When a colleague sent me this link about $2 whiteboards I was excited as it seemed like this tool might be useful in my own classroom.

I am firmly of the belief that students learn better by doing things than by listening to me Despite this, I find myself standing at the front of the classroom more than I would like. I hoped that portable whiteboards would facilitate small groups working on more complex problems helping each other out and practicing explicit articulation of their thought processes.

We introduced whiteboards in three incremental steps:

  1. The first iteration was a pile of plain A3 paper. This was marginally useful but had a number of limitations that were addressed by the next iteration of…

  2. Laminated A3 paper. I made a trial class set of 13 “whiteboards” that I could carry between my classes with whiteboard markers and small erasing cloths.

  3. Commercial cardboard-centred A2 whiteboards from Tango Industries. These cost less than $10 each for 300 boards at the end of 2012. A similar product was available individually from Officeworks for $25. These boards are kept in class sets (with markers and a box of tissues for erasing) at the front of each classroom.

The shift from paper to an erasable surface was profound. With the same students in the same class, the willingness to “have a go” increased significantly. With whiteboards comes the option to erase any “mistakes” so students started to use the whiteboards during their thinking and discussion before an answer was reached.

So how do we use the boards in my classroom?

  • one board per group (2-4 students)

  • (at least) one marker per student

  • mix of colours per group.

  • students photograph the finished board for their personal records (almost all of our students have camera-equipped mobile phones with them in class).

  • Some activities are specified by me as requiring the boards and students choose to use the boards at other times that they think are useful to them.

  • Outside class times, students often use the boards while working individually or in small groups on homework tasks.

I found the following main uses for the boards in class:

  • Large, complex, scenario-based questions that require diagrams and several stages to solve. Students can deal with bigger problems with less scaffolding in whiteboard groups than on paper by themselves.

  • Brainstorming in small groups. This has the significant advantage over whole-class brainstorming that several students can think of the same item (and write it on their group’s board) without having so much “all my ideas are already taken” and promotes student-student discussions

  • Mind-mapping

  • Instant teacher feedback – Voting/answering at a distance by holding up a written/drawn answer in relative silence. (better with the A3 version as A2 is a bit too large). To determine instantly if students can do a problem or know an answer that is visible to the teacher and not necessarily visible to other students is very powerful.

If you’ve read this far and think that the whiteboards could be of use in the classroom then here are a few tips:

  • Have a specific plan for what you expect students to do differently in your classroom and make classroom changes accordingly. Bringing a new tool into an unchanged situation almost guarantees that it will be ignored in favour of existing solutions.

  • Start cheap. Spending large amounts of money on an unproven tool puts you under a lot of pressure to deliver results in a hurry. Laminating enough A3 paper for 1 between 2 students is very cheap and allows you the time and space to explore how you they might be of use in your classroom.

  • Have a plan for how students will keep a record of their group whiteboard discussions. Many schools don’t permit students to have mobile phones in classrooms so you may need another method.

  • Leave the boards available in your classroom. Your students will surprise you with the times that they want to use them when it never occurred to you.

Have you used portable whiteboards in your classroom? Tell us about your experience in the comments.