There were few voices of protest when convoys of whiteboards swept into British schools in the 1990s, sending the blackboard either tumbling into the skip or off to lead a new and arguably quieter life as the "today's specials" menu in a local pub.
Whiteboard salespeople had an easy pitch: no more chalk dust, brighter classrooms, a more modern décor, no more screeching of teacher nails catching on board.
But not all teachers fell for the sales patter. One senior geography teacher at my first school had spent his whole professional life learning and perfecting the art of chalkmanship. He likened the whiteboard invasion to the arrival of white settlers in the Americas – the blinkered, commercially driven ruination of a whole way of life.
He fiercely clung on to the blackboard in his classroom long after the rest of the school had been converted to the new faith. I could understand why. His boardwork was brilliant. He used to spend many an hour chalking up – purely from memory – his own intricate maps and diagrams.
His “Australia” was a particular masterpiece, using a rich range of colours to shade different kinds of terrain. A heavier chalk application highlighted key points on the map, a lighter touch for additional features, coastlines edged with a radiant blue.
Despite admiring this skill and finesse, I naturally assumed – as a young teacher – that all such defenders of the blackboard were sadly behind the times. Surely the new must be better than the old, I thought. After all, the new whiteboards and marker pens just looked, smelt and felt so much smoother and slicker. It followed that they had to be better educationally, too, right?
Beyond the white cliffs
With hindsight, I am not so sure. Instead of opting for whiteboards, maybe the better (and much cheaper) new technology to have gone for was powderless chalk. This need not have stood in the way of other new (and more obviously beneficial) classroom technology. Blackboards are still common in Germany and in many other European countries, positioned happily alongside modern classroom projector screens and accompanying digital technology.
It's not really about bringing back those beautifully drawn maps of Australia. Google images will do for all of that. But the case for the blackboard does not rest there. Many who have used both white- and blackboards also argue that the sound of chalk on board had more impact and carried more gravitas. Blackboards enabled the teacher to make various tip, tap and thudding noises while writing, varying the emphasis for effect, and using the chalk and board almost as a musical instrument. In contrast, a pen on a whiteboard merely generates an irritating superficial squeak.
Chalk was also much lower maintenance than the board-marker pen. Teachers could trust chalk not to cheat on them. It did not regularly dry up or run out on them without warning. Teachers knew just where they stood. Chalk was also a lot cheaper for school budgets and better for the environment.
And while blackboards could be difficult to clean, this problem was as nothing compared with the gathering greyness and ghostly residual writing that soon haunts all whiteboards – not to mention the common disaster of someone accidentally applying a permanent marker pen.
After a troubled relationship lasting many years, I, for one, have decided to dump the whiteboard and pen. Good riddance to them. Equally, I cannot really see the blackboard making a comeback anytime soon.
So everything I or the students want to present to the class now goes up via the computer keyboard onto the classroom projector screen. It’s not as personal and it has its drawbacks, but life has got a lot easier since I finally broke off with pen and whiteboard. So I now depend almost exclusively on the computer and projector. What could possibly go wrong?
Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams’s School in Thame, Oxfordshire