To use or not to use the whiteboard? Is that the question?
FASoS teaching staff sometimes informally meet to share experience. One such event took place on 7 November 2017. A group of new and experienced staff watched the UM DVD Problem based learning: Tips from experienced tutors, as well as the (in)famous FASoS PBL video. There is a lot going on in the latter that defies what PBL should be like, but there were some surprised faces when the following was raised.
Sven (S): I’m surprised to see that the whiteboard is used during the post-discussion. This must be an exceptional case. Isn’t the whiteboard primarily a tool for the pre-discussion?
Patrick (P): You don’t use the whiteboard during the post-discussion?
S: I believe that the ideal moment to use the whiteboard is during pre-discussions, because the post-discussion facilitates something else. As a philosophy teacher, I have become acquainted with the Socratic method, which, in my view, aligns well with the spirit of PBL, especially during the post-discussion. The Socratic method assumes that groups acquire a shared understanding of an issue by repeating and summarising each other’s answers. The group members calibrate their understanding by letting various comments circulate in this ‘echo chamber’ and by asking additional questions aimed at clarification.
P: I too encourage students to keep on asking and answering questions to further their learning. Yet, I want them to keep track of their discussions on the whiteboard, so that we can go back to points raised before. Why does the Socratic method exclude the use of the whiteboard?
S: Don’t get me wrong: good whiteboarding is helpful to structure a brainstorm, and students are truly capable of effective whiteboard use. They support the discussion by making schemes, drawing time lines, grouping certain concepts together, and highlighting relations and similarities. When all of the above more or less happens, I´m a happy tutor!
P: That’s indeed what good whiteboarding is about. But even the far from ideal jotting down of terms serves as a – very basic – means of support for the group process. Why can’t this be supportive to the post-discussion too?
S: Generally, whiteboarding stalls the PBL process. Where the Socratic dialogue has an inherently open nature, students in tutorials seem to desire closure: “Did we answer the learning objective? What am I supposed to know for the exam?” They use the whiteboard for attaining closure. What’s on the whiteboard is the ‘the proper answer’, and we can all stop talking, cease thinking, and move to the next learning goal.
P: I have experienced this too. That’s why I encourage discussion leaders to keep on asking questions; why I keep on asking questions. But having those concepts on the whiteboard also allows us to draw links between them and, quite often, address contradictions. Without the whiteboard students may do so in their own notes, but then the closure happens there. I’d rather have them focus on the discussion than on their notes. I believe that the use of the whiteboard allows this and, hence, actually fosters openness.
S: I don’t think that students attain closure through their own notes when they don’t use the whiteboard. The individual notes can be a form of personal closure, but that’s different from mutual understanding at group level. The notes on the whiteboard are there for all to see and latch onto, whereas personal notes that aim at closure need to be verbalised in the group´s echo chamber. This verbal exercise moving from private to group closure is for me the goal in post-discussions.
P: During EU Politics I regularly take my groups outside, the weather generally being really nice during period 5. They always struggle without the whiteboard. This applies to all group members, including the person who takes notes to share through the electronic learning environment. They still focus on the ‘right’ answer and even more do than before.
S: But this observation supports my intuition: Careful listening by summarising and asking questions is not practiced enough! The whiteboard is perceived as a safety net. Will a group member engage in the same way when things will eventually appear on the whiteboard, opposed to the situation where it all depends on one’s own listening and verbalisation skills?
P: I don’t agree that the whiteboard is just a safety net. Instead, I agree with Terry Barrett and Sarah Moore, who, in a chapter in an interesting volume on PBL, argue that using the whiteboard is key in shaping the “shared learning environment” required to foster “dialogic knowledge”.
We still haven’t reached a conclusion… But maybe you can help? Please let us know your thoughts by dropping your comments below! There is also the big elephant in the room: maybe the general erosion of PBL needs to be addressed, rather than whether or not to use the whiteboard?
Sven is teaching assistant at FASoS. He teaches courses in the BA AC and the BA ES. Sven obtained MAs in Media Studies and in Philosophy at Leiden University and a MEd in Philosophy from Tilburg University. He has previously taught courses on philosophy, arts and media in Breda and Tilburg.
Patrick is assistant professor in European Studies and teaches in the BA ES, the MA ES and the MSc European Studies. Patrick also coordinates the faculty’s University Teaching Qualification trajectory and is co-editor of the FASoS Teaching & Learning Blog.