Teachers on Twitter: Is it CPD?

Written by: Maria Cunningham | Published:
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A lot of teachers will wax lyrical about the power of Twitter when it comes to sharing resources and best practice, but what exactly should be its role in our CPD? Maria Cunningham advises

It is likely that most of your teachers engage with social media in their spare time, but do you know how many of them are using this in a professional capacity?

In a recent article for the Guardian Teacher Network, one secondary school English teacher claimed that joining Twitter was “one of the best career decisions I’ve ever made”, outlining the many benefits of engaging with other teachers through the online platform (Teachers on Twitter: Why you should join and how to get started, Erin Miller, Guardian, April 2017).

Indeed, the realm of “edu-Twitter” is no new phenomenon. Teacher Toolkit, the most widely read teaching blog in the UK, boasts 164,000 followers, while English teacher Alex Quigley is able to project his advice on topics such as Rethinking Assessment far beyond the remit of his department at Huntington School, to an audience of almost 30,000 on Twitter.

Here at the Teacher Development Trust, a national charity for effective professional development, social media is one of the key channels through which we are able to share up-to-date expertise and research findings with educators in all corners of the world, who otherwise would not be aware of developments happening in this area.

So, by all means, encourage your staff to sign up and join the conversation if they haven’t already. Twitter is undoubtedly an excellent resource for finding ideas, hearing about new research, being informed and potentially challenging preconceptions.

Networking with and following other teachers or school leaders online allows you to build your knowledge so that you have a larger bank of evidence-informed ideas. It can also help you to identify other practices in schools or upcoming ideas. This awareness of up-to-date practice an important part of a teacher’s professional learning.

That is not to say that using Twitter should replace existing “awareness-raising” activities, or undermine the value of teachers undertaking more traditional forms of CPD to discover new developments in teaching and learning. For instance, staff visiting a conference are able to meet other practitioners in person and share best practice beyond the bubble of their classroom or office.

Reading traditional forms of media such as educational magazines, supplements or journals, even online, increases the likelihood of accessing educational articles that are credible and unbiased, because in a digital age of “fake-news” and “click-bait”, Twitter is by no means exempt.

Similarly, as teachers cherry-pick who to follow in education based on where their views and opinions align, the Twitter homepage can very quickly become an echo-chamber rather than providing worthwhile exposure to a range of new ideas and approaches.

Allowing opportunities for critical thinking is crucial to every teacher’s CPD. Engaging directly with academic journals empowers staff to take ownership of their learning, ensuring that individual professional development is relevant and linked to pupil need and, when actively encouraged by senior leadership, can contribute to building a positive culture of trust in your context, avoiding “top-down” professional development.

It is important to recognise that awareness itself is only a small part of what makes good CPD. To have a real impact on the classroom and pupil outcomes, you need to engage in sustained and iterative practice, where you refine and adapt an evidence-informed idea to best meet pupil and curriculum needs.

That process takes time and will be made up of a number of different activities, including input, experimenting in the classroom, evaluating and reflecting, and then refining and improving.

It is something that is often facilitated through collaborative enquiry, lesson study and similar models, and cannot easily, if at all, be carried out entirely on one’s own.

A teacher should not be a lone ranger of CPD, they need whole-school structures, culture and resources to support them with the time, resource and expertise to develop their practice and to enable effective CPD in a school.

Another aspect of having a social media presence as an educator is the sense of engagement and motivation that comes with belonging to a community beyond the four walls of the school building.

In the Guardian piece, the author reveals this very sentiment, writing, “thanks to inspiring and generous teachers on the social media site, my passion for the job has been renewed”.

In the midst of a recruitment and retention crisis where the teacher workforce increasingly feels overworked and undervalued, this is presumably music to any headteacher’s ears. Yet social media cannot provide the remedy to a toxic school culture and for even the most avid tweeter, it is crucial to keep striving for a positive work climate in-house.
Ofsted’s most recent framework states that in outstanding schools, “leaders and governors have created a culture that enables ... staff to excel” and “leaders ensure that the school has a motivated, respected and effective teaching staff” through considering the “quality of CPD for teachers at the start and middle of their careers and later”.

It is hard to achieve, but when culture and wellbeing is prioritised, teachers and other school staff are more likely to stay, to engage and to be effective.

In isolation, Twitter will not help develop practice to impact on pupils, and for the most enthusiastic there is always a temptation to adopt every new idea or teaching fad going without taking the time to adapt and embed any of them over time.
Not everything shared on the Twittersphere is evidence-informed, either, so take caution and encourage your staff to be discerning consumers.

Twitter works best for teachers when they are able to use it as part of high-quality CPD provided and supported by their school. Your plan should carefully consider the use of time and ensure that activities are sustained, iterative and evaluated throughout the year rather than consisting of mainly one-off INSET days or twilight sessions.

CPD activities should also draw upon research evidence and external expertise to identify the most pressing issues and align with the most plausibly successful teaching approaches for your curriculum and pupil needs.

In many schools, a nominated “research champion” draws upon syntheses such as the Education Endownment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit, as well as banks of academic journals such as the TDT Network research library or a university library, so that teachers can then take forward ideas that are pertinent to specific classes or groups of learners, and then adapt and embed them into daily practice.

Powerful professional learning is so important, not only to help teachers thrive, but so that all pupils are able to access high-quality teaching to succeed in their school careers.

While social media does have a worthy place in supporting an enthused and passionate teaching profession, where you can truly make a difference as a school leader is in harnessing this engagement so that the impact is felt in the classroom and in pupil outcomes.

  • Maria Cunningham is a network officer at the Teacher Development Trust, a national charity for professional learning in schools. She is a former primary school teacher and supports schools across the TDT Network with developing their CPD processes.

Further information

To find out more about how the Teacher Development Trust could support your school, or to review the quality and culture of your current CPD provision, visit www.tdtrust.org/network

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