When I was a little boy, one of the most dramatic moments in my classroom life was when the teacher, in order to either highlight a particular point or else to put the knowledge she was imparting to us on that day in some kind of visual order, would momentarily turn her back on her students in order to write something on the blackboard. She would pick up the chalk and start making broad strokes on the board. The teacher, with all the experience she had, was able to write without making that terrible screeching noise that sounded a little like people scraping window glass with their fingernails. Instead, because she knew what she was doing, she would make a deeper smoother hissing sound with her chalk writing, a sound that represented a certain amount of friction, but not an intolerable abrasive friction like the friction associated with the screeching sound. The deep smooth hissing sound of chalk, used properly, was an indication of one of the more important physical tasks that young people in modern society witnessed as they grew up. Given the fact that most young people in modern society are kept apart from the main work processes that sustain society, and certainly the main physical work processes, writing on a blackboard with chalk represented one physical work activity that was available to them, that was an integral part of the daily job of one category of workers and therefore that represented a work activity with economic importance. Students could see and hear the chalk moving and, on some occasions, feel the chalk moving with its attendant friction, as they wrote with it themselves. It certainly required generating more physical friction than either writing as in taking notes or coloring with crayons. That extra friction of the chalk being moved across a blackboard generated a little extra immediate drama in an educational experience that, for the most part was fairly mediated as an external world experience.
One more thought with regard to blackboards. A teacher writing on a blackboard is a shared public experience which makes it like an event. Coloring and writing notes tend to be more private experiences and, therefore, don’t have the same kind of impact on children.
As is true with other patterns of technological innovation, some people just had to find a way of making more frictionless the act of writing on a public surface in order to teach students. Not only in terms of the actual writing, but also in terms of cleaning up the markings when the teacher was done with them. These are the reasons that whiteboards became so popular towards the latter part of the twentieth century. Writing with a marker on a whiteboard is much more effortless than writing with a piece of chalk on a blackboard. There is no significant sound that comes from passing a marker over a white board, no deep smooth hiss, because there is less friction. And cleaning a whiteboard, particularly the better models, is so much more complete than cleaning a blackboard, although some of the cheaper models can be stained.
Because of the convenience in using a whiteboard, it has practically entirely replaced blackboards in most schools, workplaces and homes. Convenience in this circumstance means less pressing, less energy require to apply the writing instrument to the writing surface. One might also say less skill. There was an art to applying just enough pressure to a piece of chalk so that it could effectively write without squeaking or breaking apart. A marker requires much less pressure to use, makes practically no noise, and there’s no danger in breaking it while writing. And I think that because it is a relatively more frictionless process, the writer is not as bonded, as connected to the words as they come out. A marker does not make as strong of an imprint in the mind of the teacher who is utilizing it, nor does it preserve as strong an imprint in the minds of all the people who are experiencing it.
One other thought just occurred to me. Maybe there is something to be said for the chalk residue that remained as a result of the imperfection of the cleaning that came from a blackboard eraser. It provided a kind of externalized mental grounding representing the layers of thought that had been built up and that led to the thoughts that were then on the blackboard at the final moment of use for a given classroom period of time. These residue were a sign of the interconnectedness of all the ideas that had been presented during a particular class room period. Dispersed chalk dust represented the flow of a teacher’s cerebration. And when students were asked to participate, of the intertwining of teacher and student thinking.
But now there are innovators who hope to replace the conventional whiteboard. Microsoft, Google and Dell all have different versions of a touchscreen whiteboard with a very big television screen. Dell has the newest, and its version is the one that is most oriented towards education. Its screen is 75 inches and allows for many users for purposes both of collaboration and of interactive learning. Dell calls its version a Blackboard, although it obviously operates very differently than a traditional blackboard. Obviously, there is practically no friction in writing on a Dell Blackboard. One can use either one’s hand or a stylus, but either way, just as with a smartphone, one glides across the screen with so little friction that one barely feels anything. There is almost no pressure, so one barely becomes aware that he is leaving an imprint. It is truly an experience that, whatever the actual context, one feels like he is operating in a vacuum. One does not actually experience oneself making or preserving an imprint. In other words, it represents one more area of life where one no longer experiences one of the fundamental routines of human beings.
And not experiencing the act of leaving an imprint is certainly going to affect the quality of the imprint. In a frictionless vacuum, one becomes a frictionless robot or avatar with more pat shallow formulaic thoughts. Interacting with a touchscreen Blackboard, if used generally in educational institutions, is going to have very harmful effects on our students. This becomes one more area where making life easier is going to have unforeseen consequences. There really were some very positive aspects of an old-fashioned blackboard.
© 2019 Laurence Mesirow