An Investigation on our love for blackboards

By: Mathilde Papillon

The blackboard. This archaic teaching tool is in practically every single class of any science student. It also furnishes most math departments and shows up in theoretical labs everywhere. Why is that? How is it that scientists and mathematicians working on the finest, newest technologies still bother with the messy chalk? Today, there are so many other presentation tools available to us, and yet, this 1801 invention remains a favourite. As it turns out, there are a few reasons justifying this choice.


Many scientists and mathematicians explain that this love is rooted in the tool’s sheer simplicity. As Harvard’s math professor Oliver Knill will say, no other method communication allows for such freedom in expression of thought. No reliance on batteries or projectors, nor paper or erasable marker ink. Just plain old chalk with a wooden eraser. The audience’s attention is funnelled towards this “point of focus,” as physicist Lewis Buzbee describes it in an article for Slate.

This Californian author also points out the blackboard’s contribution to how we teach. This tool allows for a true, authentic development of an idea, whether that be solving an equation or stating a proof. The speaker exerts full control over the lesson’s progress and has the liberty of emphasizing any aspect with a simple dab of the chalk. As the subject at hand unfurls itself onto the boards, the drawings, equations, and definitions appear as an ensemble to the student, facilitating otherwise abstract connections.

Not too surprisingly, the blackboard presents a lot of advantages for the audience as well. First off, as Knill points out, the blackboard forces the speaker to slow down, allowing for students to better process the material at hand. As mathematician and historian Donald Mackenzie points out in his essay Dusty Discipline, the large gestures involved with black boards, like sliding boards around or erasing, allow for structured pauses and break down the material into smaller bites. Furthermore, most students will agree that chalk is simply easier to perceive than ink, the latter often leading to messy, smudged writing. Knill actually points this out using images from the movie Arrival in which a whiteboard renders rather simple equations quite messy and difficult to decipher.

On this note, it would appear as though many of the future’s brightest innovations will continue to be developed (and then explained) on this timeless tool, enamoured by the simplicity and structure it provides to a lesson.

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