It is easy to forget that any new technology has to start somewhere. One of the best things about being an academic is the chance to read somewhat random things. Occasionally they turn out to be useful, mostly they are just interesting. Today I consider an article in the History of Education Quarterly on a new education technology: the blackboard.
Introducing A New Way Of Teaching
Clearly, there are many things you can do with a blackboard. (At least if you are not me. My writing looks too much like a five-year-old’s writing to use boards that much. Sometime in the early 70s I decided I knew better than everyone else how to hold a pen. I’ve never broken the bad habit of holding the pen funny and writing weird so I don’t do it much.)
Christopher Phillips notes that when the blackboard came to West Point it was used quite differently. (West Point is the US Army College). In the early nineteenth century West Point was developing its own identity as an educational establishment and the board played a key role in this. The basic instructional technology at the time was generally paper-based. The blackboard, however, was much more than a different way of showing information. Inspired by ideas from France the board was, amongst other things, a tool to reveal character.
Education Technology: The Blackboard As A Moral Guide
Unsurprisingly West Point wanted to train its students to cope with pressure. Instructors saw the board as a great way to deliberately stress their students.
…they also found that the board effectively revealed cadets’ intellectual, moral, and physical characteristics.Phillips, 2015, page 93
The board was in effect a test. The students had to perform at the board and show their math under pressure. What was especially cruel was when the student was correct but was told they were wrong. In a story the professor made a student, Smith, repeat the work despite getting it correct the first time. When repeating got the same result:
Smith recalled that “I became desparate, and in this state I said to [the professor] in a firm but nervous tone: ‘My result is right, sir.'” To which he recalled [the professor] replying. “It is right, and it was right before, why didn’t you stick to it?” In the face of pressure Smith had the math right but the self-confidence wrong”Phillips, 2015, page 99-100
Can we still do that in the classroom? It might genuinely help the students. Self-confidence can often get you much further in life than math. Without getting too political I bet Donald Trump’s and Boris Johnson’s self-confidence greatly exceeds their skills at geometry and they got to run their countries. Maybe when Covid is over I’ll get more of the students to the front of the class to show their work and tell them they are wrong (when they are right).
Read: Christopher J, Phillips, (2015) An Officer and a Scholar: Nineteenth-Century West Point and the Invention of the Blackboard, History Education Quarterly, 55 (1), page 82-108