Why You Need Vertical Whiteboards In Thinking Classrooms

Using vertical whiteboards (and other vertical non-permanent surfaces) is an effective strategy to engage students in collaborative thinking, which promotes more active and engaged learning.

Intentional Teach Project

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Engaging Students In Thinking Classrooms With Vertical Whiteboards

Like a throwback to my 1990s days with the Pizza Hut Book It! program, I was devouring books this summer. In early June, I accepted a 5th grade position and learned I would be teaching science and math in the fall. I figured I ought to brush up on my math skills and instructional strategies, so I immediately dove into these books:

I’m still working through Visible Learning — boy, that is a textbook! — but I flew through the others, and I am so excited to venture into math education from an inquiry and active-learning mindset! Just like science was “never my thing” – at least, the way I learned it in school – I’ve never considered myself a “math person.” However, these books have absolutely changed my mind, and I can’t wait to experiment with so many of the strategies I found in their pages. 
While there is a ton in there, and I highly recommend you give the books a read (or listen!), in this episode of the Intentional Teach Project, I want to share one of the “structural” tweaks I’m exploring in my classroom and instruction – the concept of vertical working spaces!

Considering Alternative Work Spaces

Last year, I had a student on my Student Assistance Program caseload who struggled to complete his tasks — particularly, his daily journal responses. He was a very bright kid and could have quickly knocked out the work, but he just had no motivation to get it done. When asked why, he would say things like, “I just don’t know what to write,” or “I don’t have an answer to the question.” When given the option of choosing amongst prompts, he still struggled to write something — anything!

At some point in the year, the teacher decided to try something new — she offered him the option of writing his journal entries on a whiteboard as opposed to writing in his journal. Suddenly, journal writing was no longer a problem. 

I have had some thoughts on why this may have worked for him — the novelty of it, the impermanence of the writing, the larger space to accommodate his handwriting, etc. Those all may have played a role. But after reading Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics, I also wonder — was it the notebook itself?

Notebooks, Desks, and Studenting 

By the time our students reach fourth, fifth, sixth grade and upward, they have a clear understanding of what school is and what is expected of them. Our “brightest” students are often the ones who are really good at studenting you can read more about that idea here.

Overall, studenting behaviors aren’t bad — some are helpful and necessary. Like learning to interact with teachers, peers, and even parents; like learning how to keep track of their materials and arrive prepared; these behaviors help students succeed in our school system. 

The Problem With Studenting For Thinking Classrooms

But sometimes, studenting behaviors become less about learning and more about gaming the system — for example, getting more (points, recognition, accolades) for doing less (less effort, less time, etc). Even the “middle of the road” students engage in studenting — doing “just enough” to achieve whatever level they deem appropriate. Our struggling students often student by procrastinating or stalling — waiting for the teacher to review the work or to find a friend to copy off of. They still “get the work done” — and so they are “doing school” — but their actions aren’t about learning, and they certainly aren’t achieving that.

Studenting behaviors are tied closely in our students’ minds to the “things” that represent school — the desks, the notebooks, the PowerPoint slides. In taking cues from their environment, when our students arrive in our classrooms to sit at desks and open notebooks, they are drawn into the habits of studenting that they have developed and perfected over the years. Their brains “turn off” as they prepare for the traditional, passive-learning experiences they have become accustomed to.

These habits make thinking and learning — even when given a task designed to engage them in those very things — a challenge.

In thinking back to my fourth grade friend, I wonder — did his brain “turn off” when given the prompt to write in his notebook? Did it open up – and ideas flood in – when he had the option to write on the whiteboard? 

Experimenting With Vertical Whiteboards

One of the biggest changes I am playing with this fall — something I have not done before! — is to utilize “vertical non-permanent surfaces” (VNPSs – as described in Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics). Instead of asking students to complete their tasks at their desks on paper, I’m going to experiment with having students work collaboratively on vertical whiteboards around the walls of the room. 

Why Are Vertical Whiteboards Successful?

There are a few reasons that VNPSs are helpful in promoting thinking and learning.

For Thinking Classrooms: Breaking The Habit Of Studenting

First, the novelty of vertical whiteboards simply disrupts the habit of studenting and primes students to behave in different ways — and if you’re promoting thinking tasks, this would be in thinking ways.

Additionally, we know that standing requires better posture, which is unsurprisingly linked to better moods and higher energy levels (further priming our students for thinking and learning). 

For Thinking Classrooms: Improved Communication And Flow Of Knowledge

Peter Liljedahl also cites improved communication (allowing for more non-verbal expression) and increased knowledge mobility (ideas and learning moving amongst students/groups) as a result of working at vertical whiteboards as additional reasons that VNPSs promote thinking in the classroom.

Along those lines, standing reduces the feeling of anonymity. When students feel anonymous, they tend to check out — which leads to less thinking and learning, understandably. (Compare how many times you check your phone when you sit in the back of a lecture hall versus when you sit front-and-center. We all check out more frequently when we feel unseen!) 

For Thinking Classrooms: Encouraging Academic Risk-Taking

Finally, the non-permanent nature of vertical whiteboards allows students to take academic risks — which lead to mistakes (and learning from mistakes!), a necessity for inquiry-based learning experiences. Our goal is for students to be exchanging ideas, exploring solutions, wondering aloud, and simply trying — and the ability to erase evidence of mistakes can improve students’ willingness to make them.

Experimenting With Vertical Non-Permanent Surfaces: Part Two

In the next episode of the Intentional Teach Project, I’ll share the logistics of how I am implementing vertical whiteboards, how I’ve tweaked my strategy over time, and what I have learned through this experiment. Stay tuned!

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