Twitter’s herd instinct may isolate us from new ideas

15th July 2016 at 00:00
On social media, a 50,000 followership is enough to make one person’s views appear more valid than others

When David Jones was appointed headteacher of a school in Southport, he was advised to open a Twitter account.

“I’m not very technical,” the head of Meols Cop High School said. “I didn’t have a bloody clue how it worked. I did the game of following people who’d shown an interest in what we were doing. Or looking at the people I was following and seeing who was following them.”

This, an academic argues, is exactly what is wrong with how the education world approaches Twitter.

Susan Graves, a senior research fellow at Edge Hill University, has been analysing the social media site – including who follows whom – and speaking to headteachers about how they use it. At the British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society conference last weekend, Dr Graves questioned whether Twitter was the revolutionary professional-development tool that many teachers believe it to be.

In fact, she argued that Twitter reinforces teachers’ pre-existing beliefs, while encouraging them to think that they are gaining in-depth understanding of issues.

“Twitter is almost a requirement for headteachers now,” she said. “There is a feeling that, if they aren’t on social media, then they are missing out. But everyone seems to follow the same people. They chose those people because they already had a profile on social media. They’d be tweeted and retweeted.

“Does that mean that people rise to the fore not because of the quality of their ideas, but because they’re able to market their ideas in a way that chimes with social media?”

This is something that Geoff Barton, head of King Edward VI School in Suffolk, who is followed by more than 33,000 people on Twitter, recognises. “I’ll go to a conference and someone will come over to me and say, ‘I follow you on Twitter’,” he said. “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say to that. ‘Well done on your choice’?

“I’m not sure that any thought goes into it at all, other than that someone sometimes says something a bit quirkily interesting. I love it when someone posts a picture of a kitten jumping out of a basket. It cheers me up.”

Tom Sherrington, head of Highbury Grove School in North London, who has more than 40,000 Twitter followers, agrees. “If somebody’s got 72 followers, you’d be less likely to follow them than if they’ve got 72,000,” he said. “If they’ve got 72,000 followers, people think they must be saying something worth listening to. So there’s definitely an effect of snowballing. You don’t evaluate the quality of what they’re saying.”

The popularity of Twitter has coincided with an increased emphasis on evidence-based classroom practice.

Dr Graves also believes the social-media site appeals because it appears to offer a simple solution to a difficult task. “The information is all there, at your fingertips,” she said. “If you’re a busy headteacher and educational research is another thing you’re being asked to look at, then you’d be looking for the easiest, quickest way to do that.”

Rapid access to information

This is something that Mr Barton also recognises. “I realised that Twitter was a very good way of quickly seeing something,” he said. “But I like to think that, as the son of a librarian, I spend my time thinking, ‘Is this reliable? Is this well sourced?’”

However, Dr Graves points out, because teachers often follow people who their friends and colleagues recommend, they tend to see only those tweets – including research – that reinforce what they already believe.

“When we did some tracking on Twitter, we found that people do tend to follow someone who has similar ideas to them, or someone who they already knew,” she said. “It was colleagues who they trusted who advised them to go on Twitter. So that raises the question: where’s the challenge? Where are the people who have ideas that you haven’t thought of before?”

Mr Jones at Meols Cop agrees that he tends to follow people whose ideas he likes. “I follow researchers to find out what they’re up to,” he said. “I think some people may well shout loud because they might have a book out. But an idea’s an idea. If something’s worth reading or thinking about, then it doesn’t really matter where it’s come from, does it?”

Mr Sherrington points out that, in the days before Twitter, he once had an article rejected from a teaching-union magazine on the grounds that the majority of members would disagree with what he was saying.

“There’s more debate than there was before, even though there’s also quite a lot of people backslapping and saying ‘yeah, fantastic’ on Twitter,” he said.

Besides, Mr Jones argued, Twitter is just one professional tool among many.

“It’s a bit like telly,” he said. “You can turn it off if you’re not interested.”

@adibloom For more on teachers and Twitter, read The Secret CEO’s column on page 23

How to use Twitter wisely

See it as a signposting tool, rather than a source of information in and of itself.

Always seek out the original research underpinning the ideas being discussed.

Discuss what you learn in the virtual world with trusted colleagues in the non-virtual world.

Be discerning about who you follow to avoid being overwhelmed by information.

Consider following trusted persons and professional organisations.

Remember that a person’s follower total is not necessarily an indication of quality.

Check where tweets originate – some prolific Twitter users simply retweet other people’s comments.

Remember to consider the context in which ideas are being discussed.

Do not be afraid of asking questions and engaging people in conversation.

Look for information about how research being tweeted might be implemented practically in the classroom.

Approach it with a healthy dose of scepticism.

Source: Susan Graves and Alexis Maria Moore, Edge Hill University

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