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.