The Writing on the Wall

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This post originally published on Bedford Bits on February 5, 2014.


We’ve been busy building new spaces for learning at the University of Delaware. As we upgrade classrooms and public areas, we are trying to build spaces that encourage the kinds of social interactions that support learning. In this Bits column and the next, I’d like to discuss some of our actions. What I’ll be discussing is not so much writing classes and classrooms, but the more general instructional environment. As a writing teacher, I try to influence what happens across campus to support writing as a mode of learning.

Last fall, we opened our new ISE Lab (Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Laboratory). It’s a beautiful building, meant to support both interdisciplinary research and teaching. All labs in the building must cross disciplinary boundaries. Classes meeting in the building are likewise expected to be interdisciplinary. Four floors of new problem-based learning classrooms are designed for groups of 48 students in introductory science courses. Each team-based classroom is flanked by two labs with 24 workstations.

decorative imageOne very cool feature is the paint on the walls. It’s writable. So students and faculty can stand at the walls and write—just about anywhere. The painted surface is better than whiteboards, erasing easily and cleanly, and people love it when they first see it. I think it has something to do with our toddler instincts to pick up a crayon and use the surfaces in front of us for drawing and writing. There’s a feeling of violating a long-standing prohibition.

Our writable walls follow various experiments that move us from classrooms with a single front blackboard, to classrooms paneled in blackboards, to better surfaces, with walls that serve as useful projection areas, walls covered in hard plastic panels that accept dry erase, walls with monitors, projectors that allow annotation on and capture of projected texts, and so on. I tend to encourage all such developments. If we want to encourage teamwork, collaboration, and group problem solving, then teams need places to think, spaces to get their thinking out in the open. The best way to do that is to write ideas where everyone can see them.

decorative imageThe importance of shared spaces to creative problem solving is something I’ve written about, following my work in the pharmaceutical industry. My thinking was triggered in part by Michael Schrage’s book,No More Teams!: Mastering the Dynamics of Creative Collaboration(1995), which arose from Shrage’s work at Xerox’s PARC labs. In classrooms (writing and other subjects), we’ve noticed that we get much better teamwork if we don’t allow each student to have a laptop open. We gather teams around a screen, with one person controlling the projected text. Then everyone can focus on the same space and actually work together, writing together. Technology often poses such antipathies, either pushing people toward private worlds or drawing people together into social experiences. Writing, as we know, can be solitary or social. As teachers, we can create mediated spaces to foster the social interaction.

About the Author
Dr. Stephen A. Bernhardt is recently retired from the University of Delaware, where he held the Andrew B. Kirkpatrick, Jr. Chair in Writing, from which position he promoted strong writing and communication skills across the university. He is the author of Writer's Help, a Web-based reference handbook from Bedford/St. Martin’s, now in Version 2.0. He teaches courses in scientific and technical communication, first year composition, computers and writing, and grammar and style. He taught previously at New Mexico State University and Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. You can learn more about Steve at his Web site.