You are unlikely to have heard of James Pillans (1788-1864) but he had a direct, lasting and profound effect on teaching and perhaps less on learning. Why? He invented the blackboard (chalkboard in US), which he used to teach geography using coloured chalks. He was the Headmaster of the Edinburgh’s Old High School, later (1820-1863) Professor of Humanity & Laws in the University of Edinburgh.
Evolution of blackboards
The technology has evolved from a flat piece of slate, written upon using chalk sticks (actually gypsum), to boards painted with matte paint. Green paint was adopted when it was found to be easier on the eye. Stronger, longer lasting boards were also developed of porcelain and enameled steel. Eventually, flexible materials were used that could be rolled round in a loop, to preserve written material. Some were put on wheels to be rolled in and out of position and in higher education multiple blackboards are still piled high on walls,. Chalk was used as it was easily available, cheap and could be wiped off with a damp cloth or felt covered pad.
Chalk and talk
Blackboards have had an effect on teaching and learning that still prevails today. They changed the dynamic between student and teacher. Advantageously the teacher could write things on the board to be seen by the whole class (if legible) but this led to less interaction with students, less dialogue and less of what could be called the Socratic approach to teaching and learning. It led to more presentation by ‘writing’ and put far more focus on straight exposition by the teacher. It is essentially a broadcast medium, written by the teacher and seen by the whole class, with easy erasure.
A more extreme form of chalk and talk is commonly seen in highly abstract subjects such as maths and physics, where lecturers literally write screeds of equations across multiple blackboards for most of their lecture. It is not uncommon for lecturers in these subjects to have poor social skills and a tendency to turn their backs to their students to write what they regard as model exposition. In practice it is rare that all students can follow this flow at the same speed as the delivery of the teacher. The problem can be mitigated by recording lectures for further perusal by students, and this has been shown to increase attainment.
Interestingly technology continued to reinforce this ‘chalk and talk’ pedagogy, with the introduction of 35mm slide projectors, overhead projectors, flipcharts, computer projectors, PowerPoint and whiteboards.
The direct descendant of the blackboard is the interactive whiteboard. Considerable investments have been made into buying and installing interactive whiteboards into schools, yet the evidence for a return on this investment in terms of outcomes has yet to be realised. Many remain unused for most of the time or only used to present content with little use made of their interactive abilities. The primary problem is the ‘one to many’ relationship between teacher and students in the classroom. It can be awkward and difficult to get student interaction in this context.
There is barely a classroom or lecture hall in the world that does not, or did not, have a blackboard, apart from progressive schools such as Montessori and Steiner schools, who eschew whole class instruction. Interestingly, something designed for classroom use has also migrated to restaurants, bars and even in the home as an errand pad. It has played a key role in pedagogy as it promoted what is commonly called ‘chalk and talk’ teaching, where the teacher largely talks at students. This has remained a problem in schools globally as it has prevented, well-researched and more sophisticated pedagogic approaches from entering the classroom, and is often a default for poorly trained teachers.