The Rise of the Classroom Blackboard


Keith Greenhalf

University of British Columbia

Master of Education Technology

ETEC 540 – Text Technologies: The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Section 64B

Instructor: Jeff Miller

Bart Simpson ©1999 20TH CENTURY FOX FILM CORP.




The classroom chalkboard is something that everyone is familiar with in education. When one pictures the image of a chalkboard, it often immediately relates to the image and experience of a school classroom. This article examines the development and implementation of this technology. The research observes the technological advance of chalkboards historically and culturally. The development of this seemingly simply technology has had profound implications for literacy and education.

If we examine traditional education over the past 200 years, there has always been one tool no classroom has gone without: The simple blackboard. The blackboard found its way to North American classrooms in 1801 (Swinnerton, 2005) and it has been an icon and symbol of teaching ever since. These old-style blackboards are a technology that was and is still used regularly in traditional schools. The blackboard is a tool that can be used every day to make instruction efficient for the teacher, and provide a learning experience for the student. With a classroom blackboard, a diagram can be created from scratch, have the student interact or change it, and be erased when something new needs to be shown. All of the students in the classroom can see the process and replicate it as necessary.

Chalkboards are simple devices; ones can even be replicated reasonably successfully in nature by writing in the sand with your finger. The chalkboard is synonymous with the way that writing has been taught for centuries. However, just because chalkboards have been around for a long time does not mean that the technology wasn’t revolutionary in shaping the way education is instructed. Prior to the introduction of classroom chalkboards, school teachers had no way to present a lesson or a problem to the class as a whole; instead they had to go to each individual student and write a problem or assignment. There are many reasons why chalkboards continue to be used essentially the same way they did over 200 years ago. They are also easy to operate, cheap, low-maintenance, and long-lasting. They are simple to use, flexible in application and extremely reliable as long as there is chalk available. Because of these clear advantages, one can easily understand why it is difficult for us to imagine a classroom without the presence of a chalkboard.

The Technology

The technology of a classroom chalkboard at its core, is as simplistic as the earliest cave paintings found over 40,000 years ago. (Than, 2012) Cave painters would use minerals like red ochre, charcoal, or even chalk to transfer lines and drawings on a stone wall.

Red Hand & Mammoth – The Cave Art Paintings of the Chauvet Cave. Retrieved from 2013 October 25.

Like a stone wall, chalkboards were initially either made of actual slate, or pieces of wood coated with paint and grit. Slate is a fine-grained rock with frequent mica and quartz inclusions. The slate material splits or cleaves readily into thin slabs. Slate occurs in various colors, primarily blue, green, grey and black, with the darker slates caused mainly by carbon-based presences. Most boards now are made of metal coated with a special, porcelain-based, paint since slate is a very heavy and a somewhat expensive product. The chalk (a mineral) is rubbed against a surface that is rough enough to transfer the pigment of the mineral. Chalk is one of the best known of rocks, recognizable for its white coloration. Chalk as a manufactured good is familiar to most in everyday products such as blackboard chalk and gymnast chalk. Chalk has been exploited by man for thousands of years for both its physical and chemical properties. In its simplest definition, chalk is just a soft rock that rubs off easily on other rocks like slate. If we were to examine chalk with an electron microscope, we would make an interesting discovery. Chalk is composed of millions of tiny, soft calcite fragments (calcium carbonate) all crushed together under pressure. These fragments are tiny plates shed by a type of plankton millions of years ago. In parts of ocean rich with this plankton, trillions upon trillions of little shed plates would accumulate like snow on the bottom of the ocean and then, under the enormous pressure of the water, would become fused together. Movement of the earth’s tectonic plates slowly pushed these deposits of chalk onto land where, eons after their creation, humans happily mine them. (Shepherd, 2002)


The development of the blackboard has had a profound impact on pedagogy and presenting written and visual ideas. Even in today’s age of handheld devices and high-tech teaching aids, the modest blackboard, or its evolutionary successor, the whiteboard, still remains a staple necessity in classrooms and boardrooms around the world. It is simple, effective and easy to use but still able to facilitate a complex learning environment.

Blackboard classroom history begins in a rudimentary way in very ancient times. Students in ancient Babylonia and Sumeria are known to have inscribed their lessons on clay tablets with a stylus or stick in cuneiform writing. These could be used wet and then erased to be used again or baked to create a permanent document. In India in the 11th century, documents show that school teachers were using something similar to personal slate tablets for lessons and studies. (Journal of News and Resources for Teachers)

One of the first schools to use the large, presentation style, blackboard was West Point Military Academy in New York.  Mr. George Baron, an instructor at West Point, incorporated chalkboards into his lesson plans, enabling him to teach a large number of pupils. (Wojenski, 2003) For many years prior, students would use handheld slates and teachers would have to feverishly move around the room and tediously write instructions on each of the slates.  Because of the cost and supply of these slates and the difficulty for teachers to work with each student and their slate, classroom sizes were often small and limited.

Soon after the first large chalkboards were invented classrooms all over began to catch on. Some chalkboards were as simple as wooden boards painted with a black grit; others were made of porcelain and imported from Europe. The early 1800’s proved to be an ideal time for the rise of the chalkboard since it coincided with the popularity of a major railroad industry. It wasn’t long before chalkboards made of large slabs of slate were being shipped across America’s railroads and delivered by powerful locomotives.

Impact on Education

From inception, the chalkboard has been a technology that was universally accepted, immediately adopted, and widely praised. Josiah F. Bumstead wrote of blackboards in his 1841 book The Blackboard in the Primary Schools that “the inventor or introducer of the system deserves to be ranked among the best contributors to learning and science, if not among the greatest benefactors of mankind” and another writer of the time Is quoted referring to the blackboard as “the MIRROR reflecting the workings, character and quality of the individual mind”. (Krause, 2000)

Teachers were quickly able to apply the use of chalkboards due to their low cost, little maintenance, reliability, durability, and ease of use. Complex ideas, formulas, and long passages of writing could be shown as a large sample with ease and be erased and changed at a moment’s notice. Having a chalkboard mounted to a wall took a way a world of frustration when it came to presenting ideas and examples. If you have ever tried to convey a message to a group of students without the availability of something like a chalkboard you can quickly recognize the vast benefits. This piece of simple writing technology served as a valuable time saver and record keeper of complex ideas when delivering a lecture.

We have discussed what chalkboard technology provided, but it is equally important to describe what chalkboards did not do. The chalkboard enhanced and greatly improved the efficiency of what teachers were already doing. Teachers can easily utilize a technology to enhance their current teaching practice and topic of learning. However, a teacher will struggle to transform their teaching and change topics of learning. Historically, technology has usually been incorporated into teaching only as a means of enhancing accepted pedagogical approaches. Chalkboards didn’t challenge teachers to radically change what they were already set out to do. Today the advancement of technology has put a demand on our education system to create radical transformations in pedagogy.

Adaptations and Evolving Technologies

The classroom blackboard’s design remained essentially unchanged for 160 years with school teachers using slate blackboards just as their predecessors had done. Sometime in the 1960’s, the “greenboard” was introduced, (Journal of News and Resources for Teachers) which is the popular steel plates coated with a porcelain-based enamel that we observe in schools today. This change in design has shown to be an improvement over black slate; chalk powder doesn’t show as well when erased and staring at a green board is considered to be more pleasing and less strenuous to the human eye. These boards are also lighter and more durable than fragile slate, making them more cost-effective and easier to ship.

In the early 1980’s businesses began to widely use whiteboards (aka marker boards) in boardrooms and presentations.  A small number of whiteboards started to appear in classrooms in the early 90’s.  By the late 1990’s, nearly 21% of all American schools converted from chalkboards to whiteboards. (Wojenski, 2003)  The dust from chalk can aggravate allergies and damage electrical circuits. Whiteboards eliminate the dust and mess of chalk and offer more color choices and clearer, more vibrant visual aids to students.  Although the chalkboard still remains a part of most classrooms, school designers no longer use chalkboards in any of their contemporary classroom designs.

Today we are starting to see the beginning of an evolution. Schools all over the world are looking to maximize the potential of digital learning, and take advantage of the available technologies that keep growing ever more powerful. The act of seeking to maximize the potential of technology led to the creation of an incredibly useful tool; the interactive whiteboard (IWB). IWBs are actually the first electronic instructional technology designed primarily for use by teachers. All the other electronic technologies, be they film, radio, television or personal computers, were first designed for the general customer or office markets and then made their way down the line education. Schools have usually been a secondary market for technology. However, the first SMART Board was sold to teachers at a university in 1991. (Betcher & Lee, 2009) Since IWB technology was tailor-made with education in mind, the retailers are putting most of their research and design into the market of schools and education.


Over 200 years ago the idea to present a lesson and write on a large wall mounted piece of slate, set into motion a new way of interacting with students. Classrooms became larger, more efficient and note taking became far less strenuous on the student. The traditional blackboard is rapidly becoming an educational icon from the past. However, the impact it has had on education will continue to be seen for generations to come. One could almost conclusively say that without the blackboard or slate and chalk writing technology, evolving writing technologies as complex as interactive whiteboards and touch screen tablets may have never transpired.



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