Every year or so there’s an article published somewhere in America that seeks to solve the Education Problem. Usually it appears in an outlet that is sufficiently serious enough to lend weight to the claim that “Families are falling apart,” “Teachers are under-qualified,” or “Standardized testing is unrealistic”; but not so serious that it’s afraid to publish shoddy research and assumptive statistics masquerading as solid proof. Be wary of journalists solving problems—that’s my motto.
But I’m about to put all of these people out of a job. I can see them clearly in my mind’s eye: a dimly lit basement office with no computer; an uncovered bulb with a pull string dangles form the ceiling; piles of paper are scowled through by someone wearing spectacles. This individual comes out each year with the newly updated “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” the editors throw in a few key words like ipads and smart classrooms, and they ship the story out.
I think I’m in pretty good shape to solve this problem. Having exactly zero experience in America’s public education system, I feel uniquely qualified to explain why it doesn’t work: a fact we can safely take as a starting assumption. Allow my anecdotal evidence to seep steadily into your consciousness and follow the advice of Darth Vader: “search your feelings, you know it to be true.”
My contention is that, to date, we have identified the wrong technology as the root of the problem. As you can see in my chart I’ve provided, the decline of the American education system coincides almost exactly with our eradication of chalkboards from the classrooms, replacing them with whiteboards and dry erase markers.
I’m not sure why this change came about. In my career in higher education, I’ve generally been required to use whiteboards and dry erase markers because that is the equipment supplied in my classrooms, but every so often I am assigned a room with a blackboard and I have to go to the supply closet and dig out a box of chalk. It’s honestly the highlight of my semester.
Chalk has so many obvious advantages over dry-erase markers. To begin, markers on whiteboards are almost completely devoid of friction. As any experienced teacher will attest, it is easy, without careful attention to muscle tone and a detailed vitamin regiment, to begin writing a simple letter with a marker—say an e—and have the final “swoosh” travel several feet across the board. It wreaks havoc with my handwriting: obscuring the vital lesson and making me look ridiculous. Chalk, on the other hand, moves across the board smoothly laying out letters almost effortlessly. The resulting handwriting is naturally educational to an incredible extent. Such that students have been known to read the text of “Jabberwocky” from a blackboard and leave the class with a complex understanding of the inherent Marxist implications of the Middle-English in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Additionally, there are numerous ecological issues to consider. Chalk is composed primarily of compressed calcium carbonate, a natural product that is plentiful and requires minimal energy to convert into a writing utensil. Dry-erase markers, however, are manufactured from plastic (plastic, people!) and chemically synthesized ink. When you see a presentation on a whiteboard and hear the infernal squeak of a felt tip on a polished surface, translate the intermittent sound accurately as two recurring phrases: petroleum product and greenhouse gasses.
Chalk has none of these drawbacks. When used for writing, it broadcasts a musical sound throughout the room in the rhythm of erudition. The pleasant tick-tacks echo quietly in a pattern that synchronizes with the alpha brain-waves of all those within auditory range: bio-degradable it whispers. Sustainable.
Let’s not forget the important overall visual metaphor of each device as well. Chalk beams forth from a blackboard as a light in the darkness. It beckons, the physical symbol of knowledge, a beacon for the eager student to follow into the realm of enlightenment. Black markers, however, form the exact opposite impression. Its ink sits dully on a smooth surface, marring the perfection, sucking the soul dry like a black hole absorbs light and gravity.
Even worse, on a well-used whiteboard, the writing becomes surrounded by the ghosts of previous lessons; English grammar fights to live over the decaying corpses of algebraic equations. The teacher struggles with each new mark to obliterate the crowding marks of those who came before, often merely producing more smudges that somehow refuse to erase.
Chalkboards erase much more completely, and even then, the ghosts of previous lessons become the angelic couriers to further lands of light. I’ve known students who have managed to work ahead an entire semester in other courses like Sociology and Advanced Welding while attending my English class—such is the power of a chalkboard to preserve knowledge.
Think about it. No one ever looks impressive standing in front of a whiteboard with their fingertips stained by ink, a cap bouncing clumsily across the floor. Chalk dust enshrines those whom it covers. It is a badge of honor. The chalkboard is a symbol, a standard of knowledge and innovation. The whiteboard is a symbol of silliness.
So, I think it’s safe to say that we need to take a step backwards in our classroom presentation technology. I don’t mean to sound like a luddite, but it seems obvious that the whiteboard needs to be relegated to the corner as a failed experiment. It is, without a doubt, singlehandedly marring the future of our great society. Let us turn back before it is too late.