Chalk It Up To Experience

Should we ask for our blackboards back?

Some teachers will only have ever taught in classrooms with a dry whiteboard or interactive whiteboard. This isn’t necessarily related to age either.

It might be easy to think that all ‘new’ teachers won’t know any different but this does depend on where you teach.

Some schools ‘still’ use chalkboards. Even saying that sounds all Dickensian but it’s true, chalkboards are still a feature in some teacher’s lives and they want them preserved for future generations.

An article appeared recently in the TES recently by Eimer C Page, director of global initiatives at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire in the US. Eimer uses “slate boards that cover an entire long wall” of her classroom, something that has been there since the 1930s. Apparently these chalkboards are pretty much all over the Academy except for the science building.

Clearly Eimer thinks that the blackboard is great and notes how they can be used for collaborative thinking spaces (which its cousin, the whiteboard, could also do). She says that the blackboards can be the space where students can “demonstrate their preparation” (which a whiteboard could also do).

Beyond this Eimer grasps around a bit and then resorts to saying that if there is a power cut and the internet goes down then no worries, you can just “carry on” (which you could also do with a whiteboard).

I can only presume that Eimer and her colleagues use some magic chalk or they wear face masks and get students to sit 25m away from the board. I think that because it has been proven that chalk dust is harmful to our health and we really shouldn’t be mucking about with chalkboards anymore. Hanging on to nostalgia or saying they chalkboards are a collaborative space for thinking is nice but it’s not clever.

Barrett et al (2015) note, “Children are particularly vulnerable to all types of pollutants because their breathing and metabolic rates are high. In a school they also have much less volume each owing to high occupancy density.”

Schools that use chalkboards are potentially harming their students and staff and “teachers brave the greatest direct risk.

Nikam and Hirkani (2013) spell it out:

“We can conclude from this study that teachers using chalk and board are at an increased risk of developing occupationally related pulmonary function impairments (airflow obstruction) and hence need to shift from routine chalk and board to marker and whiteboard.”

Chalk dust affects indoor air quality and we breathe it in. That’s not great for respiration, especially day in and day out over the year. If you have asthmatic students, they will tell you.

Chi-Chi Lin et al (2015) found that “Although using chalkboards in the classroom is a traditional and effective teaching method, chalk generates a large amount of airborne dust, and particularly submicrometer dust and nanoparticles that can penetrate into the respiratory system.”

Will blackboards or greenboards ever become obsolete? You’d certainly hope so but if there are people out there that are seduced by nostalgia and their “simplicity, effectiveness, economy and ease of use” then I’m afraid we will still have students and teachers coughing and choking on harmful dust. What’s more worrying is that we seem to be stepping backwards and some schools are raving about using mini-chalkboards for their children without any mention of the harmful effects of chalk dust.

So dust is the enemy, the chalkboard itself is fine, isn’t it? Well, in some parts of the world, the covering of the blackboard definitely is a health risk too. In Ghana, blackboards are painted with paint made from old car batteries.

Can we please just stick to using whiteboards. Schools should be slated for still using chalkboards when they have been proven to do harm. Doing harm isn’t what education is supposed to be about. Let’s allow the dust to settle and use what’s safe.

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