Blackboards are back from the pub

9th January 1998 at 00:00
There is a history of education in classroom materials. Slates, lead pencils, ink pens and wells, blotting paper, hinged desks and leather belts are just some of the many things which were once necessities and are now curiosities.

Yet for 150 years one item has endured and successfully resisted all attempts to replace it. The common blackboard appears to transcend time, teaching styles and changes in the curriculum. A classroom in 2000 will have a blackboard and chalk in the same way as one of 1872 had. No other item will have lasted as well.

The blackboard has had its ups and downs, if not complete revolutions. Notably it suffered in the late sixties and seventies when it was associated with unpopular authoritarianism and whole-class "chalk and talk" lessons. During this period the importance of the blackboard in the classroom diminished. Individual worksheets, produced first by Banda and then by photocopier briefly threatened the blackboard's position.

Blackboards and differentiation are not thought to be natural bed partners. A generation of student teachers were reluctant to use a blackboard in their "crit" lessons. Some attempts were even made to rejuvenate the blackboard. The sombre black was for a period replaced by green, although "greenboards" never really caught on.

Yet in today's world, blackboards are back and not merely in the classroom. The years of association with authoritarianism are over. They are now hip and trendy. It's a poor off-licence that does not have at least one blackboard with the establishment's best prices chalked up. These are normally placed outside the door to lure readers in.

As yet, no sober minded individual has complained that licensed premises are attracting custom using a medium which the young are particularly attentive to and trusting towards: the blackboard. These blackboard messages are not familiar in white chalk but emblazoned in splashes of bright colour with shading and appropriate graphics such as bunches of grapes.

Restaurants and fashionable bistros are overrun with blackboards. Forget about what schools did before they had photocopiers. How did pubs tell their customers about the chef's specials?

The renewed popularity of blackboards is due to a number of factors. First, black is a good colour to contrast bright chalks against. The average teacher may well feel that their blackboard diagrams, illustrated with the full if somewhat limited range of muted colours in classroom chalk, do little to excite the interest of pupils. This is perhaps hardly surprising given the experience of pupils with these luridly bright, graphic accompanied, blackboard displays in the local environment. However, staff who fear that managements have opted for some special bulk buy on dull-coloured chalks can take some comfort from the fact that many of the chalks used on these brighter displays are in fact pastels.

None the less, some teachers may still wish to follow the lead in luminosity given by these commercial users. I have been told, by a pub blackboard writer, that if the chalk is kept submerged in water for some hours before being used it will produce a much more vivid colour on the board (and floor and fingers). I accept no responsibility for the consequences of this practice.

Blackboards have also benefited from other popular causes of the time. They are, relatively speaking, environmentally friendly. A wipe with a duster and their surface can be recycled. Scandinavian forests have not been decimated to produce flysheets or photocopied menus.

Blackboards offer the sought after personal touch in commerce. No word-processor can write on a blackboard. The ability to be changed quickly also gives a transience to the offers. Soup of the day really does seem like soup of the day and not last week as well. Today's specials really are the special offers for today. Snap up these offers before the board is wiped clean.

Blackboards now actually profit from their association with traditional values. It can be thought that the blackboard comes from an age when value was given for money. The blackboard offers you what it says: good old-fashioned, look you in the eye value. It has no need to hide shortcomings behind small print or gimmicks of technology.

Blackboards now also have a new lease of life in interior decoration. They are available for the kitchen to write these little reminders on that in the past you may have used a memo note for: "Must remember to buy chalk for kitchen blackboard."

In this area, too, it is the wholesome traditional sense of the blackboard which is focused on. The writing surface is surrounded by cherubs, farm animals, flowers or fruit. The designs all display traditional values from a past age.

The importance of the traditional values which the blackboard represents suggests that its continued importance in the classroom is assured. Its place in lessons of a more didactic nature fits neatly in with the current emphasis placed on more traditional teaching methods. Whole-class or large group teaching is no longer the anathema it was and blackboards can play an important part in such lessons.

Yet will the effects of commerce bring in boxes of technicolour, luminous chalk? Could tomorrow's spelling words be written on a board which has a surround in the shape of a pirate, boar, house or some other suitable feature?

Should teachers be given in-service training on attractive blackboard presentation? What changes, lie in wait for the classroom blackboard of the new millennium?

Ally Budge

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