Whiteboards: A Modest Proposal

3/1/2011 By:

EDITOR’S NOTE: Do you find interactive whiteboards to be an effective tool in your schools? What the heck is wrong with you!? Each year, after T&L prints our annual product guide on IWBs, we get a torrent of responses from a group that T&L editors define as “The Haters.” These educators just don’t like the darned things. In the spirit of “no ideas are bad,” we thought this year to give one of the most eloquent haters, Gary Stager, some inkspace to express his distaste:

IWBs and their clicker spawn are a terrible investment that breathes new life into medieval educational practices. Aside from producing an illusion of modernity, interactive whiteboards are a pre-Gutenberg technology; the priest chants while the monks slavishly take dictation on their tablets. They reinforce the dominance of the front of the room and teacher supremacy. At a time of enormous educational upheaval, technological change, and an increasing gulf between adults and children, it is a bad idea to purchase technology that facilitates the delivery of information and increases the physical distance between teacher and learner.


I work in schools all over the world. Many of these schools have installed IWBs on every surface of the facility, including the parking lot and football field, yet they go largely unused. The unfortunate administrative response to this top-down waste of money is to purchase canned curricula provided by the IWB vendors and our friends at the multinational textbook conglomerates. This “content” is an insult to 50-cent flash cards. It focuses on low-level repetition, memorization, and discrete skills devoid of any meaningful content. Some schools proudly show cartoons followed by comprehension quizzes on their IWBs with a self-confidence bordering on parody. The IWB vendor demonstrations at conferences are embarrassing and don’t rise even to the level of toddlers “playing school.” If such “lessons” were presented in a teacher education course, the candidate would now be selling churros.

Worst of all, the remarkable power of computers to liberate learners and construct knowledge is squandered in the service of test-prep and teacher agency.

Here are the inevitable reactions to my argument:

The kids are so engaged. Twitching is not interaction, and fidgeting is not engagement!

It’s just a tool. Technology is never neutral. It always influences and shapes behavior. Some teachers may be able to use the IWB in a creative fashion, but this hardly justifies the investment of one for every classroom. The teacher should get an IWB if they can justify its use.

It all depends on how teachers use it. We don’t buy a chain saw for every teacher. If we did, a few teachers would do brilliant work with the chain saws, a few others would cut off their thumbs, and the vast majority would just make a mess. Even in the case of the great teachers, the best we can hope for is one of those bears carved out of a log—not high art.

You should see it when the kids use the board! That usually means that a kid is permitted to stand up and click on the right answer or present information to the class, effectively substituting one lecturer for another.

We use it to share student work. Great! Buy a better projector and use that.

Our ninth graders went to Israel for a month and didn’t miss a math lesson. If your “lesson” can be reduced to screen captures, you’re in trouble; and why not allow kids to have authentic experiences?

Dr. Gary Stager is the executive director of the Constructivist Consortium and founder of the summer learning institute Constructing Modern Knowledge. He may be reached at gary@constructingmodernknowledge.com.

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