Whiteboarding is one of the most fundamental learning tools of my classroom. Students use 2′ x 3′ whiteboards to construct lab write-ups, share experimental data, solve practice problems, compare and contrast ideas, and make their thinking visible to others. The basic notion behind using whiteboards is not much different than using flipchart paper, or butcher paper rolls with students. A sizable surface is provided to students for them to brainstorm their ideas and create a visual aid to accompany the sharing of their ideas. Making thinking visible is such an important element of the learning process, because it helps students to really reflect on their own ideas and create a mechanism for refining ideas through discourse. I’ve written and presented on using whiteboards in the chemistry classroom in the past, and it goes very nicely with Socratic dialogue and questioning techniques the help students to learn in constructivist manner.
Each fall, a new group of students rolls into my classroom, the vast majority of whom have not used whiteboards nor showcased thinking in class before. This necessitates one of my first responsibilities for the school year to be training the students on how to use whiteboards. For me, using whiteboards gives rise to a few key learning outcomes that will translate into skills used throughout the year in my class, including:
- Engaging in student-led discourse
- Carrying on productive and constructive conversations
- Scrutinizing information (later to be empirical lab data) we all have in front of us
- Critiquing and developing arguments
- Arriving at consensus
- Drawing conclusions or developing models based on evidence
After about a month of using whiteboards and engaging in the process of whiteboarding, students operate more or less on autopilot with the practice. Students get accustomed to asking their own questions and running the discussion with less and less prompting. It’s truly a sight to behold. Many teachers who use the Modeling Method in the chemistry or other science classes, know the value of getting their classes to successfully whiteboard and discuss with their class. But many who would like to try whiteboarding out in their classes, or have their students use it as a successful learning tool, wonder how to achieve student buy-in, especially from those who would otherwise seem disenfranchised by having to participate in such a process.
I have encountered the same concern in getting students to buy-in to this method of teaching and learning. What I have found, however, is that it is a practice and needs training. To achieve buy-in with any students, especially struggling/reluctant learners, training within a low-risk environment is absolutely necessary before the process can be used to teach content.
To help train my students in the art of whiteboarding and discourse, I consulted my good friend Justin Wesley, an English and Social Studies teacher, who regularly is engaging his students in high-level discourse, to see how he gets his students to buy-into the discourse process. Based on what I learned from my own literature classes or argumentative writing courses, many teachers like Justin use Socratic Circles or Socratic Seminars, which are totally awesome and exactly what I am going for in my science classes! Justin introduced me to a responsibility ranking activity he did with his students to train their discourse skills. So, I developed my own low-risk, non-content-based, training activity, modeled after Justin’s lesson, for teaching whiteboarding and discourse skills in my classroom. I call it “Whiteboard Training Camp,” because it is like athletic conditioning to prepare students for the learning season. Here’s how it works:
Students are given a short story, a very short story. It’s only a single paragraph, almost like a news brief. It is very content rich, and contains information about six characters in the story. The nature of the storyline is controversial, which is intentionally done to evoke lots of interest, intrigue, thought and wondering from the students. The more dramatic the plot, the more it draws students in to the activity. Since it is very short, the perception of success in completing the reading activity is very high. Also, the storyline is something that appeals to the ethos of students in my classroom (teenagers.) In the story, some tragic event occurs in the story and students are asked to rank the characters’ responsibility for the event based on what they read. Based on the multiple ways that students might read into the story, there are several arguments for responsibility that can be made. After reading, student groups (usually 3-4) must construct a whiteboard to present/discuss with their classmates and have to argue their point in a structured discussion facilitated by the teacher. Inevitably, students draw on their emotions, inferences, and outside experiences to speculate and support their claims. This gives us a number of talking points during the discussion and afterwards when we debrief the process as a whole class.
Questions I typically ask to the group are intended to draw out some of the following key take-aways from the activity:
- What led you to your ideas is equally important as the ideas themselves
- Our ideas can change as we get more information, especially if it comes from a perspective not previously considered
- It is important to make your whiteboards clear and readable from a distance
- In order for everyone to understand our points, we must ground our ideas in commonly available evidence
- We critique ideas, not the people who express them, when we engage in discussion
- Arriving at consensus is challenging but doable when we work together productively
- Students are capable of being successful in sharing ideas, participating in class discussions, & thinking things through
- It’s about the process, not the answers; process leads to answers
You can get great buy-in from students with a low-risk activity like this, which also has tremendous teaching application, if done early in the year. If you try the story out with your students, share your experience in the comments below. You may even wish to complete the activity yourself beforehand, try it out with a group of colleagues, or even as an opening staff meeting activity. This is a versatile activity that can be repurposed for the sake of whiteboarding, group discussion, or argumentation. It could easily be used in non-science classes as well.
Below is a story that I created to use with physics students for Whiteboard Training Camp. Feel free to use it or adapt it for getting your students going with whiteboards in the classroom. Click here to download the Whiteboard Training Camp Story.
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