Student: “My teachers won’t let me take a photo of the Whiteboard…” (Are you serious?)

Screen Shot 2015-07-28 at 8.49.07 pmOn the heels of my previous post about why some teachers fail to realise the efficiency gains of technology, Today I had a conversation with a teenager that went like this:

Student: “My teachers won’t let me take a photo of the whiteboard with my iPad.”
Me: “Are you telling me, they make you copy off the whiteboard with pen and paper?”
Student: “Yes”
Me: “How many of your teachers do this?”
Student: “All of them!”
Me: “Are you serious?”
Student: “They tell us that copying the board will help us remember and understand the information better”
Me: “And do you think it does?”
Student: “No, I’m usually not even thinking about what I’m writing; I’m just copying down the words”

I don’t buy for a moment that students will remember or understand information significantly better by copying! Telling that to students is as disingenuous as it is absurd! When I read the morning newspaper I don’t need to copy out the news stories in order to comprehend them! When researching a topic of interest I read relevant articles, maybe make a few notes and save them to Evernote for future reference but I don’t transcribe the articles in full onto loose leaf! What makes anyone think that copying paragraphs of text from the board will make students remember or understand? As you began reading this blog post, did the thought even cross your mind to start copying it out with pen and paper to aid your understanding? Of course it didn’t! That would be a prodigious waste of your time and would make little to no difference to your comprehension.

Let’s be honest. The real reasons teachers make students copy information from the board are:
(a) It pads out the lesson with busywork, so a very small amount of learning will use up an entire period (It reduces the teacher’s preparation time : class time ratio).
(b) It is the easiest way to “wing it” when a teacher hasn’t prepared a genuine and engaging learning activity.
(c) It keeps students seated, quiet and under control.

In 1989 copying information from the board was a practical way for students to collect a body of examinable subject knowledge to learn (i.e. memorise / encode), because schools didn’t have photocopiers, students didn’t have cameras, and nobody had Google.

In 2015, valid reasons for using a whiteboard might include sketching a diagram to answer an extemporaneous student question, teaching basic literacy skills (character formation, perhaps spelling) or to capture a group brainstorming session. A whiteboard is useful for that kind of thing. (And don’t be ridiculous – if your students have smartphones, let them take a photo, if it helps them!). But I can’t think of any good reason for entering class, with the intention of writing screeds of informational text on the board for students to copy like it were still 1989.

It’s a squandering of class time – a great example of wheeling technology, instead of riding it (to borrow the metaphor from my previous post).

Screen Shot 2015-07-28 at 11.34.08 pm


30 thoughts on “Student: “My teachers won’t let me take a photo of the Whiteboard…” (Are you serious?)

  1. Thanks for this. I was called by one of my son’s teachers in NSW in 2013 on this exact same issue. He had taken a photo of the board – actually two boards of writing the teacher had put up. I refused to accept it was wrong of him to do so and when I questioned the object of the exercise I was frowned upon. I just encouraged him to keep doing the same if he was asked to do wasteful work – or work for the sake of work! I tried to get my kids into an online school in NSW where I assumed they would use technology in a 21st century mode. The first question I was asked by the distance education unit was how are your kids physically or learning disabled, or do they live a great distance from their school. None of the above; well then they cannot do online education. I then tried to get them into a US online school and couldn’t do so because the school was not DET NSW approved, never mind that it had status and standing within the state of California and pathways into a number of Californian Universities. Education in this country (I’ll say state NSW – I cannot speak about other states) is not about education, it is a glorified babysitting service, oblivious to the fact we are in the 21st century and needing to equip learners with skills that will serve them well in the future. I support Sugata Mitra’s view that even hand-writing in classrooms should be abolished – waste of time, much better off learning to touch-type and even that may already be a redundant skill.

    • We keep looking at the problem from the old perspective. Learning is changing and what, how and when we learn is evolving. We don’t need to remember useless facts as we used to, but if that is your goal then keep doing what you are doing and we’ll be left behind by the rest of the world.

    • Hi arnocello,

      Thank you for taking the time to get involved in what I think is an important discussion.

      I have taken some time to respond to this comment, because I think, in fact this research DOES ‘support my contention’.

      I don’t doubt that the research you have cited is valid. Mueller and Oppenheimer are credible researchers and I myself have previously acknowledged the cognitive advantages of handwriting here: WhenI have occasion to take notes (perhaps at a conference) – I tend to take them by had for this very reason! (then photograph my notes and save them to Evernote). I am not anti-handwriting.

      A cursory glance at the report you cited, might SEEM to say that taking notes by hand helps a student to remember and understand. But that is NOT actually what it’s really saying at all! The parallel between what this study says about handwriting and what I wrote about handwriting yesterday is superficial; they both involve handwriting – but that is about where the similarity ends.

      If one reads the Scientific American report thoroughly (I recommend copying it out word-for-word with a pen and paper [jokes]) I think it actually DOES support my assertion! What it’s actually reporting is that taking notes verbatim is less effective than constructing one’s own notes.

      The argument put forward is that constructing ones own notes requires a student to think about what s/he is hearing, interpret it, and summarise it schematically – as opposed to transcribing the lecturer’s words verbatim. The detail of the research explains that because typing is faster, students who type, tend to slavishly record ALL the lecturer’s words, whereas those who handwrite, can’t physically do that (because handwriting is slow), so they are forced instead, to summarise and construct their own summary notes – requiring them to do some “heavy mental lifting” – and it is that cognitive activity which proves better for understanding, retention and integration with prior knowledge!

      In my blog post, I wrote about an entirely different scenario. It concerned students copying information from the board verbatim (as opposed to writing their own notes). I will suggest that copying verbatim from the classroom whiteboard (whether by hand or typing) is akin to the students who typed out the lecture, word-for-word. In both cases, the student ends up with a complete set of notes that required little “cognitive activity” of their own. On the other hand the students in the research who constructed their own summary notes performed better. I don’t think that’s much surprise at all!

      Furthermore, the study (as mixmaxmin pointed out) still assumes that the appropriate default way to conduct a class is for a teacher to spend an hour at the front of the room in didactic delivery. Now let me preface what I’m about to say, by first saying that I DO think there is still a place for the occasional, thoughtfully planned and skilfully delivered lecture (consider TED talks – who would argue that is not a valuable thing? right?). But I don’t think it should be the daily default classroom activity. Instead, students should be engaged in activities that require them to (a) interact with each other in discussions, debates, modelling activities, experiments, etc (b) think for themselves (c) use the internet to research and discover information for themselves. (d) think critically about what they’re reading (e) construct their own schematics, opinions, ideas, solutions and questions and (f) publish (as appropriate) to authentic audiences – where they can engage in continued discussion and debate. That requires far more “heavy mental lifting”, even than handwriting summary lecture notes like the control group in the research paper!

      Finally, the study did point out that if students were given a set of notes (as a download) that may be even less effective than typing them. The actual words from the report read thus

      “Because students can use these posted materials to access lecture content with a mere click, there is no need to organize, synthesize or summarize in their own words. …[they] consequently forego the opportunity to engage in the mental work that supports learning.”.

      Again – this all assumes that the only class activity students are involved in is sitting in a lecture!

      My thought is that the teacher should be designing meaningful, engaging, activities that invite students to participate in “mental work that supports learning”. I’m convinced students will learn better if the teacher simply hands them a set of notes (or lets kids photograph them) and then asks students to spend the class time doing things that encourage them to think deeply about the information – discuss it, criticise it, analyse it, argue about it, propose further questions that it raises, make predictions from it, etc. – That has to be preferable to copying the notes off the whiteboard, word-by-word, slowly, by hand, and then going out to lunch.

      • I agree and disagree with what you say above. Taking a photo of the white board is just slavishly recording the notes, albeit in a new medium. As you point out “the information – discuss it, criticise it, analyse it…”, ie they should process it in some meaningful way. A photo does not do any of that.
        Your comment about student constructing their own notes is totally right and the critical point you raise here is “student to think about what s/he is hearing, interpret it, and summarise it schematically”.
        I’ve found most students take the photo and never look at it again, just thinking at once is enough. With my own note taking that the first version is to take a quick sketch on paper, before moving on to processing it in to some digital form.

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  3. So true.

    A story …. I teach pre-service teachers. One of my students told me his cooperating teacher lectured ever day with PowerPoint. Students were given corresponding worksheets with same slides with a few words left out. Students’ job? Copy missing word from PPT to worksheet. At the end of the class they turned in the worksheets for “credit” Never got them back.

    • The craziest part of that story is that students received credit for mindlessly copying something that they may or may not even remember (let alone understand, integrate with previous knowledge or apply to novel situations). One may as well just give them credit for turning up.

  4. I totally agree with all the main points of your post, but I do know some kids who DO benefit from writing out words verbatim when it comes to rote memorization of things. I teach at a high school theater workshop during the summer where the kids write their own plays in small groups of 3-6 and the technique I recommend most to the kids is sitting down with another person (preferably someone in their play’s group) and reading over it in chunks until they remember one part and then going onto the next and then revisiting parts they had previously memorized. This works best for most of the kids, but a few of them swear by writing out their scripts. Just thought I’d share this little anecdote.

    I’m getting my teaching certificate and your blog is a great resource for non-dogmatic teaching philosophy and science, so thanks for that 🙂

  5. What if all the students do not have a device with which to photograph information? For instance, if we have created criteria for an assignment and the students need to record it in some manner . . . there are still a few who will need to write it out. Please don’t ask “Really? No device to take a photo with?” I would not bring up this question if it weren’t true in my classes. Do some students write, while others photograph? After taking the picture, are they going to sit quietly and allow their peers to complete taking notes by hand? Will the hand written note takers feel stressed and pressured by the situation?

    When I write notes while teaching and discussing items with the class, I use my computer. It goes up on a screen via a projector. These notes are posted on our class website. But here is the rub . . . not all students have access to the internet at home. Again, please don’t ask “Really? No internet access?” I would not bring it up were it not the case for a number of my students.

    • @Sandy So we continue to teach to the lowest common denominator. Never mind no one left behind; it’s more like no one will get ahead – the clever country indeed.

      As Roger Schank so aptly puts it; ‘There are only two things wrong with the education system: 1) What we teach. 2) How we teach it”.

      I understand your specific issue, an issue which is most likely a reality in many classrooms; That is no excuse though; You need to push administrators and politicians to wake up otherwise it will not be their jobs and careers that disappear it will be the careers and jobs of the kids in your classroom that will never eventuate.

      There are disruptive initiatives driven by technology in countries we used to identify, and continue to think of, as “third world” countries that are leap frogging us as we continue to quibble over how our system of education’s evolution should progress – we need revolution!

    • I think the points you raise are valid Sandy. I live in a rural town in country Victoria, and some students don’t have internet at home, and some families are struggling financially.

      The really pertinent issue you raise is some students not owning a device with a camera. I don’t doubt that is your situation. But I would question why it is the situation. In my experience parents are generally willing to provide a device for students if the school clearly communicates with parents the pedagogical imperative and therefore why a device is an expected tool for students to have. I find that most parents care about their kids’ education and are willing to provide the necessary requisites. In 2010, our school (a state school in a non-affluent part of a regional centre, in a drought year) asked all year 7 parents to provide their kids an iPad. On day one of 2011, 98% had an iPad in hand. The three who didn’t, had one by the end of the month. In some cases the school organised a leasing scheme for parents, or made other arrangements to assist families who really were struggling financially.

      I do think there are some families who are doing it very tough and truly can’t afford to buy a tablet or smartphone etc. I really do understand that. But in those cases I really think that the school should innovate around the idea of providing these things in some way for those disadvantaged kids! (And that’s not just for electronics, I’m talking about school fees, uniform costs, sports shoes, excursion levies, art equipment, text books). What kind of school does not work hard to lessen the disadvantage of the disadvantaged? To my way of thinking that should be a pretty high priority! It’s an issue of equity of access to education.

      Preventing those who have efficient learning tools from using them in deference to the ones who don’t, might seem like serving equity – but in reality it’s just subjecting all the students to the same level of disadvantage. We need to strive for equity by bringing the bottom up – not by pushing the top down.

      You can now buy a refurbished, certified ‘as new’ iPad mini – with a warranty for as little as $169 from I’m sure you could source one for even less on eBay – and I bet that if you asked the school community you’d probably even receive some donated devices (Some people will have upgraded and have their old model in a drawer – we don’t need the latest and greatest)! Way back in 2005 I started to flip my classroom – and asked all my students’ parents to buy their son/daughter an iPod and explained why. Most bought one. Some could not – so I sought a grant from the Victorian government’s innovation’s branch and managed to get five iPods that I loaned to students whose families could not afford one. My point: where there is a will, there is a way.

  6. All too common – my son, who clearly has dysgraphia and dyslexia (and who has an IEP for something else since neither are recognized by public school law) also has to copy from the board and is not permitted to take a picture of the content with the SCHOOL-ISSUED iPad he is required to use for other purposes. This extends to writing down daily assignments in each class, for which no time is given since it “should only take a few seconds” – as a result he nearly always has no clue what his homework is, and even if he has something written down, I cannot decipher it since it is incomplete. The excuse that he will learn it by writing it, which I have heard as well in regard to why he must copy content by hand, simply does not apply to the homework assignments. Thus far, the only reason I can get for this practice is the “fairness” rule that indicates everyone else will want to….to which I say “Well why can’t they? they all have the tools to do this and it’s a time saver!” It is so frustrating!

    • Thanks for sharing – I feel your frustration. Can you imagine a school prohibiting blind children from listen to audio books incase the other children also want to learn that way? Technology (if used well) should help teachers to differentiate their lessons; attitudes like you describe are the antithesis of differentiation. They keep kids trapped by what they can’t do. Instead, we should be guiding and encouraging kids to use technologies that compensate for their weaknesses, so they can get on with their learning – focussing on what they can do.

      PS – there is nothing fair about the ‘fairness rule’ at all. Removing from dyslexic children the option of using digital recording tools (like the iPad camera), is no more ‘fair’ than taking hearing aids away from deaf children. To me, it sounds much closer to discrimination than fairness.

    • … or for that matter any of the following:
      • Speaking Latin,
      • Arithmetic on an abacus,
      • Trigonometry with a slide rule,
      • Reading log tables,
      • Programming in Fortran with punched cards,
      • Navigation using right ascension and declination,

      There are many skills, once thought essential, that were eventually ‘let go’ because (a) they lost their value, becoming less useful than they once were and (b) other, new skills gained value, coming to be seen as much more useful to teach in a changing economic and social landscape. These emerging skill sets demanded a place in the syllabus.

      I do think it will be a long time before our children won’t know how to write. It will happen only if and when we realise both (a) and (b). That’s not yet.

      On the other hand the time to let go of cursive has, I think, already come. That’s a bit sad [sniffs, nostalgically]. I myself, have beautiful cursive penmanship, that I worked very hard to develop. But as proud as I am of it – I only really need it now, when I write on Birthday Cards! It’s a nice talent to have, and my birthday card recipients always appreciate it – but I’m sure that doesn’t warrant it a place in the crowded curriculum. The aesthetic spirit that was once embodied in calligraphy, is now better directed to, say, website design or typeface selection. These skills still create beautiful communication, still teach thoughtfulness about the emotions and perceptions of the reader and so forth, but they are more relevant to a new economic reality.

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