iPads remind me of school slates. Mobile devices with the same frame, same aspect ratio, same weight, easy to use, can be used them portrait or landscape and has erasable content. If anything the slate is cheaper, harder to break, has superior, nay almost indefinite, battery life and works in all light conditions. Importantly, both devices shift learning into the hands of the learner, away from the giant slate that is the chalkboard or giant iPad that is the whiteboard.
Small slate boards, used with slate pens and scored (lined) for writing, go back as far as the 14th century, and are mentioned by Chaucer, however, their popularity in education came with the rise of mass schooling in the early 19th century. In particular, the Lancastrian system which defined specific teaching methods and evangelised the use of slates and slate pencils, within a defined system of teaching and learning. Lancaster saw slates as the key technology for learners in reading, writing and arithmetic. They lay at the heart of his pedagogy, a systematic set of practices for teaching. Slates, he thought, put the power of learning into the hands of learners and encouraged practice and attention, and also enabled the supervision in a large class by the teacher.
Return on investment
Slates were much cheaper than paper. Indeed Lancaster provided detailed return on investment calculations to show that they were many times cheaper than pen and paper. There was less waste and they were very durable. Similarly with slate pens. Slate was readily available and a recommendation for local schools was to reuse and polish roof slates from demolished buildings.
Wiping the slate clean
This common phrase may originate from the fact that students had to wipe their slates clean at the start of every class and had to do so frequently as lessons progressed. At first they used their own spit but cloths and sponges started to appear when it was discovered that germs were harmful. Pedagogically, mistakes could also be erased with much greater ease than ink on paper, correcting the failure that is so very common when learning to write. It is this very feature that makes them such efficient mobile learning devices – cheap, easy to use and simply wipe to reuse. Slates for these reasons, allowed generations to learn to write and write to learn, and were significant drivers behind the rise of literacy in the 19th century,
To slate someone
It is thought that this phrase comes from the practice of school monitors to record absence or bad behaviour on their own monitors’ slates. In classes that frequently topped a hundred, assessment was a problem. But there is a more serious pedagogic practice at play here, as Lancaster recommended that students hold up their slates and turn them towards the teacher for whole class assessment, similar to modern clicker systems. In his system, classes were based on performance and not age, with constant movement, so this sort of continuous assessment was important. One can argue that this sort of continuous, whole-class, assessment recommended by William () has been lost today.
The slate may is making a technological comeback, in the form of the many tablets on the market. They are remarkably similar in look and shape, yet centuries apart in technology. Indeed, the term ‘slate’ has been used for slimmer tablets, without keyboards, used for browsing and media access. Their lightness and ease of use and strength as e-book readers, some argue, make them useful for learning and there has been enthusiastic use in schools and Universities. The early evidence is encouraging but time will tell.
Slates have been used for centuries for writing, with their heyday in the 19th century as the need for universal schooling demanded cheap learning technology. It was only when cheap paper became widely available that people moved on. Let’s give slates their due. They were the affordable tablets of the day and played a key role in the improvement of literacy and numeracy for millions of children.
Hall N. The role of the slate in Lancasterian schools as evidenced by their manuals and handbooks
Black P. William D. Inside the Black Box Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment