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Posted at 11:55 AM ET, 06/14/2010

Willingham: The unrealized promise of whiteboards

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?”

By Daniel Willingham
Reporter Stephanie McCrummen wrote an excellent piece in The Washington Post on Friday on whiteboards in classrooms. The story said that a view is emerging that the large amounts of money schools are spending on instructional gadgets are not necessarily improving student performance.

Perhaps in an effort to be fair, she didn’t really go far enough.

Whiteboards are one of the few recent electronic innovations that have been well studied in the classroom. There have been ample opportunities for study because Great Britain has invested heavily in them--almost every school has at least one.

The outcome of those studies echo what the chief executive of SMART Technologies (a leading Whiteboard company) said: Teachers and kids say that they like whiteboards a lot, and both say that kids are more engaged in class because of the whiteboard. In fact, this effect is quite large--pretty much everyone who is in a classroom with a whiteboard thinks it helps a lot.

But that does not translate to better classroom performance.

A recent study sheds light on part of the problem. The researchers didn’t ask kids “does the whiteboard make class more interesting?” Instead, they asked kids, “Did you like your math class this year?” without referring to the whiteboard. They posed the same question to kids in classrooms with a whiteboard and to kids without one.

Kids who had a whiteboard in their class did like math class more, but the effect was puny--much smaller than when kids were asked about the whiteboard directly.

It seems, then, that kids like whiteboards very much. There is a powerful “gee whiz” factor.

But it doesn’t do much to make kids like math more, at least as whiteboards are currently used.

More generally, liking something that happens in school is certainly good--it’s hard to imagine a pedagogical method succeeding if teachers and students uniformly hate it! But liking it is not enough to ensure that it translates into better learning.

What is perhaps most remarkable in this story is that enormous sums of money are being spent on this (and other) technologies without correspondingly thorough and thoughtful professional development.

In many districts, the technologies have simply been plopped into teachers’ classrooms with minimal or no support. Little wonder that they are not being used as effectively as they could be.

Dismal as this start was, there are thousands of teachers who have made excellent, creative use of whiteboards and other “gadgets.” Prowl the internet for an evening and you’ll find the websites where they share what they have done and are doing.

How much Race to the Top grant money would it take to identify these teachers and give them a taller podium from which to broadcast their findings, and perhaps release time to conduct professional development for their peers?

Yes, yes, I know that these methods would be unproven in controlled studies. And sure, those studies ought to be done. But in the meantime, there the whiteboards sit in classrooms.

If the London bookmakers are interested, I’d like to put five dollars on home-grown professional development for whiteboards versus merit pay.


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By Valerie Strauss  | June 14, 2010; 11:55 AM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, Technology  | Tags:  educational technology, smart boards, technology in schools, whiteboards  
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Both my kids think the smartboards are "lame." One of them suggested, "Save the money and take us on more field trips."

Posted by: los22 | June 14, 2010 1:28 PM | Report abuse

As a science teacher with a whiteboard and something called an engaged classroom and an ed tech degree I have worked on the challenge of using technology more effectively to teach my subject area which is middle school science. One of the big challenges in middle school science is that 11 - 14 year old children are being introduced to very abstract ideas like atomic structure and cellular function and they really struggle with incorporating those abstractions into their understanding of the natural world. For example, if you ask a 7th grade student to explain the effects on the human body of a heart attack they will accurately describe the macro changes that you can see like muscles failing and unconsciousness due to brain function failure but they will very rarely include the fact that red blood cells carrying oxygen to the cells in those organs no longer are arriving and that is the reason for those failures. One of the things that technology gives us the opportunity to do is to help children of this age visualize the abstract parts of science and with that in mind I have focused my use of the whiteboard on those abstractions using interactive multimedia and short videos to give my students a better picture of the unseen micro world that we as adults understand so profoundly influences the macro world we see. This seems to be working as I am beginning to see more essays that include that micro world in explanations of scientific phenomena.

I think that using technology needs to be thought of in this way. We need to ask what are the challenges in our curriculum that technology is well adapted to address and focus our development of it in those areas.

Posted by: kmlisle | June 14, 2010 1:44 PM | Report abuse

There is a Title 1 school in Prince George's County that has their whiteboard in the computer behind a 30 inch wide table, rendering the whiteboard unusable.

And then 2 years ago, the Title 1 office in PG county spend money to get every Title 1 classroom a whiteboard, even those classrooms that already had one.

And there is a school that purchased the whiteboard tablets and they sit unused in a storage closet.

Posted by: phillipmarlowe | June 14, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

@kmlisle: agreed. Ideally, one could think of new technologies as affording this or that. . .but that does require that one is familiar enough with the technology that you know what it can do. . .and you know it well enough that it pops into mind as a solution when you think of the problem.
@phillipmarlowe: I keep hearing these stories and it does make on thing "maybe it's time to slow down and think about what we've already got and how to use it." It almost has the feeling of the person who is down in the dumps purchasing something new in an effort to make himself or herself feel better :(

Posted by: DanielTWillingham | June 14, 2010 2:31 PM | Report abuse

Maybe it's just me - but I see confusion here - a white board to my knowledge is a board that I write on with my dry-erase markers (instead of chalk :))- I have portable whiteboards that students use in group work to solve problems.

The Smartboard is the highlight of my classroom - I can use animations and powerpoint notes to as kmlisle put show abstract concepts like the atom. There are interactive programs and simulations of labs that would be difficult in a crowded chemistry classroom (30 + students). I can bring up websites, pause them (if video) draw on them to illustrate concepts. The Smartboard has brought a lot of wealth to my instruction in the past 5 years and has given me new ways to get across the concepts to my students. I did do quite a bit of training on it and so I know how to make it work for me and my students so that it is not a glorified overhead projector.

Posted by: annwhite1 | June 14, 2010 2:43 PM | Report abuse

@annwhite1: the more precise name would be interactive whiteboard. . .I used "whiteboard" as a shortcut figuring people would know what I meant. smartboard is a trademarked name, referring to products from Smart Technologies.
So cool to hear that you've had so much success with it!

Posted by: DanielTWillingham | June 14, 2010 3:07 PM | Report abuse

"Save the money and take us on more field trips."

I bet a lot of students would agree with loss22's kids.

and Title I money could be spent on trips and people to make school engaging. It is safer for the bureaucrats to spend federal money on toys. And the more you spend on technology without a commensurate expenditures on the people that use it, you make success more unlikely. And its important that the true cost of the required professional development (including the time out of class) be factored in.

We've always had these problems with operating, capital, and federal budgets. But the proliferation of initiatives in an age of accountability, where rule #1 is Cover Your Ass, has made the problems so much worse.

And watch this within the context of tougher evaluations and school transformations. The more that principals are under the gun, and the more power they get through evaluations and weakned tenure/seniority, the more we are going to replace ecclectic, veteran (higher paid) teachers with the rationale that young teacher are more open to Smartboards, or whatever.

That's a long way of saying that its not the technology per se. I welcome technology. Its the technology within the context of overall political and systemic factors.

Posted by: johnt4853 | June 14, 2010 3:36 PM | Report abuse

As a substitute teacher, I have had very little training in the new technology. In fact, when I was supposed to show a video to the class, one of the students had to turn on the DVD player for me!

I can see the advantage to the Interactive whiteboard; in one elementary class it enabled me to put the worksheet on and write the answers into the sentences as the students came up with them. With an ordinary chalkboard I would have resorted to merely writing the word, because it would have taken too long to write the entire sentence (and no one could have read my handwriting anyway).

But I was amused by the portable whiteboards. Aren't these just the old-fashioned slates with a different writing implement?

Posted by: sideswiththekids | June 14, 2010 3:47 PM | Report abuse

At my child’s public high school, students like the smartboards when used as described by Kmlisle. But they also appreciate them for reasons not yet mentioned. By accessing the day’s smartboard file from home via the class web page, the students find it easier to keep up. If they are absent that day, they can see most of the period's material online from home. If they are having difficulty with homework, they can review the pertinent portions of the lesson that night. Falling behind and losing confidence are much less likely.

Posted by: baysider | June 14, 2010 5:07 PM | Report abuse

".I used "whiteboard" as a shortcut figuring people would know what I meant. "

Bad call. "Whiteboard" is not a shortcut for anything electronic.

"Smartboard"--trademarked or not--is the correct term. Your article is consequently very misleading.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | June 14, 2010 5:14 PM | Report abuse

I know of no student who has a whiteboard in his home, and I think that speaks volumes. If we are going to spend millions of dollars on technology, shouldn't we be spending it on devices that kids can actually use to continue to learn with once they leave the classroom? Totally agree that this requires a new way of thinking about professional development, whether it's whiteboards or cell phones or online social learning tools. One off workshops will not work; we need to immerse teachers into these technology laden learning environments over extended periods of time. As the National Education Technology Plan suggests (, teachers need to take on much of their own PD in the context of online learning communities and networks.

Whiteboards and SmartBoards continue the practice of schools to "tinker on the edges" when it comes to implementing technology. I find it hard to see what whiteboards fundamentally change about teaching and learning in the classroom. If you want proof, check out the Smart Tech "Ease of Use" video that I blogged about a few months ago ( As a parent, that vision of a classroom makes me very uneasy. Few schools really look at technology as an opportunity to transform teaching and learning in the ways the National Ed Tech Plan suggests.

Posted by: WillRichardson | June 14, 2010 5:33 PM | Report abuse

I also thought whiteboards were just used with dry-erase markers. Nothing electronic about them.

Posted by: carbon916 | June 14, 2010 7:30 PM | Report abuse

I agree with being confused, because white-boards are dry-erase boards.

The best thing about technology like smartboards and projecting from laptops is that teachers can put up whatever worksheets or just write things out, and then save the files for the class and put them on blackboard or equivalent site. Very useful.

Posted by: sarahee | June 14, 2010 8:19 PM | Report abuse

It's a time tested choice: be the guide for growing minds or be the shill for marketeers of the latest crap to flow down the profit chute. Decisions, decisions. Good thing I learned to read by myself. Otherwise there might be strained allegiances.

Posted by: beowulf3 | June 15, 2010 5:53 AM | Report abuse

In my experience it is the parents who have bought the smart boards at the insistance of principals who swore they were the latest and greatest tool...parents have been wasting thousands and thousands of dollars in government schools for stuff that isn't used and doesn't work...

Posted by: knoxelcomcastnet | June 15, 2010 6:16 AM | Report abuse

If you read the comments above by people saying they like smartboards, you can see the problem. Look at the posts - all about powerpoint, animations, bringing up worksheets so the teacher can fill in the words - all of the examples are about the TEACHER, not the student. The smartboard, as used in my kids classrooms, is nothing more than a very convenient blackboard/video player/computer screen for the TEACHER to use during lectures. Even the few interactive applications that I have seen were activities (in math) where students came up to solve problems in front the entire class - not much different from the chalkboard activities of my youth. We need ways to break the children up into small groups or even individuals, so that work can be individualized and differentiated,not ways to show flashier and flashier lectures to the entire class

Posted by: bkmny | June 15, 2010 6:16 AM | Report abuse

In my experience it is the parents who have bought the smart boards at the insistance of principals who swore they were the latest and greatest tool...parents have been wasting thousands and thousands of dollars in government schools for stuff that isn't used and doesn't work...

Posted by: knoxelcomcastnet | June 15, 2010 6:17 AM | Report abuse

baysider: Accessing the work from home doesn't require a Smartboard in the classroom, just a Web site. And the first thing I noticed when I began substituting is that none of the students bothered to write down the assignments. The homework assignments are posted on the Web, so they wait until they are ready to do it and then look to see what it is (and hope they brought the right book home). One school, with the last period reserved for tutoring, intervention, or study, even sends around a list of all the assignments made by the teachers that day so the students will know what to work on. As a result, the school day is even more fragmented and the students are more present-minded than adolescents usually are; they don't even have to plan ahead to the extent of deciding which books they need that day.

The only good use I saw was in the elementary school where the teachers put on the Smartboard every morning a list of students and the categories of lunch arrangements. Even the first graders, on their way to their seats, would pass the board and move their names to the proper lunch category. When the bell rang, instead of calling the roll and taking care of lunch arrangements, the teacher would quickly eyeball the class to make sure the unassigned names were really absent students, save the screen, and send it to the office, which instantly had an accurate attendance sheet and lunch count.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | June 15, 2010 9:42 AM | Report abuse

Yes, the commenters are correct. "Whiteboards" are for dry-erase markers. We had them in high school and there's nothing electronic about them. Just call them "smartboards", even if that is a trademarked term. Frankly, your post was confusing at first (In my mind, I was thinking, "Whiteboards are electronic????"). And, yes, Stephanie McCrummen's article sounded just as dumb, although at least she started by referring them to as "interactive whiteboards".

Posted by: rlalumiere | June 15, 2010 10:06 AM | Report abuse

Why don't kids like school? First of all, school is hard. Young humans are not meant to be confined to chairs for a significant portion of the day. For much of the day the student engages in the same sort of brain work with very few breaks. After school is more of the samae with homework. This schedule is tiring and just plain hard. Apparently the concept of work smarter, not harder has not made it into curriculum design yet. Secondly, think back to your own school days. I remember a great deal of time wondering either how long was it going to take the rest of the class to master a very simple concept or how did everyone else manage to grasp a very difficult concept so quickly? All the fance gadgets in the world aren't going to address these issues.

Posted by: abbyandmollycats | June 15, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

Typical liberal thought process evident here. Whiteboards "engage" more kids; kids are more interested, more involved, it's all good dog.

Problem: no measurable improvement in achievement.

But that's OK --- feelings always MUCH MORE important to a liberal than results.

Posted by: Curmudgeon10 | June 15, 2010 4:02 PM | Report abuse

As a recent victim of an antiquated "Last hire-first fire" RIF policy in my school district, I was the 1 out of the 4 county Instructional Technology Resource Teachers sent back into the classroom. Regardless of my National Board Certification, M.S. in Instructional Technology, and 36 years in the county, I was the "last hire" into the department. Being the most qualified doesn't count for much these days.

This article sums up what I've been preaching to our administration for years! They seem to have no problem spending money on hardware, such as Interactive White Boards, and throwing them into the hands of teachers and yet fail to be able to come up with money to back up the technology with effective professional development. I see these expensive whiteboards sitting in corners, hidden by furniture or being used as some neat glitzy gadget to keep students entertained. A perfect example of money and resources wasted.

I just recently completed teaching two professional development courses on SMARTboards and teachers were amazed to see how easily RESEARCH BASED teaching strategies could be incorporated into their teaching using the SMARTboard as a tool. The problem: too few of these classes have been offered and they should be a professional development requirement.

Robert Marzano has conducted independent research on achievement gains using IWBs and his results show that it's dependent on HOW teachers chose to use them, not IF they use them. When used EFFECTIVELY with scientifically research based strategies, marked gains in student learning have been evident.

It's unfortunate our county finds it more important to throw money out to put the tools into the hands of the teachers and then expect them to know how to use them rather than back up their investment by funding the one human resource capable of delivering the professional development that is so desperately needed.

Now that I will be back in the classroom I have no doubt my use of the interactive whiteboard will result in greater student achievement and I will make an impact on 25 students. However, if allowed to remain in my current position and given the platform for providing effective professional development, I could impact 60 teachers and 1500 students.

So I ask, with budget cuts, struggling schools, and teacher layoffs, where would you get the most bang for your buck?

Fran Baldwin, NBCT

Posted by: cdiem40 | June 15, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse

Love computers. Love technology. In my school division some schools have replaced blackboards with whiteboards. Some schools also have smartboards...but elementary art teachers and music teachers don't have real art or music rooms, much less smartboards. (I started teaching art in 1970...have never taught in a real art room.) The school board just voted to spend approx $4 million dollars to put smartboards in all schools, instead of giving employees additional compensation. Limited smartboard training.

But the real questions are: Has the percentage of increase in technology spending over the last 15 or 20 years improved learning for the average student? Has the percentage of increase in tech spending surpassed the percentage of increase for instructional per pupil cost and/or increases in teacher salaries?
(Exclude those students and schools mentioned in the most recent Newsweek rankings.)

If there is no correlation between spending on technology and student achievement, shouldn't we reassess where we are putting our resources?

Posted by: ilcn | June 15, 2010 4:57 PM | Report abuse

In the corporate world, they always talk about TOTAL COST OF OWNERSHIP with technology - things like training, help desks, and maintenance - items often neglected when money in DC is spent on technology --
-- I have seen more computers in my building that are obsolete, unmaintained, deteriorating than anywhere - I have spent countless hours of my free time trying to refurbish, reservice, etc so kids can get on a computer once a week -- WE BUY COMPUTERS AND FIRE TECHNOLOGY PEOPLE????
-- ACCELERATED MATH - System implemented one year and out the door the next -- guess what I spent a good bit of my free time trying to become an expert on this too - indeed, higher ups asked me to attend Saturday sessions on the technology - which I did - only to have it thrown out the window - did any one add my SUNK cost of trying to become an expert to the equation
-- I spend countless hours of my free time, maintaining and learning a variety of graphing calculator related softwares and technologies - and I spend at $100 per year on batteries
-- AND THE LIST GOES ON -- to grants written for color printers which I never saw because they were stolen from the supply room --
-- AND MY LIST GOES ON AND ON AND ON -- my question is if you do not invest and implement properly, how can you ever judge the efficacy of any technology?

Posted by: petercat926 | June 15, 2010 11:03 PM | Report abuse

Technology in the classroom has two problems. (Three, if you include school authorities falling for the latest fad, but this happens with subjects too. Anybody remember the "new math"?)

First, teachers are unfamiliar with the technology and unsure what to do with it. The next generation will produce teachers who use technology easily and creatively.

Second, almost all teachers in public schools were once students in public schools, and most liked their school days and, when they think of "learning," they think of the ways they enjoyed. Other professions have people who went into the field with some misconceptions and, once there, agitate for change and ask why things can't be done differently. The public schools lack a sizable group like this. If today's home-schooled students go into teaching, they will also be more willing to question the status quo.

(I realize this is a generalization; if these points were true for ALL teachers, this blog would attract no comments.)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | June 16, 2010 9:31 AM | Report abuse


White board is the term being used in schools. Smartboard is only one brand of white board. There are others.

White board is the generic terms for these devices.

Posted by: jlp19 | June 17, 2010 11:03 AM | Report abuse

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