December 8, 2022


General Evolution

Using mini whiteboards in English – David Didau

Using mini whiteboards in English – David Didau

According to TeacherTapp, 72% primary and 45% secondary teachers use mini whiteboards (MWBs.) There are big variations between different subjects in secondaries with 69% of MFL and 57% science teachers claiming to use them but just 28% of English teachers.

Why might this be? Are MFL and science lessons just better suited to using MWBs? Are English lesson much more concerned with the kind of extended writing that best lends itself to exercise books? Judging from the poll responses above, primary teachers appear to be more concerned with checking students’ understanding during lessons. Charitably, we might claim that in secondaries – and especially in English departments – we are simply more interested in marking books in order to work out how effective our teaching is. Of course, it could also mean that we have less understanding of the importance of responsive teaching.

Over the past few years, I have become increasingly convinced of the merits of MWBs in English. I see an awful lot of lessons and although most of the lessons I see are great, it’s very seldom that these lessons would not have been more effective if had MWBs been deployed. Missed opportunities and gaps that MWBs – had they been used – could have filled.

Before I get into why I recommend wider MWB use in English, let’s deal with some of the objections. A good place to start is to consider the opportunity cost. Time and resources are finite. If we invest in MWBs might this mean we cannot invest in some other teaching strategy which has great opportunities and fewer costs? We’ll evaluate as we go, and I’ll let you come to your own conclusions.

Reasons not to use MWBs (in English)

  • They’re a faff
  • They result in poor behaviour
  • I tried them once years ago and I didn’t find them useful
  • Something else (cold calling, getting children to hold up fingers or coloured card etc.) is better
  • If writing is worth doing, it’s worth making it more permanent
  • They make it easy for students to make mistakes and present ideas sloppily
  • They can’t capture what we should be most interested in children learning

Let’s be clear: MWBs are a faff. They’re one more item of equipment to buy, maintain, distribute and collect. This is, I’m sure, one of the reasons why they’re gathering dust at the back of cupboards in so many English classrooms. If you’re going to use MWBs then you really do have to think carefully about where you will store them, how you will get them in front of students and then returned to storage.

It’s also true that, given the opportunity, some children will draw penises on their MWB. Others might attempt to damage the equipment or each other with the equipment. If there’s a poor behaviour culture in your school or classroom, then using MWBs will present additional difficulties. But this is an argument against doing anything that students would rather not do. Most students if allowed to chat, check their phones, sit where they like and eat sweets will be happy. It’s much harder to get them to work hard. One of the perceived drawbacks of MWBs is – I think – not so much that they cause bad behaviour but that they expose it. It’s easier to see when children are getting it wrong. This, I’d argue, is an asset. As always, we need to teach the behaviour we want and embed systems and routines that make it easier for students to make better decisions. These first two objections have fairly straightforward solutions and there are a number of useful blogs written on the topic. Here’s one from an MFL teacher and another from a science teacher.

The third objection isn’t really an argument against MWBs, it’s an argument against ineffective MWB use. I tried them in the early 2000s when the government was pushing them as part of the failed, top-down AfL roll out along with coloured cups, lollypop sticks and all the other associated gimmickry we endured. Like so many others, all I saw was the faff and the opportunities for misbehaviour and – because I had no real understanding of what formative assessment was or why it was useful – abandoned them as soon as they dropped off the lesson observation ticklist. Obviously, I’m not recommending using MWBs the way we (or at least, I) did back in the day.

Some folks have advanced the argument that MWBs are OK but not as good as some other mechanism for increasing student participation and exposing students’ thinking. The most common candidate against which MWBs are judged wanting is to use ‘no hands up’ questioning or, as it’s now almost universally referred to, ‘cold calling’. I haven’t been able to attribute who made it, but the Twitter gods have provided this handy comparison of MWBs and cold calling:

To be absolutely clear, the idea that there’s some sort of either/or dichotomy here is daft. Use both. But be aware that there are some things cold calling is less effective for. As we’ll see, if you want to expose thinking and increase participation, MWBs are hard to beat.

The next objection feels more subject specific and so requires more consideration. The issue, as some see it, with MWBs is that writing becomes ephemeral and is wiped away as quickly as it is put down. Surely, if it’s worth asking students to go to the time and trouble of writing something down, shouldn’t we expect them to write it in their exercise books so that they can reflect on it in the future? But, as with the previous objection, this argument seems to create a false dichotomy. No one is arguing that all writing should be on MWBs and that none should be in books. Of course, some writing should be in students’ books. But a lot of the writing I routinely see in books is not worth recording. Very often, students are expected to record answers to retrieval questions which now, in the absence of the question, no longer make any sense. It’s difficult to argue there’s any merit in this beyond allowing senior leaders to check compliance with ill-judged book policies. And then there’s the fact that so many English books are filled with low level comprehension tasks to which students routinely provide poor quality responses littered with errors. If we’re committed to the permanence of writing, then we should be equally committed to the quality of writing. What students practise they get better at; if they practise writing badly, they get better at bad writing. This means we are obliged to, at a minimum, read through all students’ work and check they are not embedding errors. To return to the question of opportunity cost, the costs and benefits of requiring teachers to do this is problematic at best. (That said, I’ve written before about finding a balance with this kind of ‘literacy marking’.) In dealing with this objection, we should also consider the notion that there might be a benefit to transient writing. One of the uses of MWBs is that you can use them as a ‘sandbox’ where students can experiment and rehearse ideas before committing to them either orally or in a more permanent written form. The ability to rub away discarded ideas can be beneficial in many circumstances. To help us work out whether we’d be better off writing on a MWB or in a book, the rule of thumb I’d suggest here is, if you want students to write it down in their book then you must commit to marking it. If, on the other hand, the writing is being undertaken to support thinking and you’ve no intention of valuing the outcome, you’re probably much better off using a MWB.

This takes to our penultimate objection: the suggestion that using MWBs makes it easier to produce sloppy work, littered with errors. Again, as with the faff and behaviour arguments, this is undoubtedly true. However, as we saw when addressing the transience argument, students are as likely to produce untidy error ridden writing in a book or on a MWB. In either case it’s up to us to make our expectations clear and support students in. meeting them. The positive advantage of students making mistakes on MWBs is that they are exposed. As I teacher I get to see, immediately, who’s misspelled Priestley, who’s doodled a penis in the corner and who’s written an unintelligible fragment rather than the beautifully crafted sentence I was expecting. Because I get to see these errors at the time, they’re made I can respond rapidly to prevent mistakes, misjudgements or misconceptions from becoming more deeply embedded.

The last objection, that English is a subject that is concerned with learning that cannot be expressed on MWBs is an unjustified form of exceptionalism. As we’ve already discussed, there are definitely aspects of English for which MWBs will be less appropriate but that doesn’t mean that English is so different from other subjects that there’s no value to using them. The question we need to address is whether MWBs in English are useful enough to justify their opportunity cost.

So, what are MWBs useful for in English? Well, here the three main uses to which I put them:

  1. They are, in my view, the most effective mechanism I have access to that can ensure all students are both participating in and activity and held to account for the quality of their participation. Because I can both see that all students are writing as well as being able to very rapidly see what they are writing, I can intervene as appropriate in the most response manner possible. If you want to check students’ recall of a fact or understanding of a concept, asking them to write the essence of it on their MWB is, I’d argue, much more useful than asking them to write it in their book. Equally, if I’ve asked all students to practise writing a particular sentence form I’ve just taught them, I could wander round and look at each of their books and spend a few moments with everyone who’d gone wrong to correct them or, in the same time, I could get through three or four examples with the whole class.
  2. They expose all students’ thinking. If I pose a hinge question which I need to be sure all students understand before moving on I would typically set this as a multiple-choice questions where, ideally, the distractors exposed predictable misconceptions. This allows me to post the question and ask students to write down A, B or C on their MWBs. This enables me to scan the room and see at a glance whether an individual requires some bespoke remediation or that whole sections of the class are dangerously wrongheaded. There are other, arguably better ways of doing this (such as Plickers perhaps) but these come with other costs and fewer advantages.
  3. When I pose a question which I intend to cold call students, allowing them time to commit a tentative answer, or at least a few thoughts, on their MWB increases the likelihood that all students will be able to give an answer. I’d recommend doing this in the Think stage of Think – Pair – Share: give students 30 seconds to jot down an idea before then telling their partner. I’ve found this seems to really support the quality and sophistication of verbal responses.

As I said earlier, I rarely see English lessons which wouldn’t benefit from the addition of one or all of these activities. I hope it’s also obvious that there are aspects of English for which MWBs are not well suited. Now you have to determine the opportunity cost associate with both deciding to use and not use them. To guide you’re thinking the following prompts might help:

  • Is the behaviour culture in your school or in a particular class likely to mean you can get rid of the faff and behaviour concerns quickly and easily?
  • If you’re doing something else that you think is great, would using MWBs force you to stop doing your great thing or might they support it?
  • Is all the writing you’re asking students to produce something you will value and can give the necessary attention to correct and improve?
  • Would using MWBs make it easier or harder to spot students’ mistakes and misconceptions than what you’re currently doing?
  • How else can you hold every student to account for their participation and effort during a lesson?
  • How fluent are your students’ oral responses? How else could you support students’ answers to questions and contributions to discussions?
  • And, depending on your answers to the previous prompts, is your alternative quicker and easier to use than MWBs?