Twitter & The Overlapping Waves

In October, 2014, I attended a conference run by 21st Century Learning International. Towards the end of the two days, almost as a post-script, the key note speaker recommended that we all join twitter. She took the time to show us her account and talked about how, for her, it had been an effective tool for collaborating with teachers in other parts of the world.

I had experimented with twitter previously and had found the experience incredibly disappointing. Within 10 minutes of joining and flicking through a few pages of tweets, I had vowed never to return, such had been the depth of skull aching drudgery that I had encountered.

The idea of using it as a professional tool to share and challenge some of my ideas had never really occurred to me.

It was this one act that has profoundly changed some of my thinking in relation to education. Robert Siegler uses the metaphor of overlapping waves to describe the learning process. Joining twitter has been the equivalent of running from the beach and clinging on to the nearest tree as relentless overlapping waves have hit with unerring regularity.

In just over 12 months a list of unfounded ideas has been challenged by engaging with various educators and researchers on twitter. To date, the list of ideas I have been forced to reconsider includes:

Before joining twitter, each of the ideas mentioned above informed my thinking in some way. The process of realising that much of what I knew and that seemed intuitive to me about education was just plain wrong, was an extremely humbling and incredibly valuable experience; particularly having already spent 10 years in the classroom. At times the process was uncomfortable and challenging but I now feel so much the better for it.

The great thing about engaging with educators from different parts of the globe has been that for every weak idea that has been demolished, a new idea with a bit more substance and a bit more evidence (I hope) has been left in its place. There have been times where I have engaged with a blog or an article or a research paper online and have felt excited to return to work on Monday morning to try the idea out in the classroom and share it with colleagues.

Dylan Wiliam has argued that schools should aim to become evidence informed and I now feel that as a teacher in a position of leadership, I have an obligation to regularly engage with educational research. If I want to be a part of a learning community that is passionate about professional learning, then I need to be sure that the ideas that I promote and introduce to that community are grounded in research and are supported by some reliable evidence. To my mind, asking teachers to invest their incredibly valuable time in a process of change based on a whim or unfounded passion, would be immoral – and that is before you even begin to consider the impact of unfounded ideas on students in the classroom.

Some of the great ideas I have engaged with over the past 12 months include:

Formative Assessment – I always found AfL, as I understood it, to be formulaic and impractical. Writing in-depth comments for every student in every book became an unmanageable barrier to any sort of home life. It turns out that providing feedback should be a far more nuanced process and should cause more work for the student than the teacher. It was a revelation to find out that much of the feedback that teachers provide actually gets in the way of student learning.

Desirable difficulties – the work of Robert Bjork is profound and has shown that learning is a messy and counter intuitive process, often divorced from short-term performance. Based on this work, in my school we are considering introducing follow up conversations with students weeks and months after lesson observations to see if what we are ‘seeing’ in class is promoting long-term understanding.

Testing for improving the retention and transfer of knowledge – The evidence seems to suggest that the process of retrieving knowledge for a low stakes test not only improves the ability to retrieve that knowledge and use it in other contexts in the future, but also causes more learning to take place in the next study episode.

The fundamental role Knowledge plays in everything – it almost seems daft that this actually needs to be stated but for a long time, knowledge was going out of fashion. Skills were all the rage and we needed to teach critical thinking skills to enable our students to cope with the array of knowledge that they are exposed to on a day-to-day basis via their mobile phones, laptops and ipads. It turns out that critical thinking is built on knowledge and the idea that you can teach one without the other is a falsehood. Knowledge is also fundamental to the process of comprehending text. Much of what we read is defined by what the author doesn’t say and in order to draw accurate inferences from a text, we need to have a wide body of knowledge that we can easily access during the reading process. Reading comprehension strategies are still worthwhile but they will only take you so far.

And the list could go on.

A year ago I would have described myself as an optimistic progressive in terms of my philosophy towards education. I was open to new ideas and always optimistic about new strategies working in my classroom when they were introduced to me. Based on my experiences over the past year, this has changed somewhat. Optimistic? Yes. I think you have to be optimistic in some way, shape, or form to cling to the idea that you can really inspire a classroom full of students to learn what you want them to. Progressive? Not as much as I was. I’m still open to new ideas but I need to see the evidence before I even consider investing time & effort in them and taking them into the classroom.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that there is a timelessness associated with the teaching and learning process that detractors claim is a failing. To me, teaching and learning is about relationships and communication and of all the ideas that have now come and gone in my ten years as an educator, that is the one idea that I have held as a constant despite all the fads – I just need to find the research evidence to prove it.

Education books I wouldn’t have read without twitter:

Embedded Formative Assessment by Dylan Wiliam

Embedding Formative Assessment by Dylan Wiliam & Siobhan Leahy

Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel Willingham

Raising Kids Who Read by Daniel Willingham

What if everything you knew about education is wrong? By David Didau

The Hidden Lives of Learners by Graham Nuthall

This Much I know about love over fear…by John Tomsett

Teaching: notes from the front line by Dr Debra Kidd

100 ideas for Primary Teachers by Stephen Lockyer

Books waiting on the shelf:

Trivium 21C by Martin Robinson

Teach Like A Champion by Doug Lemov

Make It Stick by Brown, Roediger III & McDaniel

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