proper access to curriculum.

But what is the best way to teach vocabulary? In his book, Closing the Vocabulary Gap, Quigley outlines a four-step process:

  • Select: What words do we need to choose as the most important vocabulary for students?
  • Explain: Carefully pronounce the new word, write the word, offer a student-friendly definition and multiple examples.
  • Explore: Talk about the words, use image association, compare synonyms and antonyms, dig into the roots of the word, and much more.
  • Consolidate: Consciously revisit tricky academic vocabulary. Students need to use the words again and again, fostering vital repeated exposures to them.

It would seem to me that ignoring your whiteboard for the above stages two to four would be like waving away an umbrella as you stand getting soaked in the rain. Sure, you can survive without it, but you're making life much harder and more uncomfortable for yourself than you need to.

If you're going to use your whiteboards for teaching key words:

  • Explore etymology. In its 2019 Literacy Improvement recommendations, the EEF commented that, particularly at secondary, "a significant proportion of the subject-specific vocabulary ... has ancient Greek and Latin origins ... In science and maths, the proportion can be as high as 90 per cent". Asking students to help you explore root words, prefixes or suffixes (such as photo-, pre- or -age) will create independent cross-curriculum links and will develop decoding strategies.
  • Create graphic organisers together. Organisers such as The Frayer Model are easily teacher-led on the board and work in every subject, including maths. The EEF says that they "break down complex academic terms in visual ways to aid understanding". Author and researcher Concepcion Molina speaks highly of them, too, saying that they "go beyond definitions. With this deeper understanding of terminology, [we're] enabling [students] to make powerful connections and to grasp other concepts".

What next?

So on these three uses at least, there is certainly some evidence that we are on the right lines - if we do it well. But what about the rest?

While we don't want to get into the habit of having to triple-check everything we do, I think that any tool that gets used so frequently in the classroom needs some more attention given to it. That might mean reviewing your practice and seeking out improvements when you have the time, but, realistically, I think that we have to admit that we need to be training teachers in whiteboard usage.

This training should be twofold. Firstly, we should look at actually writing on one. There's very little research on this. What is the best way of writing (print, cursive)? How big should the writing be? How should we use the space most effectively? How do we manage it without crippling our back? It seems absurd that these issues and more are just left to guesswork.

Secondly, we should be looking at what we are doing in lessons. The whiteboard's passive presence in the classroom has meant that its role has never been fully investigated. Is it better to give a handout to students or to model in small groups, rather than as a whole? Should we be using YouTube clips instead? The problem is, we don't know - so we should be finding out.

We need a more research-based approach to our whiteboards that considers what we should do, how we should do it and what it should look like. The whiteboard is a unique tool - one that unifies teachers regardless of experience, location and phase - and we have an untapped potential to wipe off what doesn't work, and rewrite what does.

Lauran Hampshire-Dell is a secondary English teacher

This article originally appeared in the 7 February 2020 issue under the headline "What's a whiteboard for, anyway?"

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