Tuesday / June 18

The Pros and Cons of Twitter for Professional Learning


First posted on

In part I of this three-part blog series, I challenged the notion that Twitter should replace professional development. A total replacement would be tragic, but using Twitter to enhance professional learning has serious potential.

Before delving into the power of synthesis in part III, let’s get specific about the benefits and limitations of Twitter for supporting professional growth.

What We Gain from Twitter:

Ideas: Twitter is like a massive brainstorm, rich with ideas. Want specific tools for integrating technology, helping ELLs, engaging parents, or leading change? Engage in a chat or use a #hashtag aligned to your priorities, and you will find—and can contribute to—an endless flow of ideas.

Inspiration: Twitter is a great place to find and share inspiring stories about educators doing amazing work—work we may only imagine is possible, until we see an example in action. As Chip and Dan Heath illuminate in their book Switch, these “bright spot” stories are powerful for inspiring change. They show us what is possible so that we dare leap.

Curiosity: Twitter is curiosity’s playground. I often approach my feed with a sense of spontaneity, opening links that interest or surprise me and scanning and skipping what doesn’t appeal. By allowing our minds to wander wherever our own curiosity leadds, we discover unexpected places—and these often lead to more questions and curiosity. Wandering, no matter how random it seems at the time, has value for curiosity and discovery.

Courage: Retweet and Favorite, the two action buttons on Twitter, encourage tweeters to connect with and preach to the choir. This is not entirely a bad thing. Exchanging ideas with like-minded educators gives us the courage to lead from our convictions. Trendsetters and change-makers benefit from pep talks, too. Inspiring quotes and retweets on Twitter are fuel for many of us who might otherwise feel we are challenging the status quo alone.

Connections: Twitter helps us connect beyond the “box” of our immediate reality and exchange ideas with educators across the globe. This is a dynamic way to build perspective and empathy and reframe our own daily work within a much larger context. When following up with a Twitter connection beyond Twitter, the options are limitless. You may, for example, set up a #MysterySkype chat with another school, or collaborate with new online friends, as I have, to create books and audio shows.

Where Twitter Falls Short:

Sustained Focus: Effective professional learning is intensive with a sustained focus (30-40 hours) on one topic. The longest we focus on most tweets is long enough to scan and move on. Even if we click on a link to a blog, as these dynamic statistics reveal, the average reader doesn’t read to the end of a long post. (Congratulations! If you are still reading this post, you are above average).

Depth: Twitter chats are more promising for focus on a topic, but in the fast flow of

responses to multiple questions, a chat is often more like a high-speed brainstorm than a focused discussion. Highlights in chats are usually the interactions we create when we respond to, and build on, other Tweeters’ ideas. These pockets of deep focus on Twitter, however, don’t last. The chat ends. We save the narrative in Storify and move on.

Cognitive Dissonance: Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling when get when we realize an assumption we have is wrong – like when we teach what we think is the perfect lesson and it doesn’t work, or discover that students learn best via a strategy we had thought was a dud. It is a humbling “ah ha” experience that, when explored in a safe environment, can transform how we think, teach and impact student learning. For the same reasons Twitter fuels our courage in our convictions, it is more likely to help us avoid cognitive dissonance than engage with it to learn.

Application: In the same way reading a fitness magazine doesn’t make us fit, reading about teaching via tweets and blogs doesn’t change how we teach and students learn. The deep learning begins when we put new ideas into action, study their impact on students and reflect to refine or redesign our approach. Coaching, peer observation inquiry, lesson study and similar professional learning designs support application. Twitter alone does not.

Impact on Student Learning: On Twitter, we collaborate to exchange ideas, but don’t collaborate to test their impact on students—an essential component of continuous professional learning. We collaborate for impact when we test approaches and analyze student work or watch lessons to understand the learning that happens (or doesn’t) as a result of our actions. If we only collaborate to share ideas, and never to test and refine them, we risk choosing pedagogy based on popularity rather than effectiveness (a common and troubling educational trend).

Strategic Synthesis

The good news is we don’t have to ditch Twitter for its failings, or embrace it as the new-and-improved, silver-bullet solution to PD. There are ways to synthesize research-based practices in professional learning with the dynamic online experiences only Twitter provides.

Stay tuned for my next and final blog in this series, in which we’ll explore the specifics of how we can create such a strategic synthesis in our schools.

What are your experiences with the pros and cons of Twitter for professional learning?

Which other ideas would you add to this list?

Please post your ideas, especially if they challenge my thinking. I appreciate cognitive dissonance even when (gulp) it is my own.

Written by

Tonya Ward Singer is an author, keynote speaker and consultant with a deep commitment to ensuring all students in culturally, racially and linguistically diverse schools access high-quality education. She specializes in high-impact literacy, ELL achievement, 21st century learning, and leading effective job-embedded professional learning at scale.

Tonya’s bestselling book Opening Doors to Equity: A Practical Guide to Observation-Based Professional Learning helps educators lead observation inquiry, a professional learning design inspired by Japanese lesson study and tailored to the unique context of teaching for equity and innovation in U.S. schools.

Tonya has taught at multiple levels as a classroom teacher, reading specialist and ELL specialist in the U.S. and abroad. She designs curricula and leads professional learning to help educators elevate student literacy, language and life-long learning for 21st century success.

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