I've come to think that I'm present (and participating) in another distortion field: the Twitter Distortion Field (TDF). Like Jobs' RDF, the TDF can be both good and bad. Here's how it works. You get on Twitter and instantly have access to a wide range of ideas and opinions; it constantly provides you new ideas to try in your school/classroom, as well as continually challenging your thinking about whether what you are doing in your school/classroom is worthwhile. In many ways, this is a wonderful thing. We should be learning from others, constantly questioning our practices, and trying to improve the teaching and learning going on in our schools.
But I was reminded this week of the negative side of this: the TDF can also make you feel like crap. Every time you get on Twitter the TDF reinforces the notion that you aren't doing a very good job, that everyone out there is doing wonderful, innovative, transformational things in their schools and with their students, and what you're doing is only slightly better than child abuse.
What reminded me of this is that earlier this week we had a visitor from a neighboring school district, and we observed some classes (including my Algebra class) and then had a great conversation about what he saw, as well as what we hoped for for our students. And it reminded me that we are doing some pretty good things in our school and, yes, even in my very own classroom.
That's not to say that we can't improve, or that there aren't some major shifts that I think need to happen, but I think the TDF can sometimes give a warped sense of reality. People typically share the best things that they are doing and you often don't have a good sense of how well it actually worked with students. Plus, at least in my case, my self-selected network tends to notice and reinforce the most radical shifts from the mainstream, akin to being a high school quarterback and always comparing yourself to the thirty-two starting quarterbacks in the NFL. Again, that's not all bad, as the high school quarterback can certainly learn a ton from the starting NFL quarterbacks, but it can also setup unrealistic expectations for the next high school game (or Algebra class).
As I was thinking about this this morning, I read Will Richardson's The Missing Layer post. Will quotes a New York Times piece about Michael Petrilli:
He recently conducted an analysis of Twitter and the tens of thousands of followers of Ms. Rhee, who is pro-charter, and Ms. Ravitch, who is anti-charter, and discovered that only 10 percent overlapped. Just as conservatives gravitate to Fox News and liberals to MSNBC to hear their preconceived notions and biases confirmed, Mr. Petrilli speculates that those in education are now preaching solely to the converted, a phenomenon known in the media world as “narrowcasting.”Will's bigger point is whether either "side" is even talking about what learning should look like in today's world, and that's an important point, but I'm going to focus for a minute on Mr. Petrilli's research. Now, I'm prone to see connections where there aren't any so perhaps this is a stretch, but I connected it to my musings about the TDF. Because as I read about the "only 10 percent" of Twitter followers of Ms. Rhee and Ms. Ravitch who overlapped, my first response was: Who cares?
Worse, in Mr. Petrilli’s view, those who follow Ms. Rhee tend to describe themselves in their Twitter profiles as policy makers or otherwise removed from the immediate realities of the classroom, while Ms. Ravitch’s devotees are typically self-identified practitioners: principals and teachers on education’s front lines. Surely these folks should be talking to one another, but in Mr. Petrilli’s experience, they often aren’t.
That's not to say that "narrowcasting" or "echo chamber" aren't real concerns (although I've talked about that before), but I wonder how much weight we can give to statistics involving who follows whom on Twitter. As I think about my own school which I believe - as indicated above - is doing some very good things but also think needs to be radically transformed, I couldn't help wondering what the 115 or so teachers at my school would think about this story.
My guess is that most of those 115 teacher would know who Michelle Rhee is, simply because she's had a fair amount of exposure in mainstream media (newspapers, Time Magazine, 60 Minutes, network news shows). I would guess a much smaller number of them would be familiar with Diane Ravitch, as she has not had as much play in those same media outlets. But in both cases I think the first major reaction from them would also be, "Who cares?"
I could very well be wrong, but I think they'd say that because they see very little that they can do about it. They feel powerless to influence this debate, and powerless to really make any changes to the system. And it's hard to blame them, as you look at the past week here in Colorado and you see this guest column in the Denver Post advocating for vouchers (which follows up the Post's naming of DCSD School Board President John Carson as a "top thinker in education"), it's announced that the Colorado Department of Education has hired the CEO of KIPP Colorado to head it's Division of Innovation, Choice and Engagement, and we spent our PLC time on Wednesday (at least in the Math Department) trying to realign our courses with the Common Core State Standards.
So teachers (including myself) resort to the practical, given these constraints (like the CCSS Math Standards), and try to figure out what we can we do to make this the best it possibly can be for our students. We don't feel like we can really change the constraints, so we focus on making the best of it (and rightly ignoring the crazy tech guy in the Math Department PLC meeting who teaches one section of Algebra and has his cranky pants on - sorry Math Department folks).
And that brings me back to the Twitter Distortion Field. I think that for many of us on Twitter, we see the disconnect between what some people are doing (or say they are doing) on Twitter, and the reality of our own schools, and we begin to feel hopeless (okay, maybe that should be "I" begin to feel hopeless). But I think we need to keep in mind that Twitter may not be an accurate reflection of reality, and that while the TDF can inspire and impel us toward some of those transformational changes many of us are hoping for, we shouldn't simultaneously denigrate some of the very good things we are doing day-to-day with our students right now, even if they are within the constraints of a flawed system.
So next time you're on Twitter and see a wonderful lesson idea from another classroom, or hear about a school that's doing things you can barely dream of, don't feel like what you're doing is crap. Learn from that classroom and that school, try to incorporate those ideas and improve your own practice, but always remember that the TDF most likely doesn't completely reflect reality, and don't let it distort the reality of the very good things that are likely already happening in your own classroom.