Whiteboards rock

I love whiteboards.

When I worked at the Grameen Foundation in 2009, Mary Hausladen and I installed 4 sheets of melamine board to create a 16-foot wide 8-foot tall wall of white boards next to our cubes. Here is a photo of that wall, showing Mary at work:

The wall was the center of our work. It showed the state of our project. It had a kanban board (on the right). It contained work in progress. It acted as an invitation. People would stop by, ask us about the 5-quarter long roadmap (the purple, blue and orange sticky notes on Mary’s left), and then help us evolve it. It was our best place to co-create understanding. We used computers to create documents for distribution, but the whiteboard was where we would stand and create our understanding of what we wanted to record and distribute.

After installing this wall, we purchased another sixteen 4′ x 8′ sheets of melamine board. With help from Adam Feuer and his friend, who had much better carpentry tools, we covered the walls of two offices, and installed a 16-foot whiteboard wall in each of the two large conference rooms. It was great. Whiteboards instill collaboration. Collaboration increases the chance of effectiveness. Effectiveness makes for progress.

Now, a year and a quarter later, I am a professor at UW Bothell teaching a course on Analysis and Design. How could I give my students the same experience? Help them enhance the collaboration within their teams? The classroom had a 32-foot long whiteboard along the front, but that was not enough space for 10 teams of 3-4 students each.

So, it was back to Home Depot. I bought a bunch of 8′ x 4′ sheets of melamine board and have them cut them into 3′ x 4′ and 2′ x 2′ whiteboards. Here’s Home Depot’s cool electronic tool being used to support my pedagogy:

This provided one 3′ x 4′ whiteboard for each team. Small enough to easily carry, and large enough for a group of three or four people to work with it as a common artifact.

Back on campus, I stashed the whiteboards in one of the computer labs, nearby the classroom. Now each team brings their whiteboard into classroom, and places it on a table or leans it against a wall to form the center of their work conversations. The energy level is higher in the classroom. The students are visibly engaged around each whiteboard.

With their work so visible, I can easily walk around the classroom and coach. When I see a diagram that is syntactically incorrect, I can ask “What is wrong with this syntax?” and then use a whiteboard marker to show them the correct syntax. I can look at the risks they have listed, compliment them on some aspects and encourage them to extend their work into other aspects. I can see team dynamics, and what variety of models students are using. When students bring out their textbooks, and start using models we have yet to cover in class, I can easily step in, give a bit of guidance, and move on. All from visualizing work.

Yesterday, I discovered this arrangement in one team. What modeling tools do you see here?

I see a whiteboard, whiteboard markers, whiteboard eraser, sticky notes, 3 x 5 cards, project notebook, digital camera, computer, and, most important of all, the people on the team. And look at their body language. Are they engaged?

I love this image because it shows all of the modeling tools working together. These tools go a long way toward creating understanding.

It also is intriguing watching the students evolve their use of the whiteboards. Some students put two 3′ x 4′ whiteboards side-by-side to provide more space. Other students used some of the 2′ x 2′ boards. They were easier to carry and make sort of a personal whiteboard. One team could not bear erasing what they had on their 3′ x 4′ whiteboard, so they took over the built-in whiteboard at the front of classroom and consumed 12 feet of it in a variety of different diagrams and lists. Yesterday I returned to Home Depot and purchased some more whiteboards, so that teams can expand their usage as necessary.

We’ve been using the whiteboards for 2 weeks. I look forward to seeing how they are being used by the end of the quarter.

Whiteboards rock!

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About davidsocha

In autumn 2010 after spending 19 years working in a variety of software organizations as a programmer, architect, manager, teacher, ScrumMaster, product designer, change agent, and agile coach, I finally listened to what everyone had been telling me I should be doing and joined the University of Washington Bothell as an Assistant Professor in Computing & Software Systems. My interests are how to create and maintain great teams, particularly those in software development organizations. I am most interested in distinctions that dramatically increase the effectiveness of teams, such as systems thinking, design thinking, biomimicry, and human centered design. I am a pragmatist, a collaborator, and an optimist.
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3 Responses to Whiteboards rock

  1. Pingback: More on whiteboards in class | David Socha's Blog

  2. s3anrich says:

    David, I think you’re absolutely right! What I’ve found is that oftentimes the media gets in the way of freely expressing thoughts because you have to spend part of your energy/consciousness worrying about the formatting, saving, etc. Interestingly, we found in implementing touch surface technologies that people preferred working vertically rather than on a horizontal surface, so I think there’s something about the vertical orientation of a whiteboard that works more naturally for people when they’re trying to process information. Thoughts!?

    • davidsocha says:

      Interesting. I expect that standing in front of a whiteboard engages more of your body, which may enable you to think differently. Some years ago I read about nine different types of sensory neurons, including one that measured the angle of joints. That is one reason I encourage students to write in a physical journal, instead of doing everything on a computer keyboard: it involves more of their body and thus enables them to think differently.

      There also are some studies that showed that boys, at least, can think better when they’re doing physical activity, even squeezing a ball while doing a test.

      Finally, standing in front of a whiteboard allows more egalitarian and concurrent access to the board, since it is easier for people to move to and away from the board.

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