Lessons Learned from a Chalkboard: Slow and Steady Technology Integration (Bradley Emerling)

Bradley Emerling is Principal Research Scientist at Pearson Research and Innovation Network. This commentary appeared in Teachers College Record  on April 13, 2015.

Last winter, while observing and recording classroom lessons for a research project in Japan, I was surprised to hear a sound I had not heard for many years—the sound of chalk. Over a three-week period of observations in Saitama prefecture, I captured 17 classroom videos from various subject areas across 1st to 12th grade. Every classroom I visited was equipped with a large green chalkboard. There were few computers, few projectors or smartboards, and no other visible forms of 21st century technology in most of the classrooms. Japanese colleagues and researchers confirmed this was representative of the average K-12 classroom in Japan. In January 2015, the Tokyo Broadcasting System reported approximately 75% of Japanese classrooms still use chalkboards as the primary medium for presentation of lesson content (Sankyuu, 2015).









My first reaction was one of astonishment. How could Japan, a society known for its creation of gadgets and highly specialized technological devices, be so far behind in their use of 21st century technology?

As I continued to record lessons, I began to note the masterful way Japanese teachers utilized this “primitive” instructional medium. I also noted how teachers and students alike maintained the chalkboard with consistent and diligent care. Each class assigned one student to serve as the kokuban kakari (person in charge of the chalkboard) who ensured it was clean and ready for use prior to the opening bell for each period. Teachers treated each centimeter of this freshly cleaned board as valuable real estate. They wrote in straight lines with clear and precise characters and paused to erase stray marks or re-write illegible content.









Math and science teachers used meter sticks as a guide to draw perfectly symmetrical diagrams and tables. Language arts and social studies teachers used a variety of chalk colors, each with a consistent meaning and precise purpose related to grammatical terms, literary themes, or systems of government. They used magnetic timers on the board to pace activities and posted magnetic labels of student names to assign workspace for whole-class demonstrations. Most importantly, teachers carefully preserved a lesson storyline as they progressed across the board. They added elements in a strategic sequence that helped bring coherence to the lesson, and rarely erased content unless they reached a major instructional transition.



I also conducted post-observation interviews with teachers to ask about instructional planning and decisions. It turns out Japanese educators possess a unique technical vocabulary for describing chalkboard teaching practices, called bansho (board-writing) and bansho-keikaku (board-writing planning). Like many instructional practices in Japan, bansho has been studied and refined over a period of years through use of Japanese lesson study (jugyō kenkyū). During a typical lesson study cycle, teachers conduct research, analyze curriculum, and design a detailed “research lesson” to address a jointly selected investigative theme. One team member teaches the research lesson while colleagues observe and collect data on student learning. The team then engages in extended discussion of results and potential revisions. After two or more cycles of implementation, the process often culminates with an open house where guests are invited to observe teaching of the refined lesson plan (Ermeling & Graff-Ermeling, 2014).

Yoshida (1999) reports how lower elementary mathematics teachers used lesson study to test and refine bansho methods with conceptually rich math problems. For each research lesson, teachers carefully mapped out a chalkboard diagram, including space for whole-class review of previously assigned problems, space for posting the new problem, space dedicated for student presentation of ideas, and space for culminating remarks. More than simply displaying information or solutions, teachers used the chalkboard to summarize, organize, and link a sequence of lesson events to facilitate collective thinking. One teacher explained: “I try to organize the blackboard in such a way that my students and I can see how the lesson progressed and what was talked about during the lesson…” (p. 439). Reports are available in Japanese bookstores summarizing key findings from various bansho lesson-study projects.

Based on analysis of over 200 videos from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), Stigler and Hiebert (1999) also describe underlying cultural teaching “scripts” that influence technology choices in different countries. Comparing Japanese and US 8th grade math classrooms, they observed that nearly all Japanese teachers used a chalkboard as the primary visual aid, while many American teachers (at the time of the study) used an overhead projector. More importantly, they point out this was not merely a visual aid preference, but represented a fundamental distinction in teaching approaches. American teachers often chose an overhead projector because they conceived of the visual aid as a tool for focusing students’ attention on one problem at a time and shaping tasks into manageable steps. Even when they used a chalkboard, they would often erase a problem before starting a new one to maintain student focus on immediate information.

The Japanese math teachers, as Yoshida (1999) also noted, used visual aids for a different reason—to provide a record of problems, solution approaches, and key principles discussed over the course of a lesson. In this way, the chalkboard played an important role in helping students make connections and discover new relationships between mathematical ideas (Stigler & Hiebert, 1999). In addition, other Japanese studies report the green color of the chalkboard provides a calming benefit for students, enabling concentration more effectively than a white background (Sankyuu, 2015).


For these reasons, Japanese teachers’ choice to use a chalkboard instead of an overhead projector (in the 1990s), or instead of computer-based slide presentations (in 2015), is more than simply a delayed reaction to adopt new devices. It reflects a thoughtful decision about which technology might best support particular learning opportunities for students. Similarly, research and development projects, funded by the Japanese government, are now underway, investigating the kinds of learning opportunities and instructional methods best facilitated by new digital technologies (Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications [MIC], n.d.).


The more I observed Japanese masterful use of the chalkboard, the more I reflected on technology approaches in US classrooms. Not only do educators rarely discuss the rationale for which technologies might best support particular learning opportunities, many US schools are consumed by a haphazard race to adopt the latest innovation. While many classrooms are decked out with shiny new tablets, document projectors, smartboards, or infrared response systems, far too often these devices are under-utilized, and methods of use vary widely across teachers. There are definitely exceptions to this pattern, such as Project Red or the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools, where technology is carefully implemented through ongoing research and development efforts (Digital Promise, n.d.; Project Red, n.d.). But there are many more classrooms where digital devices function as little more than expensive and colorful accessories with minimal influence on existing instructional methods. In other cases, devices sit unused, collect dust, and soon become obsolete, costing thousands of dollars in upgrades.

Despite Japan’s slower pace of technology adoption, one might argue that Japanese educators are well ahead of the US in effective technology integration. Japanese government officials and other prominent educational leaders openly acknowledge the need to begin incorporating 21st century technologies into their teaching and learning environments. Several programs are well underway with this effort such as the Future Schools Promotion Project, involving systematic research on infrastructure and effectiveness of technology integration in selected Japanese pilot schools (MIC, n.d.).

Passed down over centuries from stories of Samurai, the Japanese have a frequently cited proverb that  fittingly describes their approach to technology integration: “when you’re in a hurry, take the slow round-about way” (isogaba maware). Following this advice, the focus in Japanese education is not on how many innovations they rush to implement or how many new gadgets students get to use. Instead, educators focus on collecting evidence of effectiveness and leveraging technology resources (whether it’s a chalkboard or a smartboard) with purpose and intentionality to enhance and facilitate teaching and learning opportunities. As stated in a recent Japanese publication from the Future Schools Project, “Traditional education will be valued while those parts of it that should be extended, broadened, or deepened will evolve significantly” (MIC, n.d., p. 2).

What if educators adopted the same approach in America with devices such as smartboards, and infrared response systems, as well applications such as screencasting, Google Docs, or Evernote? Teams of teachers could treat these devices and applications as critical topics for collaborative inquiry, develop plans for using them in the classroom, articulate hypotheses for how they will create specific learning opportunities, implement, observe and collect data on the results of these lessons. Other teachers could build on these lesson cases by studying, adapting, and refining methods of use for various contexts and learning goals.

As Japanese schools adopt and incorporate emergent technologies, researchers and educators will be studying and documenting effective methods with the same diligent analysis they have demonstrated for decades with bansho. If the objective is to develop deeper understanding of how technologies are used to create learning opportunities for particular learning goals, then “slow and steady” will again prevail over “fast and furious.” The US should take note and consider a more purposeful integration strategy that emphasizes efficacy over hasty implementation.



Digital Promise. (n.d.). League Research. Retrieved from http://www.digitalpromise.org/initiatives/research#league-research


Ermeling, B., & Graff-Ermeling, G. (2014). Learning to learn from teaching: A first-hand account of lesson study in Japan. International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies, 3(2), 170–192. Retrieved from http://independent.academia.edu/BradleyErmeling


Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC). (n.d.). Creating the Learning Environment of the Future. Retrieved from http://www.soumu.go.jp/main_content/000299868.pdf


Project Red. (n.d.). Project Red: The Research. Retrieved from http://www.projectred.org/about/research-overview.html


Sankyuu, T. (Presenter). (2015, January 22). Chalk industry crisis: Decision to cease production of long standing educational IT. [Radio Broadcast]. In K. Arakawa (Producer), Day Catch News Ranking. Tokyo,

Japan: Tokyo Broadcasting System Holdings, Inc.


Stigler, J., & Hiebert, J. (1999). The teaching gap: Best ideas from the world’s teachers for improving education in the classroom. New York: Free Press.


Yoshida, M. (1999). Lesson Study: An ethnographic investigation of school-based teacher development in Japan. Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (AAT 9951855)








Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

41 responses to “Lessons Learned from a Chalkboard: Slow and Steady Technology Integration (Bradley Emerling)

  1. Thank you for posting this and also for reblogging. Appreciate the interest.

  2. Mary Snow

    Perhaps some of the success of the Khan Academy Math videos (https://www.khanacademy.org/) is due to the same practice of giving students access to the lesson storyline as it progresses.

  3. Gary Ravani

    And the cumulative, real life, outcomes of the Japanese system v. the US system is…? No mention here of the increased time Japanese teachers have for collaboration and planning which seems central to comparisons of the two systems.

  4. I look forward to reading more. Though I cannot say I have experience to rate the quality of blackboard usage

    • I look forward to reading more. But, I would like to address your attention to what I think is the best blackboard use and online lectures I have ever seen. It’s Herb Gross’ Calculus Revisited series from MIT Open Courseware. As a measure of quality I can think of no better example.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for comment, Larry, and link to the MIT prof’s use of the blackboard. Had not seen that.

  5. Reblogged this on HCESC Technology Assistance Group – http://tech.hcesc.org/

  6. Vanessa Bell

    Reblogged this on Musings on Mindfulness and commented:
    When I read this article, I understand how purposeful Japanese teachers are in the technology they are using. I think this mentality is beneficial for approaching everyday life as well. There’s no need to rush to get new technology just for the sake of it. Technology should be a supplement, not a replacement for already viable teaching methods.

  7. GE2L2R

    The careful and deliberate use of the chalkboard in Japanese schools that you have observed and described does indeed have important implications for instruction in the U.S. for the very reasons you have noted.

    But I can’t say that I’m entirely surprised by that attitude. There are so many aspects of Japanese culture that would predict the same reverence, if you will, to the nature of Japanese life in general.

    It would seem that those same characteristics are what have given rise to the recent popularity of Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing”. Though Kondo’s book addresses “tidying up” in the home, it is that same attitude that I think you were observing in the care given to “proper” use of the chalk board.

    One quote from Penelope Green’s review of Kondo’s book in The New York Times (10/22/14) addresses this attribute of Japanese culture:

    “Such anthropomorphism and nondualism, so familiar in Japanese culture, as Leonard Koren, a design theorist who has written extensively on Japanese aesthetics, told me recently, was an epiphany to this Westerner. In Japan, a hyper-awareness, even reverence, for objects is a rational response to geography, said Mr. Koren, who spent 10 years there and is the author of “Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers.”


    Given the excessive pursuit of consumerism evident in the current U.S. “culture”(?), perhaps it should not come as a surprise to see that it is present in U.S. classrooms as well.

    Provocative post – thanks.

  8. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    A very interesting read, not against technology, but more a plea for more thoughtful integration of technology:
    “Despite Japan’s slower pace of technology adoption, one might argue that Japanese educators are well ahead of the US in effective technology integration. ”
    “Passed down over centuries from stories of Samurai, the Japanese have a frequently cited proverb that fittingly describes their approach to technology integration: “when you’re in a hurry, take the slow round-about way” (isogaba maware). Following this advice, the focus in Japanese education is not on how many innovations they rush to implement or how many new gadgets students get to use. Instead, educators focus on collecting evidence of effectiveness and leveraging technology resources (whether it’s a chalkboard or a smartboard) with purpose and intentionality to enhance and facilitate teaching and learning opportunities.”

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  10. Brad Ermeling

    All: Thank you for your fascinating comments and discussion of the article. Some of you asked for a more complete analysis/comparison including time available for Japanese teachers for collaboration, etc. If you are interested, please see a more extensive research article we published from our first-hand experience with lesson study in Japan (while working as educators in Saitama for 7 years). The article is titled: Learning to Learning from Teaching and can be downloaded at: https://independent.academia.edu/BradleyErmeling

    Thanks again for the comments.

  11. Daren mallet

    Thanks for your well thought through piece of writing. I believe you are onto something when asking the education system to carefully evaluate the way they use digital tech tools. I do feel though with the emerging technology of the stylus in classrooms that we are going to see a more critical engagement in digital media abopposed to the old days of copyin text verbatim from a data projector. I loved your reference to using up every inch of the chalk board to carefully direct students through the learning. Good for thought for any teacher. Clear scaffolding is something we rarely do as well as is needed. While your reader may not agree with all your comments, they should at the very least need to stop and actively reflect on how they use technology in ensuring they are using technology to captivate learning experiences, and not just using tech tools for tech use sake.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you for your comment, Daren.

    • Great comments, Darren. Exactly the purpose of the article…to instigate a “pause” and some deliberate reflection about the use of technology as an instrument for supporting key learning opportunities. New technologies have tremendous promise….but their full potential may not be realized unless we adopt this kind of intentional study and purposeful use.

  12. Loretta Heuer

    Hi, Larry. Have been a follower, but your two recent articles on how US teachers aren’t maximizing the potential of hi-tech combined with this article about Japanes lo-tech. Nice contrast.

    Assume you’re familiar w/the TIMMS study. One of my favorite videos is an 8th grade lesson from Japan on inequalities where the lesson is in two parts: the coins and the juice. All masterfully constructed across the “black (AKA green) board. No tech, EXCEPT….the teacher’s homemade magnetized “coins” and his “window shade” thing illustrating juice. I think I gasped the first time I saw it.


    I’ve used this video w/US teachers in a Japanese Lesson Study program. http://www2.edc.org/lessonstudy/lessonstudy/ Where all participants were similarly “taken away.” Especially when they noted that there were 34 students in the class. And the teacher and students got right to work. No 20-minute “before school work” while homework was being corrected. (Which dramatically cuts into instructional time.)

    As for nowadays, even after retirement I’m glad to see Catherine Lewis, Tad Wantabe, Akihiko Takahashi, and Patsy Wang-Iverson are still “alive & kickin’ ” http://www.lessonstudygroup.net/03conference_presentation.php

    Again, thank you for challenging assumptions about teaching, learning, and technology.

    And for being a thorn in the saddle.

    With warmest regards,

    Loretta Heuer

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