How I used mini-whiteboards in my lessons yesterday.

Kristian Shanks
11 min readNov 18, 2021

In my career I’ve been a bit of a mini-whiteboard refuser. I never built them into my practice as a developing teacher, and therefore never had the inclination to use them for quite some time after that, despite sitting through many whole-school, ‘in the hall’ CPD sessions where people banged on about how good they were.

However, I have been persuaded more recently that it’s time to build them into my lessons more habitually. Tom Sherrington was blogging about them in 2012, and more recently, teaching icon of the north, Jennifer Webb, put together a really good twitter thread about how to use them effectively in English (check out the thread, it’s awesome, see you in a couple of minutes).

Welcome back.

Adam Boxer tweeted recently (see below) that he didn’t know how he used to teach without using a set of mini-whiteboards in his own classroom. I think the problem I alluded to above (people not habitualising it at the start of their career and then finding it hard to change habit) is one of the issues. I also think the perverse exercise book/work scrutiny culture where, ‘if it isn’t in a book it never happened’ also deters colleagues from using them. ‘They may as well do it in their books, then I’ve got my evidence I did some retrieval practice’ — that kind of sentiment.

Of course, changing entrenched habits as a teacher is hard to do, as I blogged about here in a post about embedding TLAC techniques. It’s something I made a real point of forcing myself to do yesterday — to the point that I was even talking to the students about it, saying why I though they were valuable, what the purpose of the relevant activity was, and banging on about habit formation and the importance of this both for teachers and also students (for example, in the context of revision).

On a tangential note, one of the things I’m going to try and do more of in my blogs, is talk about stuff that happens in my lessons, both in terms of things I’m trying pedagogically and from a curriculum perspective, in the hope that this might be useful for other history teachers, especially newer ones, as well as teachers and leaders in other subjects. Hence my posts on world-building, addressing the latter issue, and my most recent post on timelines.

So in this post, written while my unwell son has a nap (I’m off today looking after him), I’m going to quickly review how I used (or rather, got the students to use) mini-whiteboards in my lessons yesterday.

Period 2 — Year 7 History — The Norman Conquest

Occasion 1: Checking Prior Knowledge at the start of a new topic

This lesson was the first in the second key topic of the year, looking at the Norman Conquest. I used the mini-whiteboards twice in this lesson. The first time round, I wanted to quickly ascertain how much, if anything, students knew about the Norman Conquest, 1066 and all that (thank you, I’m here all week). I know that more and more primary schools, in line with the KS2 national curriculum, cover British history prior to 1066, and given my schools location in rural North Yorkshire, near the city of York, we’re obviously quite steeped in the history of that period anyway. Clearly, if lots of students know loads about the events, it might mean I can move more quickly through some content, which would be useful as I’ve fallen behind a little bit due to being off with COVID.

As it happened, only pupil had extensive knowledge of the period, and wrote me a short essay on his knowledge of the topic on his MWB. Many students didn’t know much of anything, while some others had very tentative knowledge, at best, of the name of William the Conqueror and the fact that the Battle of Hastings was important.

Occasion 2: Checking for understanding

We then started to read through some information about the background to England in 1066, exploring briefly the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings (which they’d already covered in our migration unit), referencing the three main earldoms of Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria, and the importance of Top King Athelstan (who helpfully has a primary school named after him down the road) and Edward the Confessor, where we clarified the significance of the ‘Confessor’ nickname.

We then did a short writing task, where students had to take what they’d learned to complete some sentences. The first sentence was as below:

“England was united by ____ because____”

It was clear (just through checking some puzzled faces) that students weren’t sure what to put. So, mini-whiteboard time. I asked students, regardless of where they’d got to, to write down what they’d put for the first gap fill. Pleasingly, the answers were often what I would consider acceptable in the context of the task (e.g. ‘Athelstan’ or ‘The Anglo-Saxons’). But I did also see a few students had put ‘Edward the Confessor’, which was an obvious an easily correctable misunderstanding. Students were then able to resume the task from there easily.

Period 3: Year 8 History — The Industrial Revolution

Occasion 3: Retrieval Practice

One of my big frustrations with retrieval practice students do in their books is that it a) takes too long, and b) some students barely make any attempt at the task. This time, I decided to circumvent that by asking students to do the task on their mini-whiteboards. Rather than all 5 questions at once, we decided to go question by question, in the hope that this would boost accountability, and not cognitively overload me by giving me too much information to process all at once.

The quiz is outlined below:

The MWB strategy was helpful in a number of ways:

  1. For the second question, it reassured me that students had a pretty decent idea of what an interpretation was, something I didn’t feel secure on given the disrupted teaching they’d experienced over the past few weeks.
  2. For the third question, it identified me that they all knew ONE problem very well (housing could be overcrowded), but that beyond that maybe their knowledge might be thinner. Something to remember for the later lesson where we explore living conditions.
  3. For the fifth question, this was really interesting because we had a real range of responses. Quite a few went with the standard history teacher periodisation of 1750–1900, which was fine. Some went up as far as 1960 with their date range — perhaps because I’d mentioned in a previous lesson, based on my own reading of David Edgerton’s history of twentieth century Britain (great, great book by the way) that Britain’s industrialisation obviously continued well past 1900, although through to a peak somewhere in the 1960s, which when I read it felt obvious even though I didn’t know it, if that makes sense. Some identified the industrial revolution as being matched with Queen Victoria’s reign and put the dates 1836–1901 down (and I then I enjoyed showing off that I knew her reign started in 1837 — any opportunity to show off when it comes to pub quiz knowledge, I’m going to take it). One started his dates at 1900, which was obviously incorrect and needed immediately sorting out.

Occasion 4: Clarifying a definition

After the retrieval activity, students in this lesson were working through the third sequence of our unit on the Industrial Revolution, evaluating Emma Griffin’s interpretation of whether the ‘sunlight shone more brightly on men’ (rather than women) in this time period.

We started by reading through an introductory bit of text, designed to frame the learning — see below:

I had asked one of my students to read out loud, and he had a little trouble sounding out the word ‘upheaval’. My teacher ‘spidey-sense’ tingled again just from looking at the student faces, and I figured quite a few students didn’t know what that word meant. So, we whipped out the mini-whiteboards again and students wrote down what they thought it meant.

This was really helpful, because it was obvious that students did not really feel secure on this word at all, even those I would identify as the highest-attaining in the group. We had some suggestions that it meant ‘increase’ — I guess the prefix ‘up’ probably contributing to that. Quite a few had no idea at all. This is a useful reminder that there are some fairly common words out there that a lot of Key Stage 3 students just don’t know, and because as educated teachers we have a bit of a ‘curse of expertise’ problem, it’s easy to gloss past that from time to time.

Period 6: Year 9 History — The Medical Renaissance

Occasion 5: Drafting before writing

In this GCSE History lesson, we were looking at why there was an increase in medical knowledge during the Renaissance period (1500–1700). We were going to look through a series of factors:

  1. Humanism and the declining influence of the Church
  2. The role of Thomas Sydenham
  3. The Printing Press
  4. The creation of the Royal Society

On the first factor, we read through some text and then did a The Writing Revolution ‘sentence combining’ activity. The purpose of this is two-fold.

  1. It gets them thinking hard about the content they’ve just read about, in the hope they’ll remember more of it.
  2. It gets them to practice writing more academically complex sentences.

The bit, including the tasks, is shown below:

The idea of the tasks is to take the three short sentences in the bullet points, and turn them into one complex, academic sentence containing the same information.

Having done sentence combining as an activity before, I knew that students found this quite difficult. Often they’d just put the three short sentences together in order, stick ‘and’ in there a couple of times and ‘Bob’s your uncle’! So I wanted to make sure I modelled carefully what to do.

First of all, I got my own exercise book under the visualiser and modelled how I wanted the students to lay out the work, copying out the three bullet points as laid out on the handout shown above. (NOTE: I keep my own exercise book for each year group as a way of modelling to students under the visualiser both model answers and how to present and lay out their work).

I then saw that one of my higher-attaining students already thought he had a good suggestion for how to put them together. Realising that perhaps he might not be the only one, I decided to see if the students could have a go at doing the task themselves on their Mini-Whiteboard.

As I circulated, and as I was thinking through what I would put, I actually realised I needed to change the short sentences they were given, as I thought they needed to be even simpler than they were. In any event, I got a range of interesting responses, some of which I put under the visualiser to try to generate feedback from the students, and also from myself.

One very interesting point I gleaned from this was student misuse or non-use of commas. They really struggle with the idea of putting two pieces of potentially disconnected information in the same sentence, and connecting them. The activity also gave me the opportunity to introduce the concept of ‘appositives’, which I modelled on the board with some other examples to show students a technique they could use for completing the task successfully.

Unfortunately, we ran out of time at the end, and perhaps rushed a little bit with some students getting that end of day distraction, and didn’t get the chance to fully complete the activity, so back to it next lesson!


First of all, I was really pleased that I was able to use mini-whiteboards in each of these three lessons, with some degree of success. I learned a lot more information about student content and procedural knowledge than I may have done using my traditional, habitualised teaching methods.

That being said, there are some areas I need to improve on:

  1. Students are quite slow at some of the procedures with mini-whiteboards. They take ages to get them out, some of them don’t have their pen or, amazingly, it ran out earlier in the day. I need to pre-empt my use of mini-whiteboards at the start of the lesson and make sure this equipment is out and ready. Getting back on it with my ‘means of participation’ at the start of the lesson will be key here.
  2. Students were given a proper-sized mini-whiteboard last year (due to COVID), and they also have the mini-whiteboard planner page. Some students are, self-admittedly, too lazy to get their proper sized one out of their bag, and then find they don’t have enough room on their planner one.
  3. I did find that I took longer over some of the activities than I might otherwise have done. I am a bit more sceptical of the merits of ‘pace for pace’s sake’ — but I do have a curriculum to teach and, especially having been off, need to ensure both my students and myself are working a little more efficiently. Hopefully that comes with practice.
  4. I have noticed with older students (in Year 10 in my lesson the day before yesterday, for example) an audible groan when I asked them to get their mini-whiteboards out. I wonder if they see it as a bit infantilising, or if they don’t like the potential for being held accountable, or just teenager jaded-ness? One to unpick further.

Overall though, this is something I need to continue to work on further. As Curriculum Leader, reflecting on my post and the subheading I used above, I actually think something that might be of value is, TLAC style, providing names for the types of activity we could do in History with a mini-whiteboard, so that teachers better understand the situations when they can be really effective. That might help teachers be able to be more spontaneous with their use, rather than feeling like they have to spend cognitive energy to ‘plan it in’.

I am also really cognisant of the fact that I don’t want to impose my practice on other teachers. I think they are a really helpful teaching tool, but I am mindful of Tabitha McIntosh’s tweet cautioning against mandating them.

As much I hate the mandating of practices like ‘different coloured pens for marking’ and ‘DIRT’ and so on, where it might not be worthwhile for the subject, it’s important to recognise that someone else may justifiably feel the same way about a practice I generally support.

So, hurrah for mini-whiteboards in the History classroom. Definitely a useful tool for me, but some areas where I can hone my practice further. Hopefully, this might be useful for you, the dear reader, too, in your own classrooms.



Kristian Shanks

I’m an Assistant Principal (Teaching and Learning) at a Secondary school in Bradford. Also teach History (and am a former Head of History).