Social Media Can’t Save Education

5 May

Has anyone seen my phone?

I love dogs. My most cherished childhood memories are of walking on the West Pennine Moors with my granddad and his dogs (and later mine) ranging around us. We rarely talked or saw others, but I learned a lot. There was a deep feeling of stillness and peace as we walked and connected with nature while eating Nuttall’s Mintoes. He’d tell me the common names of plants, share some local history or tell me a joke that made us giggle.

That deep connection with the countryside and dogs drew to me to Tweedhope in Scotland and Border Collie breeder and trainer Viv Billingham’s farm during a trip to the UK. Sheepdog trials are popular the world over, as trainers use their dogs to collect and move flocks of sheep around a field against the clock. Viv is a sheepdog trial “rock star”, was featured on TV and represented Scotland in international dog trails.

We arrived in Tweedhope on a sunny afternoon (yes, it gets sunny in Scotland) and found the farmhouse nestled in the glens and looking exactly as it should. Viv spoke about the breeding and training of border collies and put some of the dogs through their paces in an exhibition.

She explained that she doesn’t start training any dog until after it’s first year. It takes a year for the dog’s personality to emerge. Once she knows who the dog is she can know how best to work with it and for what roles it is best suited. This was my first encounter with differentiated, individualized learning and I still use those ideas when I work with students. I try to get to know students first and then  work with their personalities and strengths.

When the exhibition was over Viv invited us in for a cup of tea and some biscuits. Inside were a litter of Border Collie pups, about 3 or 4 weeks old, and I asked about their future. Viv explained that they were all destined to be working dogs.

I wondered about border collies as pets (my grandfather had owned one, the beloved ‘Floss’) and Viv vigorously shook her head. Border Collies need lots of vigorous exercise to stay healthy, not only physically but mentally healthy. They are bred for work and if they don’t work they become “unbalanced”. Sheepdogs that don’t herd sheep obsess about herding other things, like children, nipping at their heels to get them to move. They become fixated on an object, for example a ball or passing cars, as a proxy for the real stimulation they need. However they respond, it isn’t healthy, and the dogs become anxious and unmanageable.

When I see how we use social media in education I’m reminded of sheepdogs that aren’t herding. In the absence of real human connection we fixate on social media as a proxy, and become obsessive and neurotic.

Students show an unhealthy connection to electronic devices and connections. The epidemic of teens and distracted driving is just one illustration of how serious this fixation has become. If controlling a heavy machine full of flammable liquid at high speeds doesn’t make you put away your phone and pay attention, what will?

Educators also show an unhealthy preoccupation with social media and electronic devices. It’s a central topic at most education conferences and it’s common to hear advocates impatiently wondering why every teacher isn’t on Twitter and “what do we have to do to get them there?”. The suggestion is that by getting educators to use social media our education system will magically improve and the factors limiting student learning will disappear.

Social media is a useful tool for educators but it isn’t the panacea some suggest. It’s the old “correlation not causation” maxim. Excellent, motivated and thoughtful educators are on social media, but social media doesn’t make them that way. Those qualities lead them to social media and make it useful for them.

Disinterested and disengaged educators on social media won’t change things. The same inspiring educators that use social media work every day alongside disconnected and ineffective educators. If that doesn’t change them getting a tweet with a link won’t.

The success of any problem solving strategy is contingent on the conditions of the problem. We don’t use the same strategy to reach all students, so why would one tool (social media) be the right lever for all educators?

Social media can’t save education. It’s a useful proxy but we forget that the real relationships we have with students and colleagues every day are the ones that really matter. When we feel unsupported professionally and emotionally, social media is a terrific way to extend our reach and get more support. But social media will never overshadow the significance of real relationships. If the goal is to support other educators in moving forward our energies are better spent on real relationships, those powerful face to face connections we have with others.

After all, that’s what we’re bred for.

13 Responses to “Social Media Can’t Save Education”

  1. kmcr097 May 5, 2013 at 1:32 pm #

    So true! I think we often fixate on things that a couple of teachers are doing successfully and say “If everyone just did this, everything would be better!” I’ve seen teachers use social media really successfully, and some just use it for the sake of using it, with the children learning nothing. It’s easy to forget that just as every student learns differently, every teacher teaches differently, and we need to embrace that.

  2. Louise Robitaille May 5, 2013 at 5:27 pm #

    I agree with the above…it’s differentiation for teachers. SM is a connection with a larger community and opens doors…but can also close them if people feel excluded. As educators, how do we keep a balance in everything we do?

  3. Fred Galang (@NomadCreatives) May 5, 2013 at 5:43 pm #

    “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

    Social Media is simply a tool for communication. Much like Malcolm Gladwell’s piece in the New Yorker, “The Revolution cannot be Tweeted”, SM is not going to save education. This kind of reminds me of a typical parent teacher night (I’m speaking as a HS teacher). During those nights, most of my colleagues myself included, long to speak for parents of students who are far less successful in their academic pursuits (those needing additional support). Those are the parents that such event is truly designed for. Of course, we’re more than happy to speak to Tommy’s involved parents and gleefully discuss his 93% average but again, P/T nights can do more.

    I find SM tends to be the same. The teachers that are eager and long for some PD and external connection will be on some form of SM (and connecting with other like-minded educators). Others that could benefit from it may not find it useful and they stay away. Here’s the tricky part though. Just because a teacher is on SM, doesn’t guarantee that they’re good, caring educators. Conversely, those who are not on, or lurk, or quietly take notes during edcamps and conferences could be awesome game-changers. I know quite a bit of those types too. One size does not fit all.

  4. rajalingam May 5, 2013 at 6:10 pm #

    I agree. This was the foundation of my “are we too precious about the ont tag?” tweet. I think *we* often forget that there are something in the order of 115,000 teachers in Ontario. There are no where near that amount actively using SM, so the idea that SM represents the views of teachers is, hmm, unproved at best. Although I see the value in connections made through this medium, most teachers receive their knowledge, ideas and support in some face-to-face manner.

    Paraphrasing both Louise and Fred… if we – or any given education corporation 😉 – are seeking THE solution we are going to end up missing many teachers. And the children they teach.

    My interest would be in how we connect teachers with ideas, resources and people. Not in connecting them through one service. MySpace anybody?


  5. rodmurr May 5, 2013 at 8:43 pm #

    Great analogy Andrew!
    “Plan relationships, not lessons.”

  6. SStewart May 5, 2013 at 10:48 pm #

    Good read, good points, good conversation starter, Andrew! Thanks for sharing your insights and thoughts on this. We need such reality checks. It is easy to get confused about what we are using social media FOR. Your post reminded my of a post I wrote with questions (and hope) about how social media could make a difference. I don’t think every educator must use it, but I have been wondering about expectations that may be on those who do now.
    My bit:

  7. Stepan Pruchnicky (@stepanpruch) May 5, 2013 at 11:09 pm #

    I think what I’m reading is provide a “variety of opportunities for teacher PD”… I’m just wondering what that would look like.

    I get what you’re saying with regards to social media, but I really do think that it does provide differentiated learning. Users choose who they connect with, what they read, what they watch. When explaining SM to my dad, I said it was like a newspaper. You pick out the sections that you want. Sometimes you’ll read a lot, sometime you’ll skim. Sometimes you only look at the pictures. Sometimes you don’t look at it at all. It’s not perfect, but I think it’s a way better opportunity than PD that school boards force on teachers.

    I also get that “newspapers”/SM aren’t for everyone. Some people don’t care. (That sounds so negative, but I hope you know what I’m getting at… they’re not jerks; they just don’t thirst for learning.) I also agree wholeheartedly that people looking to connect with others and learn from others can do it in so many ways… But if it wasn’t for a slightly forceful/encouraging set of hands, I never would have started using social media for learning…. and it has been so wonderful for me. It has also lead me to meet (f2f) lots of great new people.

    I think I’ll have to sit with this one and think about it lots.

    Great post Andrew.

  8. Glen Thielmann May 6, 2013 at 10:13 pm #

    Great points in the post and comments. SM definitely seems to fulfill some needs among educators… need to connect, to get fresh PD from outside local confines, to feel accepted or be heard, to have professional conversations, to elevate or tear down, to express joy, fear, anger, and discovery, to provoke, argue, and pontificate, etc. Traditionally, these needs would be fulfilled by families, friends, and colleagues, not by strangers, but in our frenetic society we take what we can get. As you suggest, some enter this “needs contract” and both derive and offer benefit (in balance), and yet for others, particularly our students, it forms a neurosis and prevents deep fulfilment of any of the needs. I’m not saying anything new here, you’ve done this so well in your post, but I think champions of SM need to be reminded that not everyone needs or can handle this pace without cost to existing relationships and healthy offline living. For every awesome connection between educators on twitter, there are 100 banal comments, eduspeak cliches, and see-through political stabs. In between are the myriad lists and links that entice the curious and have stolen many hours that I should have spent with real people! I suppose this makes a case for getting better at using SM, but it also shows that it is not for everybody. I like SM the way I like gourmet appetizers, tasty and intriguing but rarely filling.

  9. lisamnoble May 7, 2013 at 7:24 am #

    There was a line here that made me want to stand up and cheer, but it’s what’s been running around my brain for the last little while. “Excellent, motivated and thoughtful educators are on social media, but social media doesn’t make them that way. Those qualities lead them to social media and make it useful for them.” Social media has also helped me find and connect with more of them than I would have found through traditional P.D., or by working in my bricks and mortar buidling, and that has been a huge eye-opener

    For me, it’s about critical thinking, more than it is about social media. The two fit together really well, I think, but I could do the one without the other.


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