Mar 8, 2012

Whiteboard Everything

 Whiteboards should be central to any inquiry-based approach. Whether students are asked to present their solution to a problem, their interpretation of lab results, or anything else that requires them to think independently, whiteboards are an ideal tool for this process.

The more I observe, it seems, the more opportunities I see for effective applications of whiteboarding. Whiteboarding is simply a highly effective way of getting students' thoughts out of their heads and into the classroom, where they can be critiqued and discussed. There are other ways of doing this, of course (simply asking students to raise their hands is one such way, "clicker" response systems are another, higher-tech approach), but whiteboards have unique flexibility and versatility. When a group of students works together to prepare a whiteboard for presentation, the peer discussion that goes into this activity is the first step toward correcting individual students' misconceptions. Plus, whiteboards are extremely economical!

On a recent visit to a school teaching Physics First, students in a rather large class were asked to present their results from a lab experiment. Each student was given one or two poster-sized pieces of sticky paper, and wrote out a summary of each section of a conventional lab report (hypothesis, procedure, results, analysis, etc.), which they then stuck to the wall for the class to see. This was a challenging task, and some groups took much more time to complete it than other groups. When everyone was done, the teacher then asked each group to present their posters, in turn. The room was rather restless, and during each group's five-minute presentation students in other groups found it hard to sit still. To save time, the teacher asked latter groups to skip the parts of their report that were essentially similar to things other groups had already spoken about. When the period ended, most of the groups in the room hadn't had a chance to present their posters at all.

Imagine the same activity done with whiteboards. The whiteboard is too small to record all the information in every section of the lab report with a big, bold dry erase pen, so the activity would have to be broken down into pieces. For each section of the report, a few groups would present what they'd recorded on their whiteboards and other groups would look on. Each of these presentations would be less than a minute long, and even the most restless students would find it easier to pay attention to their peers for this short time. The teacher would have the opportunity to focus closely on the aspects of the activity that differed most from group to group (in this case, the data and analysis), and could spend more time discussing with students the significance of these differences. Since each group's presentations were only a minute long, every group in the room could be assured an opportunity to present at least once, and the threat of being called on to present again would encourage all students in the room to stay alert.

On another visit, I witnessed a very successful application of whiteboarding that faltered a bit when many students in the room had made a similar mistake in the free body diagrams they'd recorded (the whiteboard pictured here doesn't show this mistake...). What followed was a lengthy, lecture-style instruction about how to correct this mistake in the students' diagrams. In talking with the teacher of this class later in the day, we agreed that one might instead make up a new free body diagram problem on the spot designed to hone in on this common mistake, or perhaps even refer to a database of problems specifically designed for this purpose. Students would be asked to set their original whiteboards aside and solve the new problem for class discussion on a new whiteboard. Rather than lecturing about how to correct the common mistake, the correct solution would arise out of this group discussion.

My Modeling workshop leader, this past summer, mentioned that whiteboarding is so entrenched in his current teaching that he wouldn't know how to teach any other way. If he was asked to teach a European history class, he would teach it using whiteboarding. I'm starting to see what he means as I begin to appreciate the power of creative whiteboarding in physics class!

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