When math teacher Christine Taylor asked her Math 51 students in class if they’d rather have her write on blackboards or project her class notes, the students were on the same level: Blackboards are better. And the students are not alone in their preference.
Mathematics professor Brian Conrad, director of undergraduate studies in the mathematics department, said nearly 100% of math teachers at Stanford teach using chalk and blackboards. This preference for chalk, according to the fourth-year doctorate in mathematics. student Libby Taylor, is shared by graduate students and teaching assistants.
Since the invention of colored chalk and blackboards in the early 1800s, the instruments have been used widely in educational settings. In fact, many mathematicians today have even developed brand loyalty for a specific type of chalk – Japanese Hagoromo chalk, which is the favorite brand of many math professors at Stanford.
When Conrad heard about the bankruptcy of the Japanese company that produced Hagoromo chalk a few years ago, he described the situation as a “chalk apocalypse” and started stockpiling as much chalk as he could. . The news that a Korean company bought the Hagoromo formula calmed the sense of urgency but did not lessen mathematicians’ fervor for chalk. Libby Taylor even said there was hardly any non-Hagoromo chalk in her office.
While the use of chalk is a cultural element for most mathematicians, Conrad also noted several distinct characteristics of chalk compared to slides or projections. The nature of the mathematical derivations and the step-by-step process are difficult to grasp through slides, he said.
While using slides is more useful when it comes to giving a “speech to a popular audience,” chalk and blackboards are much more effective for classroom instruction, Conrad said.
Echoing Conrad’s sentiment, Christine Taylor said that “if the speaker was trying to use slides, people don’t hold back so much because [the speaker] goes much faster. Whereas if you write in chalk you have to slow down.
The more spacious board compared to the limited screen size, Conrad said, is conducive to student learning because they can constantly go back and forth over math leads. The layout of Room 380C at Sloan Hall, for example, features two levels of chalkboards, allowing for increased flexibility.
Even compared to whiteboards, blackboards still have many advantages. You always know how much they have left with a piece of chalk, according to Conrad. With whiteboard markers, however, you never know when the markers are going to run out – a phenomenon Libby Taylor jokingly describes as “the whiteboard marker wheel.”
Regarding teaching, Christine Taylor noted that “an individual’s calligraphy is not as good with markers” and that when one surrounds markers, “the handwriting tends to get smaller” , which tends to make discernment more difficult for students. On a more practical level, Libby Taylor said that “whiteboards deteriorate much faster, [and] then you have to replace them much more often and fitting these boards is a huge pain.
Chalkboards, on the other hand, can still perform flawlessly even when they are 20 or 30 years old. Conrad also pointed out that if one accidentally applied permanent markers to a whiteboard, the board would be “instantly dead,” a nightmare that does not apply to chalkboards.
Even though assistant math professor Zhenkun Li does not have a particular preference for blackboards or whiteboards for personal use, when meeting a student or colleague, he still prefers the blackboard.
Using chalk and blackboards is not only conducive to teaching and learning, but it also has environmental benefits. Conrad said that “chalk is more biodegradable” and blackboards, unlike whiteboards, do not require chemicals when cleaning.
Despite the many benefits of chalk and blackboards, they are slowly fading away. Conrad mentioned that “many, many, many high schools have completely gotten rid of” blackboards.
The blackboards were long gone from Palo Alto High School when he went to speak there, he said. In one of his Math 51 classes in 2018, he added that “almost none” of the students “had taken a chalk course before coming to Stanford.”
Li pointed out that with this phenomenon, coupled with the recent pandemic that led to the prevalence of webinars, it is possible that the technology will be used more often in math classrooms. However, other people interviewed by The Daily all seem to think chalk and blackboards will remain a staple in math education for years to come.
Whether it’s because of “the tradition of using chalk,” as Conrad noted, or the “pretty clicking noise” mentioned by Libby Taylor, chalk and blackboards are here to stay.