Hash-tag heads have every reason to join the twitterati

Social networking offers invaluable opportunities to tap into a global community of like-minded leaders

I joined Twitter 100 days ago today. There - it's out in the open. I had put it off for nearly three years, as I thought it was either a vehicle for shadowing celebrities, or a mindless activity in which people spent their time telling each other what they had for breakfast.

How wrong I was! In fact, the title of this piece could just as easily have been (with apologies to the Ettrick Shepherd) "Confessions of an unjustified sceptic".

For in the intervening period I've come to realise that Twitter is actually a unique learning resource. By discovering others throughout the world who share a passion for education, tracking their thoughts, following their links, and engaging in productive conversations - I have been inspired, challenged and professionally invigorated.

I am now following teachers, school principals, education managers, superintendents, and policy-makers in Scotland, Finland, USA, Canada, Singapore, China, India, Australia, and many other countries around the globe. In no more than 140 characters, these people are able to point to resources, places, research, articles, and share something of their own challenges, ideas, solutions and successes.

I first started using social media in 1997, when I was part of an online research community. To find that there were others around the world struggling with the same issues made a huge difference to my work at that time. Since then, I've continued to use social media networks, more particularly a blog as a secondary school headteacher, a learning log as a head of education and then director, and most recently my Twitter account.

I think I've only come to realise how important such engagement is to me in my leadership role in the past year, when I decided to take a year abstaining from social media of any kind.

So what did I find out from my year out? First, I missed the opportunity to reflect upon my work and being able to try to make sense of my world and share and check that meaning out with others. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I missed the chance to learn from others.

On reflection, it was a year without learning. I did my job, I solved problems, I led the service, but I'd go so far as to say that I didn't learn - and without learning we are not professionals.

The underlying question which remains for me is that if such a discipline can make such a difference to me in my role as an educational leader, how might it benefit colleagues in similar roles? And I would include teachers in this.

The bottom line here is that the decision to engage in social media must always lie with the individual, but ironically one of the safety valves that could make a difference to an overworked and stressed profession is to begin to develop a routine which includes moments of public reflection and sharing one's practice.

For such practice to extend beyond the technically passionate, the early adopters and the professionally curious requires people in leadership positions to lead by example, yet all too often we conform to the old teachers' adage - "don't do as I do, do as I say". It's difficult to work out exactly why this is the case and it must be something to do with the fear that we may be perceived by our employees and employers to be wasting our time on something which perhaps appears to be peripheral to the "serious" business of management.

Consider the reaction from the press when it was "discovered" that Sir Peter Housden, Scotland's top civil servant, kept a regular blog. One headline read "How to talk mandarin (even if it is drivel)". Is it any wonder that leaders in any field are reticent about expressing their thoughts in public if the press appears to be waiting to pounce?

This may explain why it is that when educational leaders in Scotland have attempted to use social media, it has all too often been in a secure space, where their collective thoughts are held within an "echo chamber", where others not of their ilk are to be kept out.

The second obstacle is the legitimate concern that many leaders just don't feel they have the time available to engage in anything new and possibly tangential to their central function. This concern will only be overcome if leaders are able to see that social media can actually allow them to achieve their goals in an even more effective and time-efficient manner than their current practice - if it doesn't, it shouldn't be used.

Nevertheless, for all that lack of confidence - and concerns about time are powerful disincentives to using social media - the most significant barrier is the way in which we think about communication itself. For most Scottish educational leaders have been brought up within a highly hierarchical system in which communication is typically in the linear vertical plane and just as frequently controlled by others.

However, that world is changing as we move from a controlled, linear view of communication to more distributed and dynamic networks, where the notion of control gives way to transparency, true engagement and creative dialogue, regardless of position.

Perhaps a good starting point to promote more extensive use of social media might be for educational leaders to adopt the adage: "Don't do as I say, do as I do".

Don Ledingham is director of education and children's services in East Lothian.

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