Sunday, December 27, 2020

From a Blackboard to a Smartboard

The world today is getting Smart by the day; “showing a high degree of mental ability” on a device rather than on a human brain.  As a result, long-standing traditions and practices also keep changing. It was only the other day that my old school converted a traditional classroom to a smart classroom. The event was highlighted with much ado and glamour amidst a host of gratifying old boys who had sponsored the project. For a moment my spirits were lifted and back to a pensive mood pondering of what we may be forgetting for good from now on.

The primary teaching aid in any school was the Blackboard, also called a Chalkboard. If there was anything that kept growing with us in school and got promoted to higher grades it was the blackboard. In the kindergarten, it was a small wooden board [3’X4’] sitting on a short timber easel almost at eye-level of the kid who was about four feet tall. It would sit in a portrait or landscape position on the easel depending on what was written or drawn on it. While in kindergarten we copied what Miss Erany Karunaratne and Miss Merlene Fernando wrote on it onto our stony slate boards with a stone stylus. Writing over and over on the same letter until we could identify the shape and write it by memory. 

From Kindergarten to Standard Five in the Primary School we got promoted every year and the blackboard on the easel also became larger and taller.  At times they were made inbuilt to the walls measuring about 4 feet tall and even as long as 12 feet, space provided. The blackboard did have other associates, chalk, and duster. There was chalk to write on it turned out from soft calcium carbonate powder pressed into four-inch-long sticks. Writing chalk generally came in white color for it gave a higher contrast on a black background. They also came in an assortment of colors as needed for Geography and Biology classes for detailing and highlighting. The most indispensable item that went with the blackboard was the pillow duster. A small palm pillow stuffed with cotton wool to rub away the chalk. This created a small dust cloud around the board but much of the chalk powder was caught in the pillow. Also, the fine chalk powder being rubbed against the board regularly turned the board to have a very smooth and shiny surface. This shine on the board had two unfavorable effects… One was the shining board reflecting light off it disturbing the vision, and the other being the shrill the chalk made on the shiny surface making your teeth go numb sending a shudder down your spine…

As we progressed in school and grew taller in size the class monitor was entrusted with the task of cleaning the board after each period and replenishing the supply of chalk. However, during classes, it was the teacher who did the writing and cleaning as well. The behavior and how each teacher conducted him/her self at the blackboard was different and this was quite amusing when you think of it now. Many did not like to erase the board for it created a storm of dust that settled on the teacher … so there were those who avoided erasing the board but did write horizontally, vertically, and even angularly filling every bit of available space with arrows pointing in every direction showing continuity. There were some who were engrossed in teaching and were covered in chalk head to toe by the end of the period.

In the 1960 s trousers were mainly of heavy cotton and were generally baggy; the custom of wearing a waist belt was not a habit then and the trouser sat loosely on your waist fastened with metal buckles.  I do remember the most loveable character, late Mr. Godfrey Peiris at STPS Bandarawela who had the habit of raising both his hands when at the blackboard. The right hand doing the writing and the left hung free on the board. Raising both hands makes your trousers slide down and this became a nuisance to Mr. Peiris. He was careful not to pick the trouser with his fingers, cos the chalk would dirty the trouser …. so he was in the habit of lifting his trousers with his elbows gyrating in a very awkward manner each time he came from the board. The trouser never did come up with the articulating embraces from his elbows, and in the end, he put his hands in the pockets to lift it up the trouser and walked out with chalk smeared trouser pockets. However, we were too young to have been excited over Mrs. Perera standing on tiptoes to reach the top of the board in her sleeveless saree jacket during Sinhala Grammar.  

With time we changed schools and came to Gurutalawa. A middle-level school with a complete difference to Bandarawela and a much freer college life. The easel standing boards were no more, the front wall in the classroom had a long masonry blackboard. Again, the monitor continued his duty of cleaning the board but here the pillow duster became a traveling item. One had to go looking for it or flick one from another class. Studies now became more concentrating and demanding and there were those who went about daydreaming and lost concentration while in class. This inattentiveness became an annoyance to the teacher and most often the duster and the chalk stubs turned into missiles in the class targeting those dumb-nuts. This at times turned out hilarious with some hitting a bulls-eye startling the daydreamer and in the meantime lifting the spirit of the teacher where otherwise the whole class world have to go in for detention on a Saturday. 

Finally, we entered the school by the sea in Mt Lavinia and the blackboards now had advanced very much with us turning seniors in school. The boards here were two in a set, sitting one behind the other traveling up and down on a cable & pulley assembly. We sat in a surround, elevated in a well looking at the tutor deep inside the well on a podium. The need for erasing during a forty-minute period was minimal when working with two boards. However, there were times of amusement even as seniors when we would tease a teacher who always had the habit of walking into the class without chalk and requesting a student to run up downstairs and bring a piece of chalk. However much we teased him about how would one run up downstairs he would repeat the same the following day.  

The blackboard evolved ever since we left college and entered University. The black color turned to green and by now the teacher had discovered that the color difference was a lot more comfortable to the eye, cos the green porcelain paint did cut down the glare. However, the Greenboard wasn’t quite a catchy name for it and the term blackboard stuck even while the board was in green.

Uni day over around 1990 there came to be the Whiteboard which became a fixture in every office, meeting room, school classrooms, and most other work environments.

Whiteboards have a smoother surface allowing rapid marking and erasing on its surface. Most tutors ended up being jugglers carrying a multitude of colored pens stuck in their fingers but were very much in a healthier workplace. Chalk powder was thought to cause respiratory ailments in both the student and teacher.    

Today we are in a highly health-conscious world but then did any of us or any of our teachers who were always exposed to chalk clouds throughout the day end up in a hospital with respiratory problems?

Finally, today the board has turned smarter than everybody else in the class.... the teacher does not have to kill the night preparing for the lesson. The daydreamer will go scot-free buried in his tablet or computer still fudging on the subject. No more missiles would be crossing the classroom space.

Where from here?....... Well, we are sure to go into a much smarter era come 2021 with the Covid 19 still to stay. Schools seem to be closed indefinitely and the tutor today has gone online, zooming in the student sitting at home. The doctor today prescribes your medication remotely through telemedicine.

The world would go on developing on Information Technology, for it is the only field that is progressing in leaps right now, turning everything around to a smarter one. But who could say if we end up being more stupider than before, leaving aside the time tested learning skills and the humble blackboard to a bygone era?


  1. Very interesting and nostalgic of our happy and memorable days at STPS , B'wela
    Thanks a lot for sharing Uditha

  2. Thank you for sharing Uditha. Enjoyed the article. Makes one think.