More on Using Twitter with High School Students

One of the things that I love about making my thinking transparent here on the Radical is the push back that I inevitably get from readers.  There's real value in having your ideas challenged by passionate people with different perspectives. 

Recently, Peter Wilson stopped by to leave me a bit of push back on the role that Twitter can play in high school classrooms (see here and here).  Peter's central contention is that Twitter is not conducive to encouraging the kinds of deep interactions and reflection that characterizes top thinkers. 

He writes:

Twitter in the classroom is not a great idea. Its 140 character minimum encourages superficial, simplistic communication when students need practice with deep thinking and interpersonal dialogue with each other and with adults.

He also writes:

If we teach students to think in bursts of 140 characters, then to what extent is their capacity to sustain attention on deep, complex matters handicapped?

My first reaction to Peter's push back is that while it is true that Twitter messages are intentionally short — 140 characters is the length of one well written sentence — those who use Twitter as a learning tool would hardly describe it as a place characterized by superficial, simplistic communication.

Here's why:  Twitter often becomes a place where users are sharing links to blog posts or articles connected to their areas of interest.  So while a message may only be 140-characters long, it often points readers to other content to interact with. 

The best part is that this stream of information is customized by the individual.  So if I'm passionate about educational techology or education policy, I can follow other users who are interested in — and are sharing — content connected to my interests. 

More importantly, I can begin to build relationships with others who share the same interests as I do — and over time, those relationships can become starting points for powerful conversations around the concepts that we have in common. 

Here's an example from my own work:  As a middle school teacher, I'm incredibly interested in the impact that awards ceremonies have on students.  While I like the idea of recognizing students who excel, I worry about the kids who never get recognized.

That's a strand of thinking that motivates me — and that I personally wrestle with on a regular basis — but it's not a strand of thinking that anyone in my school is currently having.  Our honors assemblies are very traditional, recognizing students for (mostly) academic successes.

A few years ago, I ran across a page of resources shared in my Twitterstream called "Rethinking Awards Ceremonies."  It was originally shared by a peer in Winston Salem, but the content was largely created by another principal in Canada named Chris Wejr.

At the time, I didn't know Chris at all.  He was just a name on a blog.

But his ideas resonated with me — and I read article after article having my thinking challenged.  I borrowed Chris's ideas and tried to incorporate them into team meetings and conversations about awards assemblies in my own school. 

And then I started to leave Chris comments — much like Peter has done here — challenging his thinking, asking questions, and working to build knowledge together. 

I also started following Chris in Twitter — and there, we built a relationship.  We regularly reach out to each other. We regularly comment on one another's blogs.  We regularly email back and forth to each other, offering support on projects that we're working on.

That's interesting, isn't it?

Twitter has given me instant access to a never-ending stream of ideas that I care about. I'm never bored — and never far away from meaningful interactions — when I'm poking through my Twitterstream because it's full of content connected to my passions. 

Surely that carries value, doesn't it?

Heck, I probably spend more time reading about teaching and learning today as a result of the content shared in my Twitterstream than I spent reading about teaching and learning during the 12 years of my career before Twitter existed. 

But more importantly, Twitter has given me instant access to individuals who I can learn with.  I see Chris as a colleague who challenges my learning even more than the colleagues who I work alongside of me in my own building. 

We're intellectually tight even though our relationship started with a Tweet. 

For high school students — who often have quirky interests that they are deeply passionate about — that kind of customization is INCREDIBLY valuable simply because schools are almost never customized places.  Students — regardless of their personal passions and interests — are marched through the same curriculum whether it motivates them or not. 

More importantly, that kind of customization is POSSIBLE with social spaces

As long as users are systematic about who they choose to follow — as long as they are diligent about finding others with shared interests and willing to follow links to interact in the space beyond the Tweets — the kinds of deep thinking and interpersonal dialogue that Peter believes in is doable. 

Isn't that a lesson worth teaching our students?  Shouldn't we be showing them how to use social media spaces to create customized learning spaces?  Wouldn't that make them more efficient and effective learners? 

More importantly, wouldn't that make them more motivated learners?

Now, I know where Peter is coming from:  Most of our kids AREN'T creating forums for deep and meaningful conversations on their own in social spaces.  The teens I cross paths with in Twitter aren't sharing links to blogs and then following those links to content that they comment on and interact with later.

But my argument is that the only reason they aren't using social spaces in this way is because no one has ever modeled that kind of behavior for them. 

If teachers — who are master learners — worked to show students ways to use the tools and spaces that THEY care about to master the kinds of skills and behaviors that WE know matter, couldn't social NETWORKING spaces become social LEARNING spaces?


Related Radical Reads:

Doubting Bauerlein's Dumbest Generation

Innovation in Social Spaces

Innovation and Intellectual Collisions 

One Tweet CAN Change the World





7 thoughts on “More on Using Twitter with High School Students

  1. Peter Wilson

    Intellectual humility means being open to the possibility that you are wrong. I remain open to that possibility regarding Twitter’s use in education, but am still waiting for the empirical evidence that would prove my position wrong. Your anecdotes have broadened my thinking, but they do not provide the data I seek.
    Here’s why: you cited examples of how both you and other teachers have used Twitter, but none of those examples provide evidence that learning or understanding increased. The three teachers you cited in your original post, the Business teacher, the Social Studies teacher, and the English teacher, all used Twitter to accomplish things that could also be accomplished without using Twitter. Therefore, was it the medium (Twitter) or the instructional method that enhanced the learning? I contend it was the instructional method. For instance, the Business teacher could have had students perform the same task with a 3×5 card or an e-mail. In this example, it was the student’s process of reflecting and summarizing, not using Twitter, that had educational benefit.
    Your example of how Twitter helped you connect with a Canadian principal and expand your PLN is instructive. However, this gets to the thrust of my argument regarding Twitter’s epistemology. If Twitter is useful because it allows professionals and students to expand their PLNs and use these social connections to exchange information, fine. But what comes next? The argument here, it seems, is that the social exchange of information is an end in-and-of-itself. Furthermore, the argument seems to encourage the prioritization of information that is personally relevant.
    My argument is that the social exchange of information must be part of a larger, conscious process of searching for the truth. Additionally, students should learn discipline-specific habits of mind and not just gravitate towards information that has only personal relevance. Constructivism, yes, but with guidance and within a framework.
    My understanding of a blog like this is that it is a space where ideas can be tested and contested as people work collaboratively to seek what is true and what is good. I have considered what you and others said and have taken all ideas seriously. That doesn’t mean I have to accept them uncritically. In fact, teaching students how to examine and critique arguments, much as I’ve done here, is something we ought to do as educators. One should feel honored when another has taken the time to consider and debate their ideas, even vigorously. Thank-you for providing a forum.

  2. Bill Ferriter

    Peter wrote:
    Though a skeptic, I remain open to the possibility that I might be
    wrong about this issue and many others. I am willing to change my views
    if the evidence shows my position to be incorrect. Unfortunately, I do
    not often see the same kind of intellectual humility on the other side.
    It is ironic that many promoters of social media in education fall vic
    tim to the herd mentality and groupthink that widespread access to
    information and knowledge is supposed to prevent.
    Quick question: Have you used Twitter for any length of time? Have you followed hashtag conversations? Have you built your own learning network there and experimented with the potential in the tool? When did you sign up for Twitter? How long did you experiment there? What kinds of interactions did you have there?
    Because if you havent ever used Twitter for learning — and from your comments over the past few days, Id find it hard to believe that you have considering how passionately opposed youve been to social spaces — arent you also struggling with the same intellectual humility that you have accused other commenters of struggling with?
    You keep talking about being willing to change your views as long as evidence shows your position to be incorrect, but anytime that someone — including me — takes the time to articulate examples of ways in which social media spaces have changed their learning or the learning of their students, you discount that evidence summarily.
    In fact, youve shown in almost every one of your comments a complete unwillingness to listen or to consider or to reflect. The only thing youve shown a willingness to do is dismiss and to criticize.
    If you arent willing to even attempt to examine the role that social spaces can play in your own learning over a sustained period of time, isnt it possible that youre living inside your own echo chamber?
    To be perfectly honest, every time someone throws around the herd mentality argument that youre dropping here, it makes me chuckle simply because whatever position they embrace has probably been widely supported by large groups, too.
    Think about it: Youre arguments against social media spaces in education arent new. There are thousands of educators who think the exact same way that you do. In fact, your position is probably far more prevalent than the position of those of us who have first hand experience with the ways that social media spaces can change the way that we learn.
    Doesnt that mean that you are a victim of group think too?
    Arent you a part of an even larger herd than the people that youve chosen to criticize here?
    Just thinking out loud.

  3. Peter Wilson

    Your response inspires further commentary and questioning from me, as do some of the comments.
    First, you talk about Twitter’s usefulness in customizing a stream of information to the individual’s tastes and interests. Is customization desirable? Customization may be an efficient way to separate and process information, but it can also create an echo-chamber that reinforces one’s opinions, beliefs, and ideologies. It creates social spaces where people of similar tastes, interests, and beliefs share information and ideas with each other, isolated from other social spaces where those tastes, interests, and beliefs might be questioned, challenged, or shown to be wrong.
    Second, one of the commentators on this post argues that we are developing a new social epistemology where knowledge is shared, grown, and spread through social groups. First, learning always has a social dimension. One might consult Plato’s dialogues, ancient texts from the 4th century BC, that show Socrates and his students collaborating through dialogue to answer profound philosophical questions. Second, we have the epistemological problem of what constitutes knowledge. It seems that promoters of social media in learning regard knowledge as the acquisition, assimilation, and sharing of information all, apparently, for its own sake. Knowledge is judged to be useful when it is contingent upon and relevant to the individual’s interests and tastes, a process you call “customization.” But this theory of knowledge omits two questions that I believe are important to epistemology: first, is the information or knowledge true?; second, does the information or knowledge uncover both the deep structure of the discipline and the habits of mind that help learners develop a way of thinking unique to that discipline? In other words, what is knowledge if it
    does not lead to understanding?
    Third, the same commentator argues that teaching students to create PLNs is as important or MORE important (original author’s emphasis) than understanding Shakespeare or differential equations. This statement reflects an anti-intellectual bias in two ways. One, it appears to trivialize the understandings that can be gained through literature or mathematics, two academic disciplines that have deep roots in the development of the Western mind and character. Two, it appears to equalize learning and understanding. One can learn many things about Shakespeare through PLNs, but one’s learning may not lead to an understanding of the deep ideas and values that can be uncovered by reading Shakespeare. I can envision a scenario where a deep reading of Shakespeare in class led to the further exploration through PLNs of the deep ideas and values contained in Shakespeare’s work. But the commentator does not allow for that possibility because it appears not to fit within the framework of his epistemological assumptions and values. Additionally, you seem to suggest in your second paragraph that deep interaction and reflection are characteristic of top thinkers. I believe that deep interaction and reflection are characteristic of all thinkers. Every student at every level from every background needs, deserves to, and can engage in the type of deep thinking and reflection that, I believe, is essential to living a good life, earning a good living, and being an active, engaged citizen.
    Fourth, another commentator, citing poetry as his example, argues that brevity does not automatically lead to superficiality. But the analogy is flawed. We consider poetry to be an art form because, through its simplicity, poetry reveals that which is profound. As media, poetry and Twitter are entirely different. Poetry uses words to create images through symbolism and metaphor as a way of communicating deep truths. Twitter uses expository text to communicate information. When Twitter communicates information in much the same way as an RSS feed, as you have suggested in your example about meeting the Canadian principal through your Twitterstream, then I can understand its usefulness in prioritizing information and connecting people. When Twitter communicates information the way many politicians use it to promote or critique matters of public policy, then it reinforces simplistic, sound-bite thinking that is not conducive to complex problem-solving. Furthermore, micro-blogging through Twitter reinforces narrow-casting, a critique that echoes what I said before about customization.
    While I appreciate and have learned from your response to my earlier posts, it would appear that you, and many of the commentators on your site, and I have different epistemological positions which, in turn, shape our views on instruction. One thing that I hope does improve: that educators on both sides of the argument stop demeaning the other. I do not agree with the title of Mark Bauerline’s book, The Dumbest Generation, nor do I agree with your commentator who read my earlier comments that were skeptical of Twitter’s use and almost “whip[ped] up a somewhat less thoughtful and dispassionate reply.” Though a skeptic, I remain open to the possibility that I might be wrong about this issue and many others. I am willing to change my views if the evidence shows my position to be incorrect. Unfortunately, I do not often see the same kind of intellectual humility on the other side. It is ironic that many promoters of social media in education fall victim to the herd mentality and groupthink that widespread access to information and knowledge is supposed to prevent.

  4. Andrew B. Watt

    I have to admit, I no longer use twitter. I send links to new articles in my blog to the Twitter Feed, so that readers know there’s a new article up. But increasingly, I don’t participate in the conversation there. Partly it’s that I don’t have time. I am behind on grading, behind on planning, and running the new Design Lab at my school. It amounts to a lot of work, and I don’t have the energy to sort through the concerns of hundreds of extra people a day while also trying to invent a new type of teaching at my school.
    But partly it’s that I’m now interested in solutions, and I’m finding that lots of people are proposing big ideas through their Twitter feeds — but not necessarily implementing them. They want big, top-down change. I’m finding all my success at the level of my classroom and my Design Lab and my own desk. And I find that a lot of my solutions don’t actually translate well to other folks’ work or other school’s styles.

  5. MikeGwaltney

    Thanks for this excellent post Bill.
    I recall reading Peter’s comment on your post the other day, and resisting the temptation to whip up a somewhat less thoughtful and dispassionate reply than what you’ve done here. Kudos.
    Like you, I’ve found Twitter to act as a kind of “social RSS feed”, in which the people I follow curate the fire-hydrant-like stream of information on the web. I find blogs (like yours), news stories, conferences, etc, this way and I grow from this Twitter contribution. This is indeed a kind of social learning.
    My own thinking is that we’re developing a new social epistemology – knowledge is shared, grown, and spread through groups of people. This is easy to see through the #chats on Twitter.
    And you’re right to point out that if we don’t teach our students how to participate in this, we’re doing them a disservice.
    More and more I’m learning how different the thinking of my colleagues is when I find their PLNs are so small. I work with very bright people, most more intelligent than me. But I find that I and others with a wide-ranging network of colleagues tend to be more “in the know”, and flexible and relevant in our teaching. We’re a step ahead in curriculum development, and our students are benefitting. Of course, we owe it to our students to teach them also how to be connected life-long learners. The same way many of us in the edu-PLNs really benefit in our careers needs to be replicated in them. I’m certain that people with small networks will be less effective and less relevant in the future, so we owe it to our students. This is easily as or MORE important than understanding differential equations, Shakespeare, etc.
    So, right now I’m deep in an inquiry about how to use Twitter with my students. Long-time followers of me and my blog know I’ve written about this plenty (, and I’ve only had very mixed results with high school students. Adults get it, but my high schoolers are much less into it. I think there are plenty of good reasons why, not the least of which is that few teachers are pushing their students in this direction so mine have a hard time making connections.
    Recently I’ve modified how I use blogs to teach these important lessons and I’m having incredibly good luck. I can tell these students are really getting this “real world learning thing” ( and it’s giving me many ideas for moving forward. One of those is to develop a high school bloggers collaborative, through which we can connect students to help build their PLNs. And, importantly, they’ll learn in the “social” way you and I know can be so powerful.
    I’ll keep you in the loop on the new project. Thanks for your post, and all the work you do. Cheers.

  6. Johntspencer

    Brevity doesn’t automatically lead to superficiality. If this was so, then poetry would automatically be more shallow than prose.
    I’ve seen students use Twitter effectively. It can generate a quality dialogue and help students learn to be more careful with their words. It helps with summarizing information and learning to be more concise.
    Will it save education? No. Should it replace writing longer pieces? No. Is it a great way to engage in meaningful conversation and learn to use words wisely? Yep.


    You have hit the nail right on the head with this post, my friend. We need to model appropriate use of social media spaces for our kids…that is how they learn.
    Thanks for the piece. I look forward to sharing it with others.

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