Using Twitter to Enhance Professional Learning
This is the third blog in a series on using Twitter for professional learning. In Part I we explored the question “Should Twitter replace professional development?” In Part II we delved into the pros and cons of Twitter for professional growth. Now let’s get specific about how to leverage Twitter to enhance school and district-level professional learning.
Let’s Talk about Synthesis, Baby
There is no one approach to professional learning, and should never be. According to the Learning Design Standard for Professional Learning (Learning Forward, 2011), the best professional learning design “integrates theories, research, and models of human learning to achieve its intended outcomes.”
Integrates is an important word in this standard, yet it often gets lost in the educational marketplace where new ideas and products compete to become the next best thing. Rather than debate about the one best approach, we should be seek out ways to synthesize the best aspects of different theories and approaches. Which combination will be the most helpful in realizing the goals we have for students?
Be Strategic to Impact Students
In choosing how to synthesize theories and tools for professional learning, we need to be creators and critical problem-solvers more than consumers. The best professional learning design is only as strong as our ability to question it. Does it make a difference for students? Does it help us transform teaching and student learning in powerful ways that matter to students, families, our communities and our world?
While there is more than one answer to the question of how to synthesize theories, research and models for powerful professional learning, there are universals to consider when bringing Twitter into the equation.
Leverage Twitter for Divergent Thinking
Divergent thinking is a process we use to generate creative ideas by exploring many possibilities. Brainstorming and free writing, for example, promote divergent thinking. Convergent thinking, on the other hand, is a process of narrowing our focus to prioritize a solution or answer.
Both are important. We use both divergent and convergent thinking in human inquiry, problem-solving, and creativity. We need both to thrive with deep professional learning.
Twitter’s strength is engaging us in divergent thinking. Most of the benefits highlighted in my previous blog post are examples of divergent thinking: brainstorming, networking and engaging in a spontaneous, free-flowing exchange of ideas.
Most of the drawbacks I highlighted in that post relate to convergent thinking and decisive action. Twitter is not a platform that encourages narrowing down choices to a priority focus for action in the classroom. It is not a platform that encourages us to test and refine an idea based on evaluation criteria, such as its impact on our students.
When synthesizing Twitter with other professional learning designs, use it strategically to enhance divergent thinking.
Tweet Globally, Act Locally
For a powerful synthesis, use Twitter within the context of site-based collaborative inquiry. This dynamic duo offers teachers the divergent-thinking benefits of Twitter for networking and idea sharing within a focused context of deep inquiry to solve challenges that matter in our local schools. As Twitter excels in inspiring us with ideas, local inquiry supports us with taking action, studying our impact and continuously refining our teaching.
Collaborative inquiry comes in all shapes, sizes, protocols and names. Popular approaches in education include:
Each of these distinct approaches share basic principles of human inquiry: ask a question or identify a problem, test a solution, get feedback and learn. Repeat.
No matter which approach you use for collaborative inquiry and problem-solving, the fact that you are engaged in deep local collaboration will enrich your Twitter experience. Twitter in turn will enrich your local inquiry process. When we use the two in strategic synthesis, we gain the benefits of both.
Use Twitter Differently at Each Stage of Inquiry
Let’s use the cycle in figure 1 as a point of reference for how to use Twitter throughout the different stages of site-based inquiry. This graphic is specific to observation inquiry, so the names of steps in the cycle might differ from the steps or protocols you use for inquiry. If that is the case, please look beyond the names to the ideas beneath them.
1. Define the Problem or Question
Site-based inquiry begins with a focus on a problem that matters to learning that teachers prioritize to solve. Or it begins with a research question a team collaborates to better understand. At the stage of prioritizing a focus for professional learning, local factors matter. We need to listen to our students, parents, and teachers in our community to know what is most important, and analyze our data to illuminate opportunities for growth.
While Twitter can’t help us listen to the most pressing needs in our school or district community, it can have a valuable role in helping us broaden our perspective to see our local challenges in a larger global context. Twitter, like conferences, seminars and professional readings, helps us expand our focus beyond what is right in front of us. This is especially true if we follow a diverse network of individuals including people with perspectives different from our own.
Reading broadly and engaging with diverse ideas across our Professional Learning Networks (PLN) gives us a 30,000-foot vantage point on our local issues. Such a vantage point is foundational for our ability to reframe a problem and see it beyond our first impression. Reframing helps us when we are defining a problem to solve together. See Tina Selig’s article How Reframing Unlocks Innovation.
2. Plan a Theory of Action
Once we have a problem or question to pursue, we collaborate with our local team to plan a hypothesis or theory of action for how to solve the problem. Our theory of action might be as broad as a pedagogical approach (e.g., project-based learning) or as specific as a detailed lesson plan. Planning involves divergent thinking to brainstorm and research possible solutions, and convergent thinking to choose an approach to try.
- Use a hashtag specific to the problem we want to solve to seek ideas.
- Use a hashtag specific to a solution we want to explore to learn more.
- Tweet a question your team wants to answer, and mention people (including authors and experts) you hope will respond.
- Be a guest moderator on a Twitter chat and ask the group the questions your local team is collaborating to try to answer.
While Twitter is powerful for brainstorming, it won’t guide you in the convergent thinking process of making a decision for action. This is where the local team helps you find focus in an unlimited sea of ideas and prioritize a plan for action.
3. Teach/Observe to Test Ideas
The next step in inquiry is to test the ideas to see if they solve the problem you have identified or give you new insight into the questions you are seeking to better understand. In some local inquiry models, we test ideas alone in our classrooms then meet together to compare student work. In others, we plan and observe a lesson to study the immediate impact of instruction on student thinking, interaction and learning.
Twitter is a distraction at this stage. To test an idea, we need to pause in our pursuit of possibilities and take action. While you might want to take pictures or videos at this stage to share on Twitter, don’t post them until you get the benefit of analyzing impact with your team.
4. Analyze Data
Next, we analyze data together to ask how our instructional choices impacted student learning. Data includes ANY type of feedback, including student work, assessment results, student reflections, videos of students in a lesson or notes from a lesson observation.
I have yet to see Twitter help educators engage deeply in the study of their impact on students. This public forum is not the right space for detailed student work analysis. That said, after we analyze data and begin to reflect on what we saw, Twitter is a great platform for sharing successes and asking for help with challenges.
5. Reflect to Evolve Teaching
After analyzing data, we reflect on what it tells us about the impact of the approaches we tried. Did our theory of action or specific lesson plan work to solve the learning challenge we wanted to address? What successes did we realize for students? What challenges remain?
Reflection is personal and often humbling, especially when we are willing to ask tough questions and share ownership for our impact on students. Deep reflection is best done with a coach or in a team with a skilled facilitator who can ensure high levels of safety and trust.
- When data gives you something to celebrate, post evidence of impact on Twitter. With parents’ permission, share videos, photos or other evidence of what worked for students.
- When data shows that what you expected to work didn’t, take a deep breath and enjoy the cognitive dissonance. Use the opportunity of “failure” to generate new questions for inquiry. Tweet these questions to your PLN to brainstorm solutions that can help deep learning for you and your local team.
In continuous inquiry, the cycle repeats. The team builds from its insights to plan next steps, which may involve refining or completely redesigning their first theory of action. This step often involves brainstorming again, and as such could benefit from all of the recommendations for using Twitter that I made at the planning stage above.
Best of Both Worlds
When we use Twitter in the context of site-based collaborative inquiry, we combine the benefits of Twitter with the depth, focus and intensity that is important for effective professional learning. The fact that Twitter is lacking in these areas doesn’t matter, as Twitter is a strategic partner that enhances our professional learning experience—rather than running the entire PL show.
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What connections do you make between site-based professional learning and Twitter?
What approach to synthesis do you recommend?
Image from Singer, T. (2015). Opening Doors to Equity: A Practical Guide to Observation-Based Professional Learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. All rights reserved.