I found myself sat in a room with a group of friends and colleagues on the cusp of establishing a pioneering new school. The question: should we buy interactive whiteboards? I was losing the argument, and I’m glad I did.
I started teaching in a school in decant. My classroom was one of 12 in a Portakabin. My projector – with more cables coming out of it than I can be sure it needed – was atop a trolley covered in a thin film of something sticky (I never found out what).
I was committed to the idea that children in school shouldn’t be presented with poorly designed resources, only to return home to the far more exciting gloss offered by the ever-proliferating mainstream and social media.
To that end, I’d load up PowerPoint and, as I drew shapes and equations across the slides, I would later dive into their properties to manually enter exact dimensions and co-ordinates to ensure everything was in perfect proportion (I was a maths teacher, after all).
My tutor once praised the quality of the resources I’d made, but pointed out how long it must have taken to create them: “Couldn’t you have just written that up onto the board?” Well, yes, but then it wouldn’t look as nice, would it.
In my defence, I was also relying on the slides to remind my overloaded trainee mind what was coming next.
Halfway into the year, we moved into our newly refurbished building. The department had training on how to use our new interactive whiteboards and, my word, this was exciting! The range of things they could do was extraordinary.
I couldn’t programme and position elements of my slides as precisely in their software as I had in PowerPoint, but to some extent this was a relief – I was no longer beholden to my own insane standards.
I could write over the slides I would create in advance, flip between colours to draw attention to important parts of the page, and even save the writing in case something came up that I wanted to refer to later.
You can understand why my answer to the question of whether or not my friends should invest in interactive whiteboards was a resounding yes.
They’re very expensive, of course, and colleagues who didn’t teach mathematics were less convinced.
In response, all of the wonder I saw in them generated the following questions:
- Do you ever really use any of those extra features? No, not really.
- If a simple projector were used, and a whiteboard, couldn’t you then write over slides that way? I guess so.
- Couldn’t you use a visualiser and just buy coloured pens? Maybe.
- If you did use paper and a visualiser, then couldn’t you 'save' important work by just keeping hold of the paper or taking a photo of it? That might work.
- How often have you revisited those files you saved anyway? Hardly ever…
When I returned to my own classroom, I started to experiment with a visualiser and paper, rather than my interactive whiteboard; I grew to love it.
I was always facing and speaking to the children, rather than away from them; I was writing in the same space that they had, so I knew exactly what they could fit on the page; and yes, buying coloured pens and holding on to paper did the job perfectly.
I even started to produce more extensive workpacks in advance – inspired again by the same friends – and so little planning was needed anymore the day before a lesson; just turn up, turn to the page we would work on next, everything was ready to go, planning had been done far in advance.
I visited their school recently, now into its third year, and I found that most teachers had taken this even further.
I was in around 18 lessons and in the vast majority there was not a single piece of technology at work, not even a projector. In others, it was turned on briefly to display something, then gone again.
In maths, it was still used extensively, but with the visualiser. I’d say, all in all, the day was about 95 per cent tech-free.
Years ago, my Dad once quipped that my first word was "computer", which should give some sense of my long-lasting love affair with technology. I adore technology. I marvel at how far we have come and am just giddy with excitement about where we might go next.
I recently found myself re-watching old episodes of Star Trek, and was in awe not only at just how much of their technological wizardry has come to fruition, but how we’ve actually done it better.
Imagine that: constrained by no physical limits, only the power of their own imagination, early 90s science-fiction writers couldn’t imagine better techno-magic three centuries into the future than we have now, only 20 years on.
So, given all this, for me it is no small thing when I say that the experience at that school was one of liberation.
Imagine finding yourself trapped underwater, struggling to escape, finally breaking free in your final moments to gulp down huge lungfulls of crisp, refreshing oxygen, liberated at last from a stifling oppression. That’s what this felt like; and it is a feeling, it needs to be experienced, I think, to be understood.
Perhaps we have, and continue, to go down the wrong route with respect to technology in education. We think that because it permeates our social lives that it must also permeate our schools. As a result, technology has become the interface between the teacher and the pupils.
What I saw at this school, instead, was teachers interacting directly with their pupils, no technological intermediary necessary.
Instead of straining to see what was on the board, pupils could read what was directly in front of them. If a teacher needed to speak more directly to a diagram in their workpacks then it could be easily shown on the board via the visualiser. It was a human, and humanising, experience.
On the most beautiful days, I would walk into my classroom and reluctantly proceed to close all of the blinds, blocking out the sun and basking the room in the electric glow of the fluorescent strip lights; because if I didn’t, no one would see the projected screen. Here, on a crisp and blue-sky winter’s day, sunlight flooded the classrooms.
If I could issue any call for action, it would be this: give it a go.
Try it. Take a few lessons here or there and plan for them to have no technology at all, not even an internet timer on the board. No projector, nothing 'turned on'.
You, your knowledge, your pupils and some paper. See how it feels.
Kris Boulton is a maths teacher at an inner-London school and blogs here.