"Important" Academic Issues # 1--Chalk vs. Whiteboard
By RJ Snell, May 13, 2010 in Editors' Picks, Pedagogy and Teaching

Wendell Berry famously raised the ire of many in a little essay he wrote , "Why I am Not Going to Buy a Computer," in which he presented several rules he follows for new technology. I won't list them all, but as an example, his first rule is that the new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces.

So, a few utterly biased rules which if followed would support my preference--CHALK.

1. The new technology should be needed, and not just a change because one can change.

2. Education ought to operate in piety for the past, and thus the presumption ought to be against change.

3. A classroom should not feel like a boardroom.

4. New tech ought not produce more waste than the previous tech.

5. Ease and efficiency are not trump cards in education; they might even be detriments.

6. Chalk dust on one's pants is funny but oddly provides ethos.

7. Memories of detentions spent clapping erasers together make me happy.


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Lee Trepanier on May 13, 2010 at 6:24 am

I agree that technology often is seen (wrongly) as a substitute for the effort required for genuine learning. However, technology does provide professors new opportunties not only to present and discuss material but also new ways of teaching, e.g., online courses.

I would simply sum up the rules about technology as the use of technology should always be subordinate to pedagogical ends (which is not always the case in universities today).

David Kidd on May 13, 2010 at 6:29 am

My vote is for chalk. There are few things more annoying than a marker that gives out in the middle of class--which, it seems, happens more often than not.

Gary Scott on May 13, 2010 at 7:36 am

Would a blind student enroll in a second course taught by a professor? The answer tests for a classroom culture of inquiry and Socratic dialogue, and resisting any mundane re-writing of the assigned text in bullet points.

Anonymous on May 13, 2010 at 7:58 am

Hi, RJ. You've roped me into this discussion by involving Wendell Berry, and yes, yes, I agree with all you've said, particularly the points about waste and piety. Two further points: chalk dusk doesn't ruin clothing, and chalk doesn't smell so awful as markers.

I do think that chalk has been coded as "academic" and markers as "business." If that's right, I agree that it's all the more important to stick with chalk (when there is even a choice).

Anonymous on May 13, 2010 at 11:11 am

White board pens also smell something foul. Assaults on our senses, especially of the engineered chemical variety, are to be left out of the classroom (I speak of student dress and comportment here too). And no, chalk dust does not count as such an assault.

Lee Trepanier on May 14, 2010 at 6:11 am

I'm probably in the minority here, but I prefer the markers. Chalk is not only messy, getting on your hands and clothes, but also bad for your health (chalk dust, allergies, etc.).

RJ Snell on May 14, 2010 at 10:55 am

Five minutes on Google (which counts as sufficient research for a paper, correct?)shows a fair number of sites warning of the deadly and pernicious dangers of chalk dust. This is true.

Five more minutes reveals that markers can cause headache, nausea, and enlargement of the liver.

I'm going to call that a toss-up, with a tie going to tradition.

Markers ruin clothes in a way chalk does not, however, as my shirt sleeves can testify, and my rules listed above are of enough moral serious to go with the chalk despite the risk!

RJ Snell on May 14, 2010 at 10:56 am


Dr. Terrence Frederick Flower on May 20, 2010 at 4:37 am

Only government and higher education have resisted change. Too many professors today would find themselves at home in the classroom of a hundred, even two hundred years ago. The new technologies are but tools that can help people learn. Today people learn in many new ways, but the interaction afforded by the latest new technologies can make learning exciting again. We all know a sixteen year old unwed mother can teach her child an entire language in a year but the best of professors canot do so with adults in the traditional classroom.

If we believe in intellectual diversity, different perspectives and participatory interaction of others in the learning process can achieve what the traditonal, passive Socratic tools often fail to do. Let us embrace the new technologies, not as ends in themselves, but realistically, as new ways to get to our goals of teaching and learning together.

Dr. Kevan C. Barley on May 20, 2010 at 4:58 am

It seems to me that every advance carries within it a measure of regression at the same time; that is, something's lost while something's gained. Trying to avoid all losses will therefore arrest progress. I love both markers and chalk.

Now, PowerPoint is another topic altogether . . .

RJ Snell on May 20, 2010 at 5:21 am

My thanks to the recent respondents.

I'm not sure I understand why Socratic tools are considered passive--if anything a Socratic form of education demands activity from students. Nor do I see why Socratic education does not foster intellectual diversity or participatory interaction.

In fact, I'm not sure there is any evidence that the newer technologies foster intellectual diversity or different perspectives rather than hinder them. There's a fairly substantial argument made by folks like George Grant, Ellul, and Heidegger that technological culture results in homogeneity of form and thought.

Further, there's some reason to be skeptical of non-logocentric education. (1) The notion of different learning styles is more dubious than is often presented, with serious research calling this into question, (2) even if word and text based education isn't the only style, there's reason to believe its the most adequate for coping with an information society, and (3) following Postman, we have to wonder about the desirability of fostering an education not rooted in word and logos.

I hear from my pro-technology colleagues frequently that we ought to embrace tech as new ways to further learning. But I'm not sure what the argument for the new tech is other than IT'S HERE. That's not a reason to support it, especially given the increasing evidence that the new tech does not help all that much in fostering serious intellectual capacity (the google makes us stupid phenomenon). I'll admit that new tech likely assists in data transmission--powerpoint, blackboard, class wikis--sure, these all help get data out there. It's just that education is not primarily about moving data from one place to another.

Finally, I'm not at all convinced that people learn in new ways today. Of course data can be accessed in new ways and from new places, but learning is related to human intelligence and judgment, which doesn't really change. So while what we study and the tools of study change, which is why we have new knowledge and information, it is not self-evident that we learn in new ways. Human intelligence is related to human nature.

Fred Putnam on May 20, 2010 at 10:20 am

I prefer chalk, every time. Markers are wasteful (they are non-recycleable in our area; with chalk there is nothing to recycle); markers smash down badly, so that a fine line quickly becomes impossible (chalk can always be turned); markers fun out without warning, since you can't see how much ink is left (chalk is pretty obvious!); whiteboards are prone to glare, especially if the room has windows; and the list could go on (like the time I was nearly physically sick at the smell of a freshly-opened marker).

This conversation also reminds me of Neil Postman's Technopoly, in which he asks how we weigh the genuine advantages of a newly-available technology versus its adverse effects, and warns that any technological change is ecological (becomes part of the cultural environment) rather than being simply added to "life as it was".

But I far prefer sitting and talking Socratically, as Michael Strong encourages ("The Habit of Thought"), and as our daughter enjoyed at St. John's College, and my students enjoy (or say they do).

Anonymous on May 27, 2010 at 6:47 am

Well said, RJ.

If we try to vary our teaching to accomodate various learning styles, adding in diverse activities that depart from simple lecture and dialogue, e.g. some kind of dynamic classroom exercise to encourage "kinetic learners," then would that not result in (as it were) all students learning on some class days but none of them learning well on all the days?

The simplicity of Professor, Book, Chalk, and Talk seems like an exquisitely efficient recipe for the classroom.

Ralmaicle on Aug 29, 2010 at 9:52 am


RJ Snell on Aug 30, 2010 at 8:53 am

@Ralmaicle: Well, there's some tongue-in-cheek good humor to be had in "Important" isn't there?

Mr. David T. Stark on Sep 14, 2010 at 9:50 am

I think Fred is abusing his markers. Don't push down so hard. :)

A few classrooms where I teach offer a choice of whiteboard or blackboard. The one I use depends most often on the layout of the classroom furniture. Do the students have to incur stiff necks in order to see what I'm writing? (Of course, furniture rearrangement is usually feasible.)

Given a choice, I prefer the whiteboard. I have 4 colors of marker. I find this extremely useful for highlighting ideas and separating concepts and constructs on the board. I used colored chalk in a criminal investigation class a few times, but I heard (informally) from the maintenance staff that it was harder for them to remove from the blackboards at night.

Anonymous on Oct 15, 2010 at 6:18 am

At least in my current situation, I don't have a choice between whiteboards and blackboard. When assigning classrooms, my campus does not ask me for my preference. I do, however, always have a choice of whether or not to use PowerPoint and other technologies. In general, I tend to avoid PowerPoint presentations except to show visual images, such as paintings, early photographs, etc. Below is a funny video about how NOT to use PowerPoint - The Gettysburg Address by PowerPoint: http://vimeo.com/7849863

David Kidd on Oct 15, 2010 at 6:32 am

Well, that was excruciating.

Lee Trepanier on Oct 15, 2010 at 6:43 am

Powerpoint is great when used appropriately (I mean this seriously). As I said before, the problem is that it is often used as substitute for content itself rather than as a delivery mechanism of content.

CM Kessler on Nov 9, 2010 at 6:14 am

Eerie coincidence here, RJ. Last year, as an exercise in comparison and contrast, I asked my remedial college (not a typo) first-year writing students to compare their attitudes toward whiteboards and blackboards. They moaned that the topic was both hard and boring (as if I care). I reminded them that it was only boring because they weren't doing it yet. Thank you for reaffirming my faith in a perfectly fine little topic.

Apart from the coincidence, I love what you say here about Socratic technique and logocentrist teaching. And the responses are delightful. All balm for the soul of this very old-school teacher, whose students end up voicing heartfelt gratitude for what they learn from my class. Let's all keep fighting our good fights.

Travis Cook, Ph.D. on Aug 1, 2011 at 8:05 am

Hands down chalk is better. White boards, like digital watches, have no class.

about the author

R. J. Snell
R. J. Snell

Associate Professor and Director of the Philosophy Program at Eastern University outside of Philadelphia. Ph.D. from Marquette, MA from Boston College and BSc. from Liberty University.

I work broadly in the history of philosophy, but especially Thomism in conjunction with contemporary thought. My first book argues for a Thomist, Bernard Lonergan, against the skepticism of Richard Rorty.

Starting to do more work on the natural law and especially the epistemology of apprehending the good.