On Twitter: Some Thoughts

I joined Twitter in late 2018 as MrGreenw00d (@MGreenw00d). At the time I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing, but did follow some of the people who wrote blogs that I had been reading. I certainly didn’t know how to attract my own followers, find #FFB schemes or even to interact more widely with the teaching/edu community. (For the sake of full disclosure I have just about got the hang of #FFB as a way of expanding the range of people I get to read, but otherwise, I’m still pretty useless at Twitter.)

I never really engaged with it until earlier this year when I was sent on an IoP course hosted at Uppingham Shcool where Dr David Boyce (@DrDavidBoyce) ran a brief session on why Twitter is really useful for teachers. His absolute enthusiasm for the platform and his quick explanation of how simple it is to build a really wide network of people to follow made me want to get to grips with it. I guess what I’m saying is that if you are reading this blog and looking at all of my rambling on twitter, it’s all David Boyce’s fault. I can see why in a 10 minute session he kept to the positives, but I have discovered some less pleasant quirks.

I use my account as a teacher. I don’t generally share my full name and don’t use a picture of my own face. Partly this is to do with privacy, partly it’s to do with not really wanting to inflict pictures of my face on a platform that is shared with strangers. It’s not that my name is a secret and I wouldn’t be devastated if someone used it online or it was ‘found out’, but I prefer not to share them so widely very often. I see many people who use their accounts to represent only their professional persona, and that’s fine. Personally, I like to inject a little of my actual personality. It’s great when people share a little of their personal life and situation along side their discussions around education and learning. Most of the time it leads to much more friendly and informal discussion just like you would find in a break at a conference or chat between colleagues or whatever. It’s nice.

Twitter is a fantastic space for individual teachers to share their ideas and their thoughts on education. I have seen a diverse range of teachers supporting each other and giving away resources and advice. This is the best face of the online community and the profession. It’s a friendly and supportive environment that allows the growth of all teachers, but is particularly good for early career practitioners.

Sadly, some people are so invested in the Twitter persona they have created that they forget there are human beings with human emotions attached to each account. For some people it’s not enough to disagree with a point or to suggest a better way, instead they jump straight to mean comments. When networks of people join in with this it looks exactly like bullying. It’s a very negative space and nothing very useful gets said.

Likewise, some people are so defensive of what they have proposed or suggested or posted they struggle to hear any criticism at all, no matter how well intentioned. This leads to accusations of all kinds and a further collapse of any sensible discourse. Worse, it reinforces some of the tribalism that can be found on the platform.

One of the biggest problems for teachers on Twitter is that there are two seemingly incompatible viewpoints. I will try to keep this as objective as possible, but I definitely have an opinion and am part of one of these tribes. I’ve tried to summarise the two main camps below. The summary is very brief and will be lacking in nuance, but for people who aren’t aware this is a super fast, surface level primer.

On one side you have the progressive movement. They believe that the best way to educate is through discovery and skills. They take emphasis off learning lists of facts or blocks of knowledge, but favour so called ‘soft skills’ such as team work, independence, and resilience. For progressives this is a holistic approach, equipping children with the skills they will need to be successful, preparing children for an uncertain world of fast paced changes.

On the other side, traditionalist teachers tend to employ the ideas of cognitive science and utilise them to find the ‘best bet’ approach to teaching. This often looks old fashioned next to the progressive approach as it involves silent working, testing, checking understanding and direct and explicit explanation of key points of each lesson. For traditionalists this approach equips children with powerful knowledge that they can bring to bear and use to solve problems in novel and creative ways.

Ultimately, and this is often overlooked, both sides want children to be prepared for whatever the future holds for them. The sticking point is the method. How do we educate children? What is Education? It’s in the answer to these questions that progressive and traditional philosophies become incompatible. Sadly, rather than focusing on the commonality many teachers and educationalists indulge in acrimonious argument in a very public format. It’s often embarrassing to see the profession airing its dirty laundry this way and neither side particularly covers itself in glory.

There are relatively frequent occasions where I see a post that to me is monumentally stupid or just so far away from how I would do things that I can’t help but challenge. Frankly some ideas that I see people suggesting look to be downright dangerous ideology. I do challenge ideas that I think are plain bad, but I try to do it in a way that encourages open and polite discussion.

I know that I have occasionally indulged in sarcastic or spiteful comments. Sometimes people post genuinely funny – if rather mean spirited – stuff. Because I really only want to see the best aspects of Twitter, and to spend most of my time in that positive and nurturing online space I try to keep to the following arbitrary rules:

  • Assume that everyone is trying to do the best they can for children and young people. This being the case never criticise the person – only their ideas.
  • Emphasise points of agreement. These areas are the best point to work through a challenging conversation from, rather than opposing viewpoints.
  • Don’t tweet when angry. If you’re cross you’re more likely to break the first rule.
  • Ask lots of questions. Character limits mean that people are often trying to condense very complicated ideas into a small number of characters. By asking genuine questions you give the other person space to explain their thought process in more detail. This usually reveals that they are not a child hating monster but that they just have a different perspective.
  • Curate your timeline! If you find that all you’re ever seeing is anger and disagreement then use that mute button and block if you need. It’s not a bad thing as long as you don’t end up in an echo chamber. Try to keep people with different views on your follow list, but don’t keep people who have a chip on their shoulder no matter how good their content.
  • Do you really need to tweet at all? If your comment is purely critical and neither opens discussion nor offers anything positive, what’s the point? Delete the tweet. It’s not worth it.
  • You won’t convert everybody. Sometimes our points of view are so opposed that there’s no way that you’re going to convince someone that they are wrong. We find that we’re not just attacking each others ideas, but the very heart of our identities as teachers. At this point it’s best to make a graceful tactical withdrawal from the conversation.

This obviously won’t be to everyone’s taste, and people are free to communicate how they please. I offer the guidelines that I use because they work for me and how I use Twitter and I hope that some folk are prompted to think about the way that they respond. Ultimately, imagine if one of your students saw what you were writing on twitter. What would they think of their teachers if they saw some of the things that are said? Would they be proud of you or would they feel let down? Obviously we all make mistakes and we all say somethings that are just mean and unhelpful at times. I know that I do. I do find that when I stick to my guide above, I end up in a much more positive and generous conversation than when I’m being cruel or sarcastic.

Published by mrgreenw00d

Lead Practitioner in Science, chemistry specialist and Metacognition/Cog Sci nerd.

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