A high-tech revolution is taking place in the world of teaching, but it’s not about AI or virtual reality or plugging children in to ever more devices. Instead, this revolution involves teachers and is taking place on social media.
Traditionally, there has been an uneasy pact in education. Teachers go to university to learn about their craft and receive an education heavy on fashionable theories but light on practical value. They then go to work in schools where they are given instructions from school leadership, punctuated by periodic professional development sessions, often given by outside speakers. Although the voice of teachers is little heard in these processes, once they are in the classroom they can shut the door and pretty much do what they like, within reason. That’s the pact.
The effects are significant. Unlike doctors, few practising teachers are involved with the cutting edge of research. Instead, they remain relatively uninformed, subsisting instead on strategies picked up from colleagues and honed through trial and error. This explains why it is so hard to improve the quality of teaching with carrots and sticks such as the publishing of league tables or performance-related pay. Teachers don’t need incentivising. They are putting in the effort; they just don’t know the right things to put that effort into. For instance, many spend much of their time correcting and writing feedback on student work, yet there is little evidence that this is effective. It’s certainly not efficient – imagine a football coach handwriting a letter to each player after every training session, four or five times a day.
Other myths include the idea that the best way to learn something is for children to figure it out for themselves; that teachers should be a guide-on-the-side rather than a sage-on-the-stage.
Social media has started to disrupt this. When I joined Twitter in 2012, there were relatively few Australian teachers to follow. Of those, many spent their time posting motivational quotes or lesson materials. Although such resources can be useful, they don’t necessarily reflect the best evidence on how children learn.
Since then, there has been a flow of teachers onto Twitter and the conversation has become more critical. A kind of punk research ethic has developed, where teachers share research articles that they have found online and post blogs about what they think of them and how the research might apply in the classroom. One reaction is common; ‘Why did I never know about this research before?’
The answer is a simple one with profound consequences. It has not been in the interests of the traditional gatekeepers of educational research to open themselves up to scrutiny and to potentially make themselves redundant. Much of the research that teachers have found useful and shared online debunks ideas that are, or have been, promoted by experts; ideas such as learning styles, skills-based curricula, balanced literacy and inquiry learning. Nothing demonstrates the disruptive effect of Twitter more clearly than the reaction to researchED, a conference started in the UK and designed to bring teachers and academics together. It is a grassroots movement that originated in a conversation on Twitter and which is promoted almost exclusively on social media. Speakers offer their time for free, keeping costs down, and conferences take place on Saturdays so that teachers don’t need to request time off work to attend.
There have now been three researchED conferences here. A Twitter storm erupted during the promotion of the most recent. Tom Bennett, the founder, made comments on the website about the ‘lies’ that teachers may have been told during training and a group of academics took offence, loudly condemning the conference. Needless to say, it was the most successful Australian event to date.
More and more Australian teachers are finding their voice on social media. I interact with new members of Twitter every day so was not surprised to hear Twitter might be on the verge of posting its first profit. This new way to exchange ideas gives me hope for the future. If we are able to use social media to talk directly to each other then we can sidestep the forces arrayed against change and rebuild teaching from the bottom up.