Vertical Whiteboards Make for a Collaborative, Engaging Discovery Lab
- March 25, 2023
- Anthony Bowie
While Mindy Collier was reading Peter Liljedahl’s book, Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics, Grades K-12: 14 Teaching Practices for Enhancing Learning, a lightbulb went on over her head. A third-grade teacher at North Huron Elementary in Kinde, Mich., Collier wanted to create a “discovery lab” for students to dig a little deeper into specific subjects, think through problems and come up with solutions, collaboratively.
“There’s a page in Peter’s book that discusses the use of vertical whiteboards and that compares these devices to horizontal whiteboards, notebooks and paper,” said Collier. “I reached out to him to learn more and realized that vertical whiteboards would be perfect for the space that I was trying to create.”
With her eye on an extra storage room that no one was using, Collier talked to the district superintendent about setting up a discovery lab in that space. Her husband contributed his weekend time to the cause—namely by helping to clean out and prep the space—and the superintendent, Martin Prout, approved having the maintenance team paint the space followed by the addition of new carpeting to complete the room.
The lab includes eight vertical whiteboards that were delivered over the holiday break, and just in time to open the space up for business in January 2022. Ever since, Collier has been taking students from grades K-5 into the discovery lab to work on a math “thinking task.” Other teachers are also using the space, including one science instructor who uses the lab to introduce students to new scientific processes.
“This is a multipurpose space that can be used in many different ways,” said Collier, who in her past role as a coach would pull students who needed extra academic support into the lab to either work individually or with partners. “I’d use the whiteboards to show them where they made errors on their papers and walk them through the solutions.”
Teachers and students can get things done faster on vertical whiteboards, which take 12.8 seconds to get an instrument to the writing surface (versus 14 seconds for other mediums). “The vertical orientation is very beneficial for me because I can see the entire room,” said Collier. “I know who’s doing what, which students might be struggling and who needs a new task to work on.”
The students all use black markers and teachers use colored markers. “That’s part of the Peter Liljedahl method,” said Collier. “That way, as I’m making notations on their boards, I can see who’s struggling and what they’re struggling with.” That visibility proves valuable both for students who are working individually and those who are working in small groups.
The vertical whiteboards also foster greater engagement because every student has a role in the process. “You can’t just sit back and not participate,” said Collier. In some cases, this throws off the student who is good at taking notes and mimicking the teacher, but who is less apt to participate in classroom discussions. Once out of their comfort zones, these students start to help one another, collaborate more, engage in the content, and advance their learning.
Working with MiEN, Collier selected the DIVIDE mobile vertical whiteboards that can be easily repositioned to accommodate specific student groups. She’ll pull the boards to the middle of the room when there are 34 students in the space, for example, or leave them all facing outward if there are just 20 or fewer kids in the lab.
“I can also pull the whiteboards into my current classroom; they don’t even have to stay in the discovery lab,” said Collier. “They can travel throughout the school and be used for so many different things.” For a recent school ice cream social, for example, Collier rolled the whiteboards out onto the playground and used them as directional signs. And for Christmas concerts, the school librarian used the whiteboards to create a construction-paper based backdrop across all of the boards.
Collier also likes the whiteboards’ storage space, which is situated between the two sides of the device, where she can store her math manipulatives, clocks, and other items. “It’s two-sided storage that holds a lot,” she said. The whiteboards are also durable, easy to clean and “still looking very nice” after more than a year of use.
Part of the appeal of the vertical whiteboards is that students and teachers have to be standing to use them. “Standing makes you think,” said Collier, who often gets requests from students who want to keep using the whiteboards even after the lab time is up. Others don’t even realize that they’re doing math while they’re in the space—a huge “win” for a subject that can be difficult for some students to grasp.
“The students come to the discovery lab to work together, discuss problems and gain good communication and critical thinking skills,” said Collier, who recently witnessed a remarkable transformation in one fifth-grade student who was reluctant to participate in class. That changed once he got into the lab. “I saw a real difference in him,” said Collier. “Not only was he participating, but he also said he wished we’d started this five years ago.” The benefits of whiteboards in the classrooms are endless!