The text below was posted to the physlrnr mailing group. It contains comments from M. Colleen Megowan-Romanowicz contrasting how students use whiteboards vs. chart paper. (Posted with the permission of Dr. M. Colleen Megowan-Romanowicz)

(from Dr. Megowan-Romanowicz)

I did not address the use of chart paper in my dissertation specifically because I did not use the data I had from MZ's geometry classes where chart paper was the medium in use. All the classes I observed used whiteboards. If I had extended my dissertation to include what I noticed about the use of chart paper, here's the Reader's Digest version of what I would have said in comparing the use of chart paper to the use of whiteboards:

When students constructed their representations on chart paper, there was more talk that was unmediated by any sort of representation before pen was put to paper–possibly because “marker on chart paper” wasn't erasable–so a great deal of the reasoning process surrounding what was ultimately was shown was completed before much was written on the chart paper (and this was true in spite of the fact that students had been repeatedly assured that all they had to do was start over on a fresh sheet of paper–I guess maybe they preferred to get it 'right' the first time). In addition, in the semester's worth of MZ's geometry class video that I transcribed, I observed that the “chart paper writer” was almost always the same person each time–sometimes it was the person who drew the best, or the one with the clearest writing, often it was the one who was most assertive in seizing the marker. This influenced what appeared on these chart paper representations. It was that writer's “version” of the group's thoughts (see the quote below regarding the Power of the Marker).

It was different with whiteboards–students began writing right away. They started and stopped and erased all the time, and the representations that ultimately appeared evolved as the conversation unfolded. Although there were still some group members that did not write, there were many more instances of multiple students writing/drawing on the whiteboard in each episode. In addition, students who never wrote did occasionally erase what others wrote, or suggested that what others wrote should be erased and re-represented.

In terms of the dominance of the view of the writer, I documented phenomena that I called “the Power of the Marker” and “the Power of the Eraser”. Here's an excerpt that discusses these (note: there were two types of activity structure I analyzed for my dissertation–Going Over Homework and Practicing With The Model–this passage is in regard to the first of these):

When the activity structure was that of Going Over Homework, the group member who assumed leadership was most often the one who created the important parts of the whiteboard. It was this Decider's version of the solution that was written down, at times in spite of what other members of the group contributed. At times, some group member would insist that something be added to the solution and The Decider would capitulate and add it to what he or she had written, but, in general, The Decider maintained veto power over the other students' contributions. I have come to think of this phenomenon as The Power of the Marker. Controlling the marker was, largely, controlling the floor in the whiteboard discussion. The Decider in this setting has the deciding vote in determining what counts out of all the things that students say to each other in constructing a whiteboard representation, and she exercises this control by either writing down or not writing down what other members of the group contribute to the discussion. If there is competition for leadership in the group or if The Decider does not give sufficient attention to what other members of the group contribute, another factor enters the picture: The Power of the Eraser. This happens when some other member of the group than the scribe, picks up the eraser and erases what The Decider has written. Sometimes this will result in a transfer of the marker to the person doing the erasing, but more often it will result in a recreation by The Decider of the representation that is more in line with what The Eraser or other members of the group had in mind. The Eraser exhibits a variety of motives, often fairly benign, including neatness or clarity of expression, but sometimes the motive is clearly control over the content of the finished product. If we look at whiteboard construction in this context through the lens of conversational analysis, we see a lead individual who controls the floor, with challenges that could be considered “turn-sharking”-taking away another student's turn to speak-or “turn dolphining”-rescuing another student or saving some student from a mistake in her representation. At times The Decider voluntarily relinquished the floor to another member of the group without being challenged. When this happens The Power of the Marker is usually also transferred to this person.

Regardless of the activity structure–Going Over Homework or Practicing With The Model–the prevalence of the Power of the Marker was certainly observable in MZ's classes when chart paper was used, but the Power of the Eraser was not. This can obviously be problematic, as students whose views are seldom represented may eventually opt out. But what is of more concern to me, having observed both, is that the bulk of reasoning and negotiation of meaning took place before there were representations available to members of the group that illustrated what individuals were trying to communicate.

Relevance theory tells us that there can be a big gap between “what I think I told you” and “what you heard.” In physics we use graphs, diagrams and symbols to bridge that gap. Whiteboards and chart paper are two different repositories of these representations. The convenient thing about whiteboards is that they can be erased and rewritten as meaning is negotiated. Unfortunately, although it is true that they can be rewritten when using chart paper, in practice, they seldom are. Typically they are not written down at all till the negotiation of meaning is complete.


M. Colleen Megowan-Romanowicz PhD

Arts, Media and Engineering/SMALLab Postdoctoral Researcher

Dept of Physics/Action Research Coordinator

Arizona State University

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