“We Don’t Need Smart Boards, We Need Smart People (Jerry Brodkey)

Jerry Brodkey teaches at Menlo-Atherton High School in Menlo Park, California. He has been a public secondary school teacher since 1975, and has taught most of the subjects in Social Studies and Mathematics. This year he is currently teaching ninth grade Algebra and Advanced Placement Calculus. He continues to find teaching to be challenging, enjoyable, and always intense. His undergraduate degree was from Rice University (BA 1974), and with graduate work at Stanford (MA 1976, Ph.D. 1987).

A front page New York Times article on January 20, 2010 was headlined: “If Your Kids Are Awake, They’re Probably Online”. The article details the results of a new study from the Kaiser Family Foundation that the typical 8 to 18 year-old spends more than 7.5 hours a day on electronics, plus another 1.5 hour texting and another half an hour on the cell phone. Students are immersed in their electronic world.

Many schools are integrating more and more technology into the curriculum. At the school where I teach, many teachers are switching to “Smart Boards”, a sophisticated piece of technology that looks like a white board but is actually linked to a computer and the Internet. Our school district has invested heavily in technology and the trend is exploding upwards.

As a veteran teacher, the trend bothers me. In my opinion, what should happen at schools, what can makes school valuable and unique, is to provide young people experiences they can’t get anywhere else. Instead of more technology, let’s use less. Instead of emphasizing technology that is often expensive and soon outdated, perhaps schools can take a different, newer (really older) approach.

Schools offer teachers and students an opportunity to do what is almost never done in society. In schools we can gather together a group of twenty to thirty people and have them listen, discuss, analyze, and share differing points of view. Schools provide a rare chance to read, debate, write, and quietly think. We don’t need expensive technology to learn how to ask excellent questions, articulate ideas, and be forced to defend our thoughts.

School hours are precious. My students and I need to learn and consider and develop together. This is what makes my students’ and my school experiences unique. This is what makes my calculus class in room D-10 at Menlo-Atherton High School different than a calculus class students could easily take online. In the classroom the students interact with me and with each other. My students see what happens when people are frustrated, or tired, or thinking creatively. They see what happens when people laugh together, learn together, are confused together. They spend real time with friends and individuals who are like them, and also different than them. They listen to me and to each other, they ask questions, they have to communicate clearly in a real setting. They respond directly to me and to each other and see the effects of their words, the power of their tone of voice, the inflection of a comment or question

Technology can, of course, do amazing things. Any tool can be used properly or improperly. Unfortunately, with devices like Smart Boards, images come and go, and the teacher is often looking at a computer screen for part of the class. Smart Boards and similar technologies reinforce the idea that knowledge resides in things. We don’t need Smart Boards, we need smart people. Answers to all questions do not reside in the Internet, even if it is just a click away.

In my math classes, starting at the Algebra II level, we use graphing calculators to graph functions. They are a remarkable tool, a mini-computer students hold in the palm of their hands. Graphing calculators can graph complex functions in an instant. I do use them in my calculus classes, but I use them sparingly. When I use them, I like to slow down and ask students the following:

What does this graph represent? Is this a good graph? What makes a good graph? How could it be made better? Why are we even bothering to make a graph of this function? What are the limitations of this graph? What are the assumptions? How much data do we need to make a good graph? If we have a certain number of data points, can we assume the rest of the data follows this pattern? What are the limitations of the electronic graphing calculators we use? Do these limitations come into play in this problem?

If all goes well, we have a very good discussion.

We don’t need more technology in my classroom. I have a precious 50 minutes with them each day for 180 days. That is time when real, not virtual, relationships may grow. Each moment I am looking at my computer screen or Smart Board takes away from the time I am directly interacting with my students. Each time I walk down the hall and see a teacher at a computer, or each moment when I am at mine, I feel it is an opportunity lost. For me, more technology is not the answer. It only detracts from what I am truly trying to achieve as a teacher.



Filed under how teachers teach

29 responses to ““We Don’t Need Smart Boards, We Need Smart People (Jerry Brodkey)

  1. Your point is that technology must be used well if it is to be used at all. This has been a constant in education. A chalk board was cutting edge technology at one time, and I’m sure it had its detractors. Calculators were fought tooth and nail initially and now are considered compulsory (though as you rightly say, use them in moderation).

    To me, it isn’t about the tool, it is about the best way to “get at the learning.” I have no problem with “more” technology if it leads to better learning. But the tool does not do the teaching, and that is sometimes forgotten.

  2. Jerry:
    Recently I observed teachers in a mentoring role and served as a substitute in several high school math classes. Unlike regular white boards where the notes a teacher writes gradually get dimmer and dimmer until the teacher takes out a new marker, the notes on a smart board are uniformly bright and easier to read. Since each page of notes can be saved, the teacher can go back to notes used previously throughout the course. Rather than rewrite notes while your back is turned, you can pull up what you need and increase face time with your the class. The teacher also spends zero time erasing a board that gradually becomes dingy and harder to erase. While there may not be as many cool math sites as there are for some other subjects, they are many that you can use to enhance your student’s understanding. While it is important the question the hype that comes with new technology, it is also important to recognize the real benefits that come with it. Good luck.
    Douglas, W. Green, EdD

    • William Stedman

      A doctorate in education, figures. Not a true science, but a blend of art and soft science. Sorry, personal attacks are not necessary, but political correctness is one of our many problems in the U.S.. Not one real study has been made that shows any increase in learning with an increase in smart board technology. It’s something “cool” for a little while and has no effect. The only reason New York State still has good passing percentages is that the Regents and Education establishment lowered the passing grade for state tests !”after”! the statewide test was given. If you can’t teach it better, use statistical and mathematical tricks to make it all seem better. Prove it or stop throwing money at smart boards. One smart board equals 5-7 computers for kids to use that can’t afford them or broadband at home. Forget about the economic divide, the new proven problem is the great information divide.

      • Leon Ledermann (FermiLab) told me a smart board with “clickers” has a $250.00 per student cost when all is said and done in a typical class of about 20 students. That may not be absolutely correct, but it is fine for our purposes.

        An “interactive whiteboard” is a single computer with a display device that mimics a tablet input with software that allows tabulation of choices from “clicker” input devices.

        For that price, you can buy each student in the class a notebook that uses cloud storage and a free CMS package that includes routines that will tabulate choices (with graphs for those who lust after graphs.)

        There are two advantages to the “interactive whiteboard”. First, a teacher with a single display has the advantage of keeping students focused on one display device. Second, students who are afraid of holding their hands up for a vote will be stimulated to participate.

        I suspect that “interactive whiteboards” are a niche player that mediate students’ classroom behaviour from physical collaboration into online collaboration.

      • Joyce Timm

        I agree~I am a sub @ Attica school. I have been in math classes where a smart board was used. It did all the calculations for the students and they really had no idea how to do it without the board. They were just happy that the board did it and they didn’t have to be bothered using their brains (to + or -) to do the simply math. When this class left not one student had notes or any written material on the lesson they just did on the board. They really could have cared less, just that it was over. Just like a computer ~ they turned their brains off and left nothing to their imagination. I think we learn more when we access the brain through other means and not just through our eyes. Like using our hands and hard solid objects (pen & paper) and exercise our whole body. Smart boards (like computers) are the technology that businesses use everyday, but not what we need to teach!! The basic subjects do not involve any modern technology. It is the habits that we need to mold us into what we become. It’s not the tools!

    • Dr. Green, I agree with Mr. Brodkey; needing smart people. Yes, I agree with your points but administrators are not teaching. All the instruments and student desk positioning has to be aligned for any effectiveness. I have seen staff teachers struggle with eye on screen limiting teacher eye contact with their students. There is no gain for full visibility by students as the teacher has to reposition on either side of board just as there was a wipe board or blackboard. There is loss in lesson interacting for teachers who remember beginning any subject lesson area with clear vocabulary and comprehension objectives for their students to gain. I have broader certification and enjoying subbing K through 12 grade levels. Recently, subbing a first grade class the teacher did not leave password to use the smart board. I was suppose to use the smart board to direct them how to draw the capitol building. So I was innovative and as I did in the good old days I bridged ‘the art of drawing with a math lesson.’ Using 3 construction sheets with 2 parent volunteers assigned for that day, I elicited student responses showing 4 sides ( a quadrilateral); straight lines connected by points (a polygon) ; purpose was to intro math terms tying in with art of drawing -yes, we picked out 4 sides that looked like a rectangle and then even a square around room. This is integrating math learning with art. I was not pulled with techno and my eyes, hands , and mind freer to connect with my little students that day and roam around room to see how they were doing. Students ‘constructed’ with me clipping the 3 rectangle sheets , orientating them to look like the capitol building. They were architects. I used this vocabulary –the more we hear voc, concepts, then one day it clicks,..we get it. The parent volunteers commented that the teacher has used smart board to ‘lead the students’ how to draw something. They complimented me that I gave them what they needed and then some (tying it in with beginning geometry which happens even in kindergarten).I laughed and said you just saw a flashback that engaged children more,..they did not watch a show on board they were engaged. In a fourth grade I used the traditional wipe board; while erasing I interact with students answering and asking questions; roam around to help them. I have subbed for this teacher several times and his assistant tells me even though I am not using smart board that teacher wants me just because students understand material. I have friends who use the smart board during their company conferences. If there is going to be a place for this board in the classroom teachers need more time to feel @ ease ,e.g. how to really apply it, Application is a higher level of thinking than just understanding how something works. All teachers need more time to apply this in classroom more effectively,..administrators need to be kinder.

  3. I totally agree with your priorities. But I want internet capability for when it will increase my time available to interact with students about mathematics.

    If you use a chalkboard, whiteboard, or overhead projector, you’re using technology. There are pros and cons to the use of each.

    Most teachers lecture too much. If we can use the internet to push ourselves out of that ‘sage on the stage’ mode, and into a practice where we get more discussion going, then it is helping us meet your priorities.

  4. Dr Green is ignoring the time it takes to catalog, name, locate, and retrieve data on the computer. After all, how long does it take for a mathematician to write on a board of any kind? Also he ignores the human scale of display devices with regard to viewing distance and ability to resolve detail. In fact, the contrast ratio of display technology is generally worse than a black marker on a white board, particularly when you use color. Most people tend to confuse color with luminance.

    Language teachers, on the other hand need permanent and large storage to enhance the classroom experience. For them, interactive whiteboards are useless compared to the individual display a laptop can provide.

    Brodkey didn’t expose the heart of his argument which is the value intimacy and close social interaction. These are only beginning to be experienced in network environments and we really can’t predict what will happen tomorrow in this space. All we can say today is that an intimate conversation in a classroom with a small number of participants can be amazingly powerful and transformative.

    The software that comes with the “clicker” and “smart board” facilitate a lesser degree of intimacy that implicitly gives in to a classroom that can’t engage the professor in a straightforward and public fashion. My question is always, why not encourage an atmosphere of dialog that allows people to make mistakes and acknowledge achievement instead of hailing “embedded evaluation” as a revolution in teaching?

  5. I definitely agree that schools need to provide students with a unique experience not available elsewhere. I’m not so sure the answer is use technology less, but use it differently. It’s not about either a smartboard or not a smartboard but rather how to take advantage of 20 people in a room together learning. For years we’ve taken for granted the fact that parents send their kids to a building and then we ask them to sit still, be quiet and stare at the teacher for 5o minute stretches.

    I blogged a litte about this last year.


    We do need smarter teachers over smarter boards but again, it’s not an either or choice. Bringing high quality images and content right into the room to enhance discussion and understanding is a no brainer. Abstract ideas become real and relevant. The potential to connect with people smarter than the teacher offers a learning experience not possible 10 years ago.

    Living in a rural part of the world, many teachers are required to teach subjects that they are not experts in. That shouldn’t matter. Teachers may take on a very different role that continues to allow students to learn. Their role isn’t expert mathematician, but expert connector. Geography is taken out of the equation of learning.

    So yes, let’s have smarter teachers, let’s use technology wisely and perhaps, in some cases that means using it less but let’s recognize that learning shouldn’t be limited to the walls of the classroom and the expertise of the teacher.

  6. I agree with Dean here.
    On another note, while many educators call these devices, “Smartboards”, in reality they are “Interactive White Boards.” SMART is a company that manufactures them. It’s like calling tissue paper, “Kleenex.”
    It should also be noted that another manufacturer of Interactive White Boards, IWB’s, Promethean, asked Dr. Robert Marzano to conduct research into their effectiveness. His analysis was that if the teacher were well trained and given enough time to incorporate them, they did improve instruction when used around 75% of the time. The full study can be found here: http://www.prometheanplanet.com/server.php?show=nav.17627

    • Interactive whiteboards are merely a subset of computer display. Overpriced as are most vertical education products.

      My students took a school laptop, a school projector, and a Sony Wii and made an interactive whiteboard.

      This solution is pretty much free but has the disadvantage of not having clickers.

      This solution has been on YouTube since 2007.

  7. Jim Hollis

    Is the trend of investing in technology the thing that is really bothering, or is it something else?

    In my opinion, it is the “something else” that’s bothering. Investing in technology is a good thing. Not investing in PD to support the technology is what’s bothersome. However, this PD also needs to include evaluating if using the Smart Board (or any tool) would be the most effective method for achieving the desired learning outcome.

    I understand exactly what you’re saying, however, I don’t think that the “no technology” solution is the answer to this problem.

    Technology, if used effectively, can oftentimes help teachers utilize that 50 minutes more effectively and present ideas and concepts in ways that cannot be done by sitting at a round-table discussion looking at a static object.

    The key factor is how well a lesson is prepared and how well teachers use the tools available to them. If teachers do not prepare and evaluate what will work best for the desired outcome, then time is indeed wasted like you said.

    What teachers need to remind themselves is that slowing down and asking questions like, “What does this graph represent? Is this a good graph? What makes a good graph?,” etc., is oftentimes the best method for achieving the desired learning outcome.

    However, using an interactive device to visually represent the change in data can lead to an understanding that could never be accomplished by sitting and talking about a static graph.

    A blending of both methods is probably the most effective method for achieving the desired learning outcome.

  8. I taught a geometry course using a projector, a tablet, and the software package, Geometer’s Sketchpad extensively. It worked nicely, but I did have one persistent and odd complaint: some kids were thrown off because my voice was coming from one place and the image was in another. Chalk and slate worked better for these kids: they could see the image appear from my hand and tracked my voice properly.

  9. I’m afraid the words “stable” and “door” just leapt to mind when I read the comments here. Just look at some of the discussion linked to below…and this is simply one example of very many, which illustrate just how radically techno-zealots are driving the entire educational agenda.

    What truly concerns me, is the very covert anti-schools agenda so many of them nurse. The UK’s leading ICT “guru’s” most famous project was called “Not School” and one of the most influential designers of new school buildings worldwide wrote a PhD called….”School as Prison.”


  10. >What truly concerns me, is the very covert anti-schools agenda so many of them nurse

    I’m not a techno-zealot, nor are my concerns about schooling covert. (I do think schools are important, and one of my heroes is Deborah Meier.) But I do think the way schools are currently constituted, it’s quite fair to compare them to prisons.

    I’m very intrigued by what homeschoolers and unschoolers are finding out about how children learn. Their personal solutions will not work for everyone, though, and I would love to see schools evolve into places that respect students and teachers more, places where learning is undertaken with joy.

  11. Sue,
    I guess it all depends on what you describe as a school. What puzzles me is the way that so much of the policy talk (certainly in the UK) takes place in this curious vacuum in which there is no such thing as an excellent school. I’ve been lucky enough to have worked at both ends of the UK spectrum: in the elite, highly selective, private sector and the inner city, out-of-control state sector.

    My very pragmatic approach is that if one wants to improve poor or failing schools, isn’t it sensible to ask the successful and best for advice, instead of pretending they don’t exist?

  12. Bob Calder


    This is something Larry needs to talk about for people like you and me.

    As I understand it, our multiple focus precludes it. When he talks about the “comprehensive” part of high schools, I think he means our public culture demands a lack of focus while calling it “focus.”

    A budget beginning at the $15,000 per student funding level can bring a good academic institution into being from what I see in exclusive schools.

    One of the things I find humorous in the voucher argument is the deliberately low funding level. My opinion of quality in private schools tracks with tuition so it is impossible for a household with less than a $100,000 income to afford a decent private school, assuming the private school tuition to start at about $15,000. Between ten and fifteen is a grey area, and under ten the outcomes are no better than public schools when you adjust for selection, ie parental involvement and income class. This is overly broad, but I’m using Florida as an example because I live there. Our public funding totals around six thousand per pupil and our outcomes are middle of the pack.

    Vouchers are nice little tax credits for parents who don’t need them and paychecks for bottom feeding private schools.

  13. Bob,
    I agree with your very broad estimates and having had the chance to visit the Swedish Kunskappskolan schools first hand, I know that although in many respects they are very good schools, they don’t begin to approach the quality of academic, sporting and cultural resource you find in even a middling a UK private school.

  14. Martin Ford

    I’m sorry for your displeasure with the wide spread implementation of technology in class. My feeling is you have had no or limited exposure to an interactive class that utilizes this interactive whiteboard. I often use it to present and hardly ever use the internet. It has taken my lesson to another stratosphere and I urge you.to approach with an open mind.

    Martin Ford

  15. Brian Slack

    I have two thoughts on this, both in Jerry Brodkey’s favor. First, I was a student of his in 1988 and consider him one of the finest teachers I have ever known. I have two very bright daughters and would be thrilled if he were their teacher. Second, I was SVP of Technology for a Fraunhoffer subsidiary and am currently Chief Engineer for a large sound facility, and as such I couldn’t agree more on this views about technology in schools.
    Any technology is a tool. If the proper tool happens to be a VR simulator, or a chalk and board, it should be a gifted teacher who makes that decision.
    I was, and my girls are, very lucky to have had excellent teachers in their lives. In life, as in school, I have learned and and expressed more in a spirited conversation than I ever have on-line.

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