Glenaeon Rudolf Steiner School

“Looks better…sounds better…feels better”, and even makes you think better: The Blackboard is Back

“…(also) smells better, and it probably tastes better too.” 

That’s blackboards they are referring to, good old-fashioned blackboards, with chalk. Even chalk is cool again, to mathematicians at least. When you thought that blackboards were going the way of the dodo, along comes the Mathematics Department at the ANU, Australia’s leading Maths department by world standards. In their brand new $45 million building, the mathematicians have installed wall-to-wall blackboards. 

It was interesting to see the response from some leading school educators, especially ones who have led the charge into technological driven classrooms. “Blackboards. Back to the Future. For the right reasons, a good option for cognitive functioning” tweeted one Head of a large and local independent school who I am sure does not want to unnecessarily jump on to the bandwagon. In his view blackboards improve cognitive functioning, ie they make you think better.

Glenaeon has no need to jump on bandwagons. We have always valued blackboards and every one of our classrooms has one. In the high school the blackboard sits next to the white board and projector screen, happily blending wifi’ed, cutting edge IT integration with teacher creativity and pictorial representation.

We value blackboards for their ability to be the teacher’s easel and blank canvas to inspire student creativity. In our view they not only help you think better, they stimulate student creativity. The teacher models creativity by how he or she uses the blackboard to represent images, ideas, geometric constructions, diagrams and whatever else is the topic of learning, and students are inspired to follow suit in their own individual manner.

Having covered more square metres of blackboard space with chalk than most people, I can also attest to the “feels better, sounds better” quality that so impresses the mathematicians. Blackboards have an intangibly warm and expressive quality: they feel good to the touch. You can create beautiful pictures, diagrams, thought bubbles, script, anything that the human mind can grasp and represent. The chalk dust is manageable, and the dusty cracks that can appear in the skin between your fingers are a small professional price to pay for the beauty you create. Every profession has its hazards, and that’s a small one compared to a shoulder reconstruction for an NRL player.

And there is something much more: as you can see from the pictures, the teacher creates beauty in the classroom. We try to live our classical ideals of Truth, Beauty and Goodness: how do you build Beauty into learning? A blackboard well used by a trained teacher is “a thing of beauty” which, as Keats put it, is a joy forever.

Long live blackboards! At Glenaeon they always will.

Back in black: Why does the newest building on campus have old-school blackboards?
Written by Tabitha Carvan

The brand new $45-million cyber security building at ANU is draped in code.

A cryptographic pattern of alternating lines and spaces is featured in the metalwork on the massive interior staircase, and emblazons the windows across all of its five floors, housing staff from the ANU Mathematical Sciences Institute, the ANU Research School of Computer Science, and the Statistical Consulting Unit.

Here in this building straight out of The Matrix, among the best mathematical minds in the country, is a piece of technology found nowhere else on the ANU campus
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“We have the last blackboards in the University,” Associate Professor Scott Morrison says, proudly. Very proudly.

Associate Professor Morrison and his colleagues from the ANU Mathematical Sciences Institute fought to ensure the new facility would include them.

“Instead of having labs, mathematicians stand at blackboards.

“The main social area in the new building will have a whole wall of them. It will be nice for people to be having tea together and then, when they start a mathematical conversation, they can wander over to the boards.

“So much of our work in mathematics is spent talking to each other. The early parts of all our work is explaining half-baked ideas to each other and the boards facilitate that.”

Go to any great Maths institutes around the world, Associate Professor Morrison says, and you’ll also find blackboards.

At the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley, every corridor is lined with blackboards. Stories circulate that at the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques in France, you can find them in the lifts. And at the Erwin Schrödinger Institute in Vienna, there are [lowers voice] blackboards in the toilets.

But what exactly do blackboards offer mathematicians that a whiteboard can’t?

Morrison defers to an ANU Maths graduate student, self-described blackboard evangelist Ivo Vekemans, to explain.

“Let’s start with the senses,” Ivo says. “A blackboard looks better, it sounds better, it feels better, it smells better and it probably tastes better.”

And of practical importance, he continues, it slows down the speed at which you write.

“The coefficient of friction of whiteboard markers is too low,” he says, leaving no doubt that he’s a maths student.

“When you’re communicating mathematics, it’s not just about doing an info-dump, it’s about the process. If you lecture with a whiteboard marker, you write too quickly. With chalk, you write more slowly and more neatly.”

The contrast of light on dark is also easier to read, he goes on. There’s no reflective glare, and you can quickly erase chalk with your hand, while marker leaves “a gross residue”.

The chalk to be used in the new building is a whole other story. Morrison swoons as he describes it as “thick, smooth and creamy”. To justify the cost of importing this dream chalk from Korea, he says, they conducted tests against cheaper supplies.

“We filled up blackboards using the Korean chalk and cheaper chalk, and discovered that while piece by piece this chalk is more expensive, it’s the same price in terms of the amount of writing you can do with it,” he says.

In response to the rumour that the computer science side of the new ANU building is, by contrast, all whiteboards, Associate Professor Morrison says, “It’s absolutely true”.

“They’re not interested! Part of the reason is I think that historically, people who have looked after big computers are grumpy about chalk because they don’t want dust in the air and in the air conditioning system.

“We’ll see if the computer scientists use the blackboards in the common areas!”

The seminar room offers a compromise, featuring whiteboards as well as rails allowing for six blackboards to be slid in, covering the entire back wall.

This huge surface area is, he says, “all that mathematicians want” in a board.

“What you write on the board during a talk is the trail of breadcrumbs that lets everyone keep up with the maths you’re trying to explain. As much as possible you want to be able to leave it up there.”

Morrison does concede that while blackboards offer a range of practical advantages, there’s an element of romance to these big rectangles.

“A large part of the appeal is the connection with our history. Mathematicians have always been talking with each other at blackboards. And while lots of us now use modern technology to do lots of computing, the blackboard is different. It’s our heritage.”

And as for heritage on campus, is there anything he’ll miss about the old Maths building?

Not the board in the old seminar room. “When you slid the board up… I can’t reproduce the sound. You know the sound of fingernails on the blackboard? But much, much worse.”

The old building had whiteboards too, he notes. Some with blackboards glued on top of them.

“That was inspirational to me,” Morrison says, fondly. “In the long run, we can always just glue blackboards over the top.”

If you care about the coefficient of friction of whiteboard markers, you should study undergraduate or postgraduate Maths at ANU. We are ranked number one in Australia for maths teaching and research.

And we have amazing chalk.