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No whiteboard, no projector! #AllOrNothing Week by Alice Constable

At the Sandringham conference at the start of term, I attended a lecture from Nick Rose about memory and the student’s ability to process, organise and use information to help them make the most out of their classroom time. As a classroom teacher, thinking about multiple things at once, it is easy to forget that students, as do we all, have a limited working memory. Rose suggested that part of the problem that students face within lessons is that they are overstimulated; with too many resources and places to find gather information needed to complete their tasks, their ability to hold instructions and remember lesson content becomes limited.

Rose mentioned, as an example of the pressures that students face when trying to consolidate information, that students can become confused as to the expectations on them in lessons when presented with information and instructions on the board when the teacher commentary is ongoing. Students either focus on reading or copying the information from the board at the expense of listening to teacher exposition or vice versa, writing poor quality notes. Until Rose pointed it out, I hadn’t thought much about how often I am guilty of this. Having sat through painful presentations that involved people reading out a PowerPoint slide, in my endeavours to expand on the information and give a more engaging contextual narrative, it hadn’t occurred to me that this might be an overload of stimulus and information on the student.

Taking on board Rose’s points, my aim for ‘All or Nothing’ week was to remove the whiteboard and the projector from my lesson. The idea behind this was that the students only had two focal points in room; either the whiteboard where I could handwrite any important points or me, giving narrative or questioning the class. Whilst this may not seem particularly ambitious, particularly to veteran teachers, I am from a generation of teachers that use the PowerPoint as an extension of themselves.

The students seemed rather bemused when I presented the experiment to them but set about copying the handwritten title and date with little fuss. Incorporating another of Rose’s comments and the research results from Dean’s for Learning, we spent the first part of the lesson recapping the work from the previous week. In the previous lesson, Year 8 had looked at some of the long-term causes of the English Civil War and this was to be the continuation; the aim of this lesson was to encourage students to challenge their prior conclusions after receiving more factual content and, for the more able students, to draw links between the two lessons, assessing how the long-term causes had an impact on the short term. Usually, stimulus points would be on the board to give the students a start but the absence of this help resulted in students having to turn back in their books and looking closely at the notes from the previous week. After the first student had contributed their ideas, it meant students were more willing to become involved in the discussion and contribute ideas. This would indicate that the absence of the whiteboard as a differentiation tool had very little effect students’ ability and willingness to participate in the discussion task. As the lesson progressed, the students started to work off an information sheet, reading and categorising the information. There was a clear indication that the students were closely focused on the one task and with only one place to access task instructions and information from helped students streamline their thought process. The discussion at the end indicated that students were able to draw on information from across the lesson, and the previous lesson, and apply it to formulate their new judgement.

The ‘whiteboard free’ lesson was still effective in the sense that the students made progress and some students commented that they liked only having one place to look for information. Interestingly, these were students who either have literacy difficulties or are SEN; the students who I always intended the PowerPoint slides to support.

However, as a useful strategy to be applied to all lessons, I would argue that there was minimal impact. The majority of the students didn’t notice that the lesson was particularly difficult from anything else that they have come to expect from history and did not feel that it made a difference to their ability to work to a high level. The lack of whiteboard was more of an inconvenience for me. Writing the title and homework out by hand on the whiteboard results in losing a couple of minutes at the start of the lesson which could better be spend ensuring that the students settle quickly. The PowerPoint slides also double up as a ‘student facing’ lesson plan, which, even if there is little impact for the students, is reassuring to me know to be able to refer back to the lesson plan quickly. The major lesson from this is not that teaching without a PowerPoint is beneficial, more that I need to reassess who the Powerpoint is for; is it to support the students or is it for me?