There was a time when classrooms came fitted with blackboards, chalk pieces and dusters. By the end of the session, the instructor’s arms would be covered in chalk. Fast forward three decades, and university classrooms have transitioned from overhead projects to computers and smart boards. Today, in graduate classes, most instructors use power-point slides interspersed with videos and the occasional flip charts to convey key points. Students are allowed to bring their laptops to class in most institutions in the U.S.A. and in some Indian institutions as well. Many students furtively surf the net –including Facebook when the instructor is poring over the power-point deck. Consequently, a technology, meant to grab and hold one’s attention, is now viewed as “death by power-point.”
The ancient practice of using the ‘Blackboard and Chalk’ is still the best way to engage the attention of the teacher and students alike as institutions in the U.S.A. have grudgingly acknowledged in recent years.
Whether it is the character of Nargis in the classic movie of yesteryears ‘Shri 420,’ teaching village kids the Hindi alphabet or teaching graduate level classes, the best way to drill fundamental concepts is to use blackboard. With a blackboard, the instructor is able to lay out the steps in sequence, create a foundation and make connections between disparate variables. Today’s popular business jargon is the ‘whole picture thinking.’ In the classroom, what better way is there to frame the ‘whole picture’ than the blackboard? The students are much more likely to gain a good grasp of the concepts if the instructor is working out each step on the blackboard instead of marching into class with a deck of pre-prepared power point slides that are displayed in rapid succession. Writing on a blackboard enables the students to synchronize their thought process with the instructor’s, which a power-point deck and video can never accomplish.
Power points and videos do have their place in our society. However, instructors should use them sparingly and only as a supplement to the blackboard, where students are directed for review, for practical applications of fundamental concepts and for team presentations.
In Indian classrooms, unlike the U.S.A., the blackboard figures prominently. While it may be a matter of compulsion (since not all Indian schools and universities are well endowed in financial resources), there is no reason to bemoan the existing facilities as long as they meet the basic criteria. A dedicated teacher, who can motivate students, a well-ventilated classroom, neatly organized desks and tables, and a blackboard, chalk pieces and duster, are the core ingredients for good education. Not state-of-the-art classrooms with their smart technologies and free Wi-Fi, which have caused lethargy and a precipitous decline in the attention span of the students.
This semester, I returned to the old-fashioned way of teaching. During the sessions, I used only the Blackboard. I did post all the power-point decks and videos in advance for the students to review. Since I did not use the computer and the podium, the students also put their computers down. I was able to gauge the absorption capacity of the students. I used a trick my high school mathematics teacher in New Delhi had perfected decades ago. He expected every student to participate in the steps to solving the complex calculus or trigonometry problem on the board, by calling out our names in the order in which we were seated. Not surprisingly, our entire high school section of 42 students learned sound mathematics skills. While the subject I taught in the U.S.A. was MBA strategy, I was still able to employ my mathematics teacher’s method, modified slightly by calling on small groups of students instead of individual students so as not to embarrass them, even in sessions requiring no quantitative skills. Class participation skyrocketed and shy students were able to contribute.
At the end of my first session, I eagerly glanced at my arms. In the olden days, they would be covered in chalk dust; it was a reminder that “something attempted; something done had earned me a night’s repose: HW Longfellow, The Village Blacksmith.” There was no such reminder this time. The chalk was state-of-the-art.
As the late President Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam quotes, “Black color is sentimentally bad, but Blackboard makes the student’s life bright.”