In Defense of Chalkboards

3 minute read

How many cruddy whiteboards have you used in your life? We have a bunch of them at my workplace. You draw on them and your marker squeals and skips. Then when you go to erase what you wrote ten minutes ago, the marker won’t come off and you have to go get some water. We get in arguments over the correct way to clean the board – some people say you’ll ruin the board if you use water on it, some people say water is the only way to clean it properly, and some people even use hand sanitizer (I guess it’s mostly alcohol, which some manufacturers do recommend for cleaning boards, but still). Heaven help you if you accidentally use a permanent marker on the board because someone left one lying around – even though it’s not hard to get off if you know how, someone will yell at you for sure. And of course half the time none of the markers in the room work, and certainly none of the ones of the color you wanted. As one of my college professors said in the middle of a lecture:

Okay, I’m not going to use this marker [because it’s almost dead]. I’ll just leave it here to annoy the next teacher.

Now granted, you can fix many of these issues by taking care of your whiteboard and making sure you check your markers regularly. Or…you could just use a chalkboard instead. Chalkboards have been around for centuries and have none of these problems:

  • As long as you spend more than a few dollars on the board, the surface is way more resilient. A high-quality chalkboard even in daily use can last for decades.
  • And there’s basically no way to damage the surface in normal use. All you need to clean it is a chalkboard eraser and occasionally some water when the dust starts to build up. There aren’t any debates about how to clean the board.
  • Even if you leave writing on the board for years, it will wipe right off. There’s no permanent chalk to confuse with the normal chalk.
  • Chalk – even really good chalk – is a fraction of the price of whiteboard markers, produces far less waste, and physically gets smaller as it gets used up, making it obvious when it needs to be replenished (how’s that for good design?). You can’t forget to cap your chalk. And it doesn’t smell funny and doesn’t stain.

    If you don’t like the dust on your fingers or can’t hold onto short chalk, you can just get one of those cheap spring-loaded chalk pencils to help out.

Also, chalk is usually easier to read than whiteboard markings due to increased contrast, and the surface of a blackboard makes a welcome contrast to the white and beige that floods most offices and classrooms, but that’s a side note.

I’ve only ever heard one convincing disadvantage of chalkboards, aside from “they seem old-school and we should ‘upgrade’ to whiteboards”: they do unavoidably produce dust. “Dust-free” chalk is a huge improvement and tends to snap less often and write more smoothly, too, but despite the name doesn’t eliminate the issue. If you’re allergic or asthmatic or your chalkboard is next to some sensitive equipment, that might be a problem, but otherwise cleaning it up is a minor annoyance that can hardly stand up to the vast array of annoyances of whiteboards. (And let’s not let this pass without pointing out that the funny-smelling solvents in whiteboard markers can definitely cause respiratory discomfort, too!)

So if you’re looking to buy a board for yourself or your institution, you get Control-Alt-Backspace kudos if you think seriously about choosing a chalkboard. As you’re making your purchase, take care to read up on how the introduction of chalkboards has caused rebellions at Yale, as well as silly competitions in Las Vegas. You don’t want to be the next casualty.