‘Making the Learning Visible’ – Using Multiple Whiteboards in the Classroom

This year our English and Media faculty are undertaking a coaching programme as part of our constant quest to keep getting better. We are aiming to move, in blunt OFSTED labels, from ‘Good’ to ‘Outstanding’, and coaching is a key process for us to improve together. Our coaching approach has been met with a timely redesign of classrooms. We were lucky enough to have our ugly, ramshackle classrooms redecorated over the Summer – a process we undertook to consciously create a clearer, more spartan space – decluttered and wholly functional – designed for the business of great learning, not a glorified storage room! One small, but key decision, was to multiply the number of whiteboards on the classroom walls to improve pedagogy and to enhance the learning. I wanted to share how this small, relatively inexpensive tool can impact positively upon learning.

I want to explain the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of this small tweak to the learning environment (a small tweak, but one that has already has had a positive impact upon pedagogy). A couple of years ago we decided to move en masse to group tables for each English classroom. This one move had a profoundly significant impact upon our whole pedagogical approach. We valued the impact of cooperative learning; we viewed peers as a positive agent for developing learning; we viewed learning as most often being a social undertaking – so we worked together and applied a standardised group based approach (as we share many classrooms – having a standardised seating approach is eminently practical). There were attendant fears about behaviour being negatively impacted, but we shared ideas and experiences and it has been a very successful change. With our recent classroom redesign we wanted to develop upon the collaborative learning approach, encouraged by the searing design, with the introduction of multiple whiteboards on the walls. We also wanted to decentre (sounds a bit like new age nonsense I admit!) the classroom away from the perennial ‘face the front’ style of classroom. Having the multiple whiteboards allows for a greater degree of flexibility, whereat the teacher can work with smaller groups, or other activities, such as students writing on the different boards simultaneously etc.

We had little actual experience of using multiple whiteboards as a tool. As a department we had never even had more than one interactive whiteboard, alongside the more standard whiteboard for writing in any one classroom. The nearest we had got to multiple whiteboards on the walls were small mini whiteboards, or having a departmental flip chart (we always had one of odd lurking about, but it was never consistently in use). But this year we invested in extra whiteboards to try and develop the collaborative approach; it worked alongside our other new tool for collaborative learning – our investment in twenty four new iPads. We have therefore placed these new tools at the heart of our coaching, with the following two faculty targets (alongside crucial personal coaching targets) so we can support and focus training time upon these areas:

1.iPadagogy: using the iPad to enhance student motivation as well as core pedagogy on a consistent basis. There will be an explicit focus upon using the iPad to improve AFL strategies, providing feedback, classroom discussion and collaborative learning.
Success criteria: student feedback; peer observations & collaboration; student outcomes; student attainment.

2. ‘Making the Learning Visible’: using the multiple whiteboards to enhance core pedagogy. There will be an explicit focus upon using the whiteboards to enhance guided writing, providing feedback, making learning objectives and key vocabulary clear and classroom discussion.
Success criteria: student feedback; peer observations & collaboration; student outcomes; student attainment.

Now, we didn’t start with the tools to dictate our direction – instead, we identified the assessment for learning strategies and pedagogy we viewed as having greatest impact (as John Hattie states always “Know thy impact”), then we sought the tools to do the job. We have invested time and effort into sharing our experiences and developing our pedagogy. Teachers have been unanimously positive about how this relatively minor tweak has helped to transform many teaching and learning experiences. The following images are one simple example of the boards in use:

1. ‘Main Whiteboard’: Projected images are displayed here (it is not an interactive whiteboard – I found those clumsy tools that were expensive and not very engaging for students) and we annotate when appropriate, using this as the ‘main’ board. Here the task is displayed in a Word file and simply annotated.

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2. ‘Second Board’: This board is marginally smaller and on the left hand side of the room. Here the board displays notes made by the students who had chosen the ‘Guardian’ writing task.

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3. ‘Third Board’: This board is once more smaller, but on the right hand side of the room. Here the board displays student notes for the ‘York Press’ writing task.

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Like the writing task exemplified in these images, the multiple boards provide extra flexibility for ‘making the learning visible’ on a daily basis. The following is a sample list of activities for which the multiple whiteboards have been used as an effective tool so far:

– Guided writing: either teacher led, or written up by students, the secondary board allows for guided writing that can then be left on the board, whilst other activities/notes etc. can be written up on the ‘main’ board

– ‘Competitive’ writing: this fun and competitive activity has proven very fruitful. Students can be pitted against one another, or against the teacher, for writing tasks. Different groups can write up their findings/answers on one board, whilst other groups do the same on the other/s. The very ‘visible’ aspect of the write up is then ideal for subsequent feedback

– Writing up learning objective or key words: the boards provide the opportunity for the teacher to note either the learning objective, the key words for the lesson, or both, and leave them there in a dedicated space. It makes them unobtrusive if you are planning upon showing some media, or working up examples on the ‘main board’ – whilst making them easy to reference in a highly visible way

– Small group work: the boards provide a flexible opportunity for the teacher to work with a specific group of students, who perhaps are struggling to make progress, whilst the rest of the group can work away, without the central ‘front space’ of the classroom drawing everyone in (also, once more, the ‘main’ activities/stimulus etc. can be left on the ‘main whiteboard’ for as long as required)

– ‘Question walls’ and visible feedback: with the extra whiteboards the teacher can flexibly allocate spaces for ongoing formative assessment of progress. As noted in my previous posts, I am a strong advocate of ‘question walls’. Now, a wall display, with a collection of post it notes, does the job brilliantly, but a whiteboard provides a similarly simple tool for a question space (they can be larger and more visible than the typically small post it notes, therefore other students can interact with the questions). The other board can simultaneously be used for feedback/great ideas of various sorts – the options are endless.

For our faculty, these extra tools have helped to positively tweak our pedagogy and provide more flexibility for collaborative learning, as well as more varied direct instruction approaches. It doesn’t have the glamour or endless applications of the iPad, or the interactivity of the (still very expensive) interactive whiteboard – but they are relatively cheap and they work – simply but powerfully. Practically, they do need to be big enough to be useful – but ask yourself – if an extra whiteboard wouldn’t fit on your wall space – is there too much on there in the first place? Is your wall space glorified wall paper, or is it used to really develop learning? We thought long and hard about how the learning environment enhances the pedagogy – we still have displays of outstanding, but we are also using our wall space much more effectively due to the multiple whiteboards (whilst trying not to overly clutter the walls). If you don’t have a bells and whistles new building, this small addition to the learning environment can be a really positive marginal gain. I would highly recommend giving multiple whiteboards a try.

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About huntingenglish

I am Director of Learning and Research at Huntington Secondary School, York. I have taught English (including a bit of Media Studies) for over a decade. If it is tragic and gothic, laced with humour and bitter truths then I'll teach it! I have had the great privilege to have written a book, 'Teach Now! Becoming a Great English Teacher', edited by the brilliant Geoff Barton, and I am writing another for Routledge, entitled, 'The Confident Teacher'. I am Project Lead of the RISE (Research-leads Improving Students' Education) Project. An EEF funded randomized controlled trial to evaluate if and how a Research-lead can improve outcomes for students. I am a proud member of the Institute for Effective Education (IEE) Executive Board at York University. I am also a proud member of the ResearchEd Advisory Panel. I write regularly for the TES and Teach Secondary magazine. My first book, 'Teach Now! Becoming A Great English Teacher' was released by Routledge in 2014 and my next book, entitled 'The Confident Teacher' will be out at the end of 2015.

17 responses to “‘Making the Learning Visible’ – Using Multiple Whiteboards in the Classroom”

  1. mauriceabarry says :

    A very interesting study! I would be interested in hearing about it over time.

  2. fullonlearning says :

    Another thoughtful and carefully crafted post, Alex. Thank you for sharing this. I love the analogue versions of digital tools here and how you have ensured that the learning stays at the heart of what you do, how you do it and why you do it. You have also shared some valuable and very easy-to-implement practical strategies in accordance with the Marginal Learning Gains approach. There’s so much here! Thank you again…will get RT-ing straight away! Best wishes, Zoe.

    • huntingenglish says :

      Thanks Zoe. It is really interesting that the analogue tools – the multiple whiteboards and the concerted use of post it notes – have had a more profound impact than I expected. People in our faculty have spoken in glowing terms of the whiteboards, yet it is still early days – so much to share, trial and evaluate.

  3. fatjacques says :

    We are doing similar at my school. Two projectors per room, with all walls painted with whiteboard paint. One iPad per class connected to projectors using an appleTV.

    Furniture is flexible, easily rearranged by students. No teachers’ desk, so no front or back to the room.

    So far, it is going well. Group work around writing in the walls really gets the students excited.

  4. David Terron (@daveterron) says :

    In my old school I painted an entire wall with ideapaint from Homebase (£17). They won’t let me do it in our brand new school 8-( SO I use magicchart which uses static electricity to stick to the walls. It’s £20 for 25 sheets though so expensive. I have mini whiteboards for kids to use but until school management firm lets me I’m stuck with display cork-boards not whiteboards as I asked for. Any ideas or should I try large whiteboard simply laying on the tables?

    • huntingenglish says :

      I would go about trying to get justification to use them properly – I think the whiteboard on desks wouldn’t be practical, and it lacks the crucial visibility? If you explore some research and get a case together, then present a paper to your leadership surely they would let you pilot using wall space for learning. I don’t know of specific research for this case – but if you scour Hattie etc. you could collate evidence for the collaborative learning approach, and much more, then go from there. I know it would take a bit of time, but surely your leadership would appreciate your passion to move pedagogy forward would be reason enough to make the small investment.

    • SophieCoxie says :

      I’ve heard of old whiteboards mounted on wheeled legs making excellent group collaboration tables. Just like the old butchers paper in the middle of the circle.

  5. Mark Anderson @ICTEvangelist says :

    Think this is great. Analogue can often trump the digital and it’s good to see how you’re using it to good effect here. In terms of recording the learning progress too, taking photographs like you have is great. Those whiteboards are going to be cleaned between lessons and so taking a photograph is a great way of recording it, which can then of course be shared next lesson as a reminder. Yet another great post Alex, thanks for sharing.

    • huntingenglish says :

      Cheers Mark – yes. The ability to snap anything at anytime save and share has been one of the unquestionable successes of the iPad. My mantra is about ‘making the learning visible’ – both digitally and through the best methods of the old school!

  6. Andrew Warner says :

    I aim to have my display boards down by the end of the week and replaced with white boards. Inspiring stuff!

  7. HuntEMF says :

    Reblogged this on huntemf and commented:
    A more detailed explanation of using multiple whiteboards for learning at Huntington EMF.

  8. Urban Educator says :

    Thanks for sharing. I have a SMART board and two white boards and rarely use the standard white board. This was good to see in action.

  9. oliver caviglioli says :

    At the 2008 VizThink conference in Berlin, I learned that in business they consider the wall to be the new desk. IDEO one of the world’s biggest creative companies, use all available space for their charts, diagrams, doodles and post it notes. They consider walls to be cognitive prosthetics. That last point will have to be balanced with David Didau’s call for desirable difficulties in terms of getting knowledge lodged into long-term memory.

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