Tossing the Chalk

Maurice Cummins, IWB GuruYou may have noticed that it’s been a bit quiet here on the blog lately.  I’ve not been writing here as much as usual and I’ve really missed it!

There have been a couple of reasons for this little sabbatical, but the most significant one was the book project I’ve been working on with Mal Lee.  For almost a year now (OMG, has it really been that long?!) Mal and I have been writing a book together about the use of interactive whiteboards for education.  It’s been a huge project, partly because it’s been a lot to write – nearly 60,000 words – but mostly because it’s been an absolute journey of learning for me as we’ve written it.  I’m pleased to say that the finished manuscript finally went to the publishers this week!

In case you’re interested, here’s a little bit of background into the book…

Mal Lee is an ex school principal and he provided a lot of the insights around the management, funding and leadership aspects of implementing IWBs effectively in schools.  He’s also been behind numerous IWB research projects into IWB implementations over the last few years and has brought many of those research findings to the project.  The book was originally Mal’s idea, he cut the deal with the publishers and he sketched out the original contents and plan for the book.

I, on the other hand, have done a lot of the actual writing work, reworking a lot of the original stuff that Mal wrote as well as contributing significant new chunks of it myself.  Most of my content was based on personal experience from three schools that went through IWB implementations, talking to lots of people who teach with IWBs regularly and also from generating quite a few conversations with my PLN.  I used Twitter, Skype and other online communities to gather opinions and ideas, as well as talking to some very leading teachers who work with IWBs.

The end result is something I’m actually pretty proud of.  It wasn’t always, and there were plenty of times over the past year when I’ve really questioned the whole book project; from whether IWBs really are worth all the hype about them, to whether we were actually saying anything worth reading about.  There were a couple of occasions when I rang Mal ready to quit the whole thing, not because the task of writing was too much, but because I felt like I was completely unqualified to say anything remotely intelligent about the topic.

It’s kind of weird that I should feel that way, because the school I taught at in Canada implemented SmartBoards while I was there and I got to learn from some of their best trainers who flew out from Calgary to train us.  I also did extensive IWB evaluations between different brands and types at another school I taught at, and my current school has about 60 ActivBoards throughout the school and part of my job is to teach teachers how to use them well.  I’ve presented lots of sessions at the last two Australian IWB conferences, as well as run workshops for schools about how to use them effectively.  And yet, when the time came to actually write stuff down that other people might actually take notice of, it really felt very daunting.

As I wrote each chapter, I posted many of them up on Google Docs and asked for feedback from selected people. Some of them really pushed my thinking about IWBs. It was good that people were willing to question some of what we were trying to say, and I think it really helped to give a much greater sense of reality to the whole thing. Writing an extended piece like a book really forces you to think about what you are trying to say, and I hope that we’ve been able to synthesise all the research, advice and practical experience about using IWBs and that the overall message comes through clearly.  The book went over deadline by about 8 months, but I think it would be fair to say that the book we could have written by meeting the deadline would have been very much less useful than what we ended up with by taking the time to bring such a divesity of opinions and ideas together.

As I look through the 56,284 words in the finished manuscript, I think we did a pretty good job of it.  I feel like it’s balanced and informative with some great information contained within it.  More importantly, I feel like I can confidently say that, yes, used properly, IWBs can be great classroom tools. I was such a skeptic when I first saw IWBs about 6 years ago.  I couldn’t see how they were adding anything to the teaching/learning process, at least anything that would justify the cost and complications of using them.  I can remember having arguments with people about them, saying they were a waste of time, and were taking us back to the idea of a teacher-centric classroom.

I was keen to name the book Toss the Chalk: A guide to teaching in an interactive classroom, but the publishers thought the word “toss” might offend any potential UK readers… apparently “toss” means something quite different in the UK!  It looks like it will be published under the somewhat boring (but I suppose relatively descriptive) title, Teaching with Interactive Whiteboards.  Ho hum.

One of the highlights of the book, for me, was asking other teachers to contribute to it.  I put messages out on Twitter asking for thoughts and opinions to various questions I had, and some of the insights that came back were just brilliant.  It led to the inclusion of a whole chapter called Come Into My Classroom, where I asked eight different teachers to write me a snaphot of how they might use their IWB on a typical day.   It was insightful to hear the stories of how each teacher used the technology, in fact, as I wrote in the book…

In compiling these snapshots, a few things come through loud and clear…
There is no one “right” way to use IWB technology.  In these examples, the diversity of methods that each teacher uses to gets value out of their board stands out strongly.

Second, in all these examples it becomes quite obvious that the IWB is simply being used as an enabler for richer, deeper learning to take place.  It comes through very clearly that this is not about the technology per se, and that good teaching is always at the heart of what is taking place in these classrooms.  Student engagement, richness of understanding, creativity, teamwork and learning… these qualities are patently evident in these examples. In every case the IWB is acting simply as one of the enabling tools used to support the good teaching that takes place in the classroom.

My deepest thanks go out to the teachers who contributed to this section – Jess McCulloch, Lesleigh Altmann, Louise Goold, Tobias Cooper, Katie Morrow, Tom Barrett, Kyle Stevens and Paula White. Each of you added a unique and powerful perspective into the value of an IWB in your classrooms. Other briefer contributions were made in a different chapter by Simon Evans, Cathy Nelson, Amanda Signal and Brette Lockyer.

The other part of the book I was particularly pleased with was a section called Grassroots Professional Development which looked at how teachers are using the read/write web to create their own learning communities. Examples like Tom Barett’s 37 Interesting Ways To Use An Interactive Whiteboard, Jess McCulloch’s Interactive Whiteboard Challenge, Sue Tapp’s OZ/NZ Educators group, Ben Hazzard and Joan Badgers SmartBoard Lessons Podcast and of course, the amazing K12 Online Conference… these are some incredibly powerful examples of how ordinary teachers are redefining what it means to be a learner in the 21st century and how professional development has changed thanks to the networks of people we surround ourselves with.

Right now, the text is with the publisher and is about to go through the editing process.  I suppose I will have a bit of chasing around to do, getting clearances from the contributors, clearing copyright on images used, reading proofed chapters and so on, so it’s not over yet.  With a bit of luck, I’m hoping it will be be printed and available by next March… not quite the instant publishing I’m used to in the blogosphere!  However, for the most part it’s done and I hope to get back to my blog where I truly do enjoy writing just for the sake of writing.

To finish off, here is a short excerpt from the final chapter which I hope might give you a bit of a snapshot into the general message of the whole book…

The international research about IWBs consistently reiterates that the most important variable in improving student learning is the quality of the teaching that takes place within the school.  Although this book has tried to focus on some of the technical, pedagogical and logistical issues of implementing IWBs successfully, the point remains that none of this matters if it these are not being applied on top of quality teaching practice. It bears saying once more that an excellent teacher with limited resources will nearly always be able to provide a better learning experience than a lousy teacher who has all the latest technology.  Technology, in and of itself, is not the answer to more effective learning.  Good quality teaching by passionate, committed educators is the answer to more effective learning.  Always has been, always will be.

An IWB is nothing but a tool to assist great teachers do what they do best.  All the high praise or damning criticism you might hear about IWB technology is largely irrelevant without an insight into how a teacher is using it.  An IWB can be used as a regular dry-erase whiteboard, a basic electronic whiteboard or a dynamic digital convergence facility that sits at the centre of a media-rich digital teaching hub.  It is the teacher, not the technology, that decides how effectively an IWB will be used in their classroom.

Photo: Maurice Cummins, IWB Guru

CC BY-SA 4.0 Tossing the Chalk by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

21 Replies to “Tossing the Chalk”

  1. Chris,
    I am honored to have been a small piece of your story and look forward to reading the rest. Can’t wait to read the other teacher’s ideas and see the whole picture of what you have to share.

    LOVE your blog! Keep sharing, please!

    As Boards of Education, school boards, superintendents, and other “leaders” in education attempt to address “21st century learning”, “21st century schools”, etc. your point about great learning happening with knowledgeable, competent, passionate teachers is crucial. All the “stuff” in the world won’t change how kids are learning and thinking without the kind of teacher you describe.

    True engagement comes from what the kids are begging for–access to the tools they use outside of school, opportunities to connect, reflect and create in their own ways, and teaching/learning episodes where they respond personally, exhibit choice and get to learn with others.

    To think that simply using technology is going to provide the novelty and variety like it used to is absurd. To think that just because kids have grown up with technology in their hands, they know how to use it in powerful ways is also absurd.

    This gets into the change that is needed in schools–moving from the teaching and learning of algorithms and facts that can be looked up to teaching and learning episodes that engage students and encourage the development of thought, sophisticated strategies for fact checking and interpretation, and that allow students to be in the position of synthesizing, evaluating and applying knowledge to new situations.

    The IWB is not the only tool that does that, but it is certainly a powerful one. Thanks for looking at it from a deeper stance than just the technology and sharing that!

    My 5th graders said some of this on their wiki in June on the last day of school when I asked them about their use of wikis. Enjoy!


  2. Chris,
    I’m so very proud of you! It’s been wonderful to share both the challenges and the triumphs with you as you’ve worked through this process. I’ll be first in line for an autographed copy. Congratulations, Honey.

  3. Very cool Chris, congratulations! I look forward to reading it and discussing some things in a few weeks when you come to the Great White North!

  4. Congratulations Chris on completing the final manuscript – thanks for the opportunity to help. Good luck with the editing over the next few months and I look forward to seeing the final publication. Everyone, they say, has a book in them – you can tick that one!

  5. Chris, sounds like you have written a book that will remind teachers how important they are as part of the hub. I enjoy your blogs and love to pass them on to colleagues – especially the challenging ones.

  6. Hi Chris,

    This sounds like something to go on my wish list. Pity you couldn’t have published on Lulu 😉

    I still have a small involvement in sourcing and supplying EWBs here in Hong Kong. I get great joy out of working with capable, motivated and switched on teachers who see the potential and really work on it.

    On the flip side, I did a tender this week for a typical HK secondary school who wanted the board to be out of the way most of the time so that “real teaching” could happen. The tender called for the board to be on rails that could either move the board out of the way or have a write-on cover over the board as required.

    My advice? Save your money and buy a dry wipe board.

    Really enjoying Clay Christensen’s book on “Disrupting Class” you can really see that the rewards for teachers are all based around traditional, lecture style teaching. EWBs are just a distraction to Examination-obsessed Hong Kong.

    Hope it is a bestseller!



  7. Insanely jealous of your accomplishment but honored to have been a small part of it! Can’t wait until we can all read the entire thing in print!
    Thanks for all your sharing, Chris!

  8. Look forward to your book, Chris. I recently visited a Chicago art teacher’s classroom who is a whiz with her interactive whiteboard. (See video) Convinced me every art classroom should have one. -Craig

  9. Chris
    Congratulations on what I’m sure will be a “must read” and subsequent best seller.

    Extremely timely publication for all 2200 NSW DET schools as the CCP roll out gathers pace from 2008 to 2011.

    The ‘I’ component of IWB is an important key when exploring improved learning, otherwise we’ll just retain what teachers already do with overheads, powerpoints and DVDs.

    Slowly getting my head around activestudio and what it can offer teachers in the way of another software tool to engage students using IWB’s. It’ll be a leap of faith introducing it on the 10th when our first IWB goes ‘live’.

    Now your baby is put to bed I look forward to reading more regular posts, as Tomaz says, you also stir well. I like that.

  10. Well done Chris! An excellent achievement. If you are not happy with the proposed title, “Teaching with Interactive Whiteboards” how about putting out a call for suggested titles? I am sure that there is a lot more than teaching happening when an interactive whiteboard is in the hands of a maestro such as yourself. The students will be inspired, transformed and taken on a journey.

  11. Tony, thanks for your thoughts about reworking the name. Unfortunately we had quite a few exchanges back and forthwith the publishers debating suggested names, but in the end they were pretty inflexible about it. Its not that I’m opposed to the title… after all, it does describe what the book’s about, but I think the same thing could have been achieved with a more interesting title and the “teaching with interactive whiteboards” line as a subtitle or tag line. Anyway, it seems a bit late to lose sleep over it now. Let’s see what they come up with for a cover design… we might be having another argument about that yet! 🙂

    Paul Mac, I did think about self publishing on Lulu. Looking at the author’s royalty percentages on the contract is a little depressing, especially when I halve it between Mal and I, but it is what it is. Lulu would have lifted that royalty for sure, but the current publishers, ACER Press, will hopefully be able to get wider distribution into the right markets here in Australia and also the US, UK and hopefully Asia. I’m hoping that might balance things out a bit. I certainly didn’t write it just for the money, but it would still be nice to make some. 😉

    Tony, thanks. I hope it’s timely too. As we wrote it I visited quite a few libraries to ask what other books they had on IWBs but found nothing, which surprised me. It does seem a “hot topic” but there seems to be surprisingly little information on it outside of educational research papers which are usually pretty dull to read. Hopefully we’ve taken the essence of the research and mixed it up with some real world examples and first hand experience to be a kind of “everything you ever wanted to know but were afraid to ask” guide. I’d also like to think that we crossed the boundary of it just being about IWBs and talked a lot about what it means to be a great teacher in the 21st century.

    Danny, thanks for confirming the UK perspective. I knew that term was used over there, but wasn’t sure just how prevalent it was and just how easily that connection would be made. Ah, the global market!

    Katie and Paula and Tom, you guys are awesome! Having your contributions in the book gave it a wonderfully down to earth classroom perspective, and I can’t thank you enough for it.

    To everyone else that left a note, thanks for the comments and well wishes. It’s much appreciated!

  12. Superb, and congratulations Chris. I hope you have included a chapter or some information for those schools who don’t/won’t have an interactive whiteboard at the price, but will happily get the same result using the WiiMote approach. Highly interactive, and a steal at a $100 dollars or so. Or is this book purely related to the specific brand of whiteboard? Anyways, what a relief to have it all done.

    1. Hi Judy,
      yes there is a whole section in the book that looks at a number of alternate technologies based on the IWB concept and Johnny Chung Lee’s Wiimote is one of them. I’ve heard lots of good things about the Wiimote, although there are certainly limitations too. Tracking resolution is not as high, although quite usable. The biggest issue is the need for dedicated IWB software to use with the Wiimote, since most of the licence agreements for the commercial products usually prohibit them from being used without the accompanying commercial hardware.
      One of the interesting things that came out of that was the Open Whiteboard Project, an open source project to build a notebook-style clone that can be used with any hardware. I’ve been chatting over Skype with the project lead, Johan Kohlin from Sweden, and the project is somewhat stalled at the moment unless some other people decide to take it on. Johan went as far as he could with it on his own, and needs other people to collaborate with to go further. A shame, since I think an open source software tool for IWB is a great idea.
      Re the book and specific brands of whiteboards, we’ve tried to make it as hardware/software agnostic as possible, giving examples from most of the major brands of hardware, or otherwise trying to be as general as possible. It’s not a ‘how-to’ book in that sense. It won’t teach you specifically how to build a flipchart for example, but it does discuss the conceptual ideas behind IWB software and what issues like draggability, layering, focus tools, etc are important and how they can be used to make more engaging use of the technology. The book is (I hope) very much more about teaching and learning and pedagogy and the big ideas of education than it is about IWB hardware and software. You have to remember that I was (and to some degree still am) a major critic of IWBs generally and the naff, cutesy ways they get used. If nothing else, the book is a dialog of my own explorations into IWB technology and how we need to get past the ‘wow-factor’ of the sales pitches and look into how the can genuinely make a difference to the teaching and learning process.
      This was one of the reasons I used my network to gather lots of great examples of how truly good educators are using the IWB technology and how it can be far more than just a glorified projector screen. Remember, I was a huge skeptic about IWBs. 🙂
      There is a whole chapter dedicated to creating more effective professional development programs, use of PLNs and Web2.0 tools, etc. Most of the thrust of the book is about being the best teacher you can be, using the best tools you can use, in ways that make learning as effective as possible. At least that’s what I hope to have written.
      Anyway, it’s been an interesting process to write a book and I just hope that there is enough good stuff in there people will get something out of it!

      1. Hi Chris. Unfortunatly my project is as sleepy as before bit I have been invited to join the powerpoint beta where I hopefully can pull some strings to make the next version more IWB friendly. Most features are allready present in powerpoint just not the way one would want it and not accesible at all time. It’s not open source but anyway available to most schools. I’ll get back to you when I have more news on this front.

  13. Hi Chris,

    Sounds like a great teaching resource Chris and I plan to purchase a copy in order to learn more about using IWBs in my classroom as we recently purchased a new IWB.

    After reading in your blog (dated Nov., 2008) “Tossing The Chalk” an article written by Maurice Cummins, I was very surprised to see that he has no credit for the book, even though he mentioned that he was writing the book together with Mal Lee. Maurice Cummins explains:

    Mal and I have been writing a book together about the use of interactive whiteboards for education. It’s been a huge project, partly because it’s been a lot to write – nearly 60,000 words – but mostly because it’s been an absolute journey of learning for me as we’ve written it. I’m pleased to say that the finished manuscript finally went to the publishers this week!

    I understand that he also mentioned:

    There were a couple of occasions when I rang Mal ready to quit the whole thing…

    Did he end up quitting, or did he have a fall out? Can you please explain why he wasn’t accredited as co author?

    Many thanks for providing such a great resource for teachers!


    1. I think you’ll find the photo I used is of Maurice, but the article is by me. You are a bit confused I think.

      The book is, and was always, written by Mal Lee and myself. There was no falling out… I just got frustrated with the writing process a times.

      So, no, Maurice didn’t say any of those things, I did. 😉

      1. Aaaah..yes, I can see my mistake. Thanks for clearing that up for me. His name was below the
        article and i misread it as him writing it, when, in actual fact it was only of his photo.

        Anyways, congrats for sticking it out to the end and it doing so well. I can’t wait to get a hold of it myself.


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