Saturday, February 02, 2013

The Twitter Distortion Field

People used to say that Steve Jobs was able to create a Reality Distortion Field when he spoke. He had the ability to convince those around him to believe in just about anything, which was both good (they were motivated to achieve things they thought they couldn't) and bad (Jobs would sometimes recall events differently than others did - some might call that lying).

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.”

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.
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?

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.


  1. I totally get what you're saying about the Twitter distortion field. I blogged a while back about something along the same lines:

    In other words, when we see paragons of innovation daily in our online learning networks, it's hard not to compare to what we're (probably) not seeing at home. As you said, we need to take a learning stance on all of this...

    You also took a different angle on this, Karl, which is somewhat of a political / policy angle. On that front, I definitely understand why educators might retreat or feel hopeless. But the answer to 'solutions' imposed from outside policymakers and advocacy groups is to stand together (like the Garfield High teachers in Seattle or the Chicago teachers union). If we don't, we'll get the 'solutions' that others devise for us. That political and policy work is difficult, frustrating, and time-consuming, but also necessary.

    1. Scott, I generally agree about the idea of standing together, but I don't think it's quite that simple for most people. For example, you mentioned the CTU, but the district I live in (and my wife teaches in) recently effectively eliminated the union by simply refusing to negotiate (that's the school board President the Denver Post named a "top thinker" in education) and did away with the collective bargaining agreement. This was in a high performing district that had always had a great, collaborative relationship with the union.

    2. I'm sorry. I'm afraid we have many fights - on many different fronts - ahead of us, my friend.

    3. These are oscillation points also. I can't do anything I have to stand for my and my student's rights.

  2. Interesting concept: the Twitter Distortion Field ...

    As inspired as I get by interacting with my PLN, I sometimes feel like I'm behind the curve - or more to the point, my school, colleagues, and I are really missing the boat. I oscillate between two extremes: (1) thinking we're doing our best to constantly improve and (2) we're stagnant and therefore "falling behind." The reality, of course, is somewhere in between.

    Having said this, however, I wish more of my colleagues were active on Twitter.

    The net effect of my "TDF oscillations" has certainly been better for my students. It's thinned the walls (so to speak) of my classroom and encouraged me to reflect on my efforts and truly collaborate (and create) with other professionals - all so-called 21st Century chic - or as a colleague and good friend of mine calls it, "appropriately modern learning."

    Great post, thank you Karl.

    1. Ryan, I agree and I hope I was clear in my post that I think there are many positives to be gained from PLN's. But I think it can be disheartening for many folks because of the natural inclination of humans to compare ourselves, and I think that is a danger.

      As to getting more colleagues active on Twitter, good luck - I think that's a hard sell for most folks.

    2. Hi Karl

      I am interested in your comment "As to getting more colleagues active on Twitter, good luck - I think that's a hard sell for most folks." Have you blogged about the process of becoming a connected learner and/or the process by which teachers discover the value of connection? How do we find ways past "the hard sell"?

      Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this,

    3. Julie - I don't think I have ever blogged specifically about that. I think it's a hard sell because of 1) time, 2) the feeling of having no control over anything so why bother, 3) not seeing the value in it.

      I've attempted to address #3 in my own building, but mostly unsuccessfully.

  3. Part of the problem, as I see it, is trying to change the way that we play a game that has a very rigid rule structure. The newspaper sports section gives me the final results of the game, showing that our team won with a score of 2 - nil, but doesn't show that the other team had some amazing plays on the field and played much better. Our team practiced goal scoring and after our playing days were over, we went on to other things. The people on the other team -- they became coaches.
    The point, if this obtuse sports analogy can be said to have one, is that innovative teaching, and important learning (collaboration, creation, inquiry and experimentation) are not being measured or valued by the current rule structure. That is why, at our dept. meetings, we are all struggling to align best practices with the things that will help students succeed in an outdated model.

  4. Yup! It's a shame when good people who are doing good things start to feel like they suck at what they are doing. The TDF and the BDF (Blog Distortion Field) works much the same way. Thanks for the reminder to all that we need to be less judgmental and more supportive of each other's situations.

  5. I like the idea of focusing on what we do that makes a difference, and feeling a "just right" amount of motivation to continue to use others' ideas. I'm one of those people who gets overwhelmed by the great ideas via twitter! Thanks.

  6. I think you hit on a really important idea and something for all of us to remember as we read our feeds day after day. It isn't reality. Period. I mean how many people tweet about a piece of technology blowing up while thirty students stare and laugh? Or the server going down in the middle of an engaging lesson? It's just not stuff we read about on Twitter.

    My question then is how do we teach those that do want to get on to Twitter to navigate the "playing with the NFL quarterbacks" and still learn something from their PLNs? As you write, and I agree, our PLNs have awesome things to share, but there is a fine line between learning and being overwhelmed. Especially for people that are very new to the Twitter world. Thoughts?

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Randon - I don't know. I hate to say that, but I really don't know.

  7. Sounds like there may be some fixed mindset vs growth mindset issues here (

    I bet the coach of the Kansas City Chief (worse record) is not telling his player to turn off the super bowl so they don't "feel like crap."

    Do you think TDF is a teacher thing? Do you think other fields have a TDF? Apply this post to scientists, artists, or musicians...

    There is some neat research on "echo chambers" and how they actually help people to become more motivated to change and grow.

    And last random point :) I love having unrealistic is what drives me forward each day. Research shows that people who are depressed have the most realistic expectations...not ready to be depressed yet! Geez...if I woke up with realistic expectations for my school system each day I could not continue...

    1. Paul, I don't know if it's so much a fixed vs. growth mindset thing, as it is an empowerment thing. The Kansas City Chiefs will draft first next year, and they probably feel like they have some control over their destiny. I think many (most?) teachers don't feel that way. Not necessarily saying that's right, but I think that's the general feeling.

      And, by the way, you do know the coach of the Chief's got fired, right? :-)

    2. There has got to be something about teachers' reaction to feeling a lack of empowerment. I honestly feel as though I have no say in my school system. I have zero power, zero control over my destiny, and next year will have so much less as I get prepackaged units and final products handed to me. It is that total lack of control that drives me to figure out how to subvert the system and still stay employed.

      I do wonder if when teachers are hired we select for those that feel this way. Admins would not want to hire teachers who feel empowered, that would threaten their authority. You have heard this before, teachers were kids who were good little boys and girls who followed the rules and so therefore don't fight the "man" after being hired but instead fall in line and complain in the faculty room. Because admims, bds of eds, ed-reformers, etc, know teachers won't fight back they feel free to keep taking power...

      I fight back in my own personal space (classroom), but I draw the line at my walls. I don't fight outside my walls for fear of death.

      I know, kind of diverting from the point of your post, but ya got me thinking...

  8. I see very few tweets or posts about how something we tried failed in the classroom. None of us like to admit when we fail. We all love a winner.

    I will be presenting a session a week from Wednesday a session on using video to record student reflections in the classroom. While I got the program going and it was working for a while, eventually it petered out and now it isn't being done in my classroom. I failed to find a way to make it work in a sustainable way. I had to send the session idea in before school started. I never would have submitted it in October or later.

    Now my session will be two fold, the first explaining how I implemented it and showing the tools I used. The second will be a deconstruction of the failure of implementation on my part. You can probably imagine I am not looking forward to it. Honestly it would be much easier to just not talk about it, I have enough good examples that I could easily fill the time slot with but that would not be honest. How many others on Twitter or who blog would do the same? I don't know the answer but I suspect not enough.

    1. Throughout history the things that are most common are never recorded...maybe that is why failure is not publicized? I assume everyone does so I usually skip it. So new idea for post..."This project sucked."

    2. Failure isn't publicized until you become famous and then it is over-publicized. If we can learn from success, we can learn from failure too. While I don't think we should embrace failure, we should embrace the fact failure happens and be willing to discuss it.

    3. Last edcampnj I went to had a session all about failing as a teacher...awesome session...not very well attended :)

    4. Maybe if the session was about cool tools that failed....

  9. Karl,
    Thanks for this thoughtful post. It reminded me of some of the "group think" ideas in Carol Dweck's "Mindset" book. I know I sometimes live too much in the "Twitter Distortion Field," and need to both pop the "filter bubble," and remember that sometimes other factors(Common Core, High Stakes tests) take precedence over tech integration ideas.
    Thanks for keeping me grounded.

  10. Hi Mr. Fisch,
    I am Jana Sharpe from The University of South Alabama. This is the second blog of yours I have read and I just want to say I love them! I feel like your writing something I would never think of, but agree completely with. I think your making the point of take some things on twitter, "with a grain of salt." Meaning grow from other people's ideas and reflect on them but most likely there even a bit exaggerated. I love the point you made about teachers going on strike! If they want things changed for their students, a strike is not the right way. Let them learn!

  11. I've been "chewing" on this post for a while. I agree with the things you state about Twitter, and that's one of the reasons I seek out people with whom I vehemently disagree.

    The piece that I feel you tapped into that warrants more discussion, however, is why are the people teaching so powerless? What has gone wrong with our systems that teachers are basically doing only what they're told to do? Why do we have leaders that lead by force, instead of by example? It's no wonder our kids can't make decisions. Their teachers are not allowed to do that, either. Shared ownership/responsibility/accountability -- all of that is gone.

    The bigger question is this: what is it going to take for the teachers in this country to take back their classrooms? When will teachers stop doing what they know is NOT best for kids?

    I know that's easy for me to ask, and I already know the answer from most teachers. They're not in a place financially to stand up and take the risk. How can we all change that, so that we do what we know is best for kids?

  12. Thanks Karl. I beat myself up daily when I spend time with my PLN - blogs, wikis, tweets, Google+ communities, ETMOOC, etc - when I see all they are doing and feeling like I am always behind the 8 ball! However, I trudge along because I have grown tremendously from the collective wisdom!

    In response to you and Julie, I can't help but think that we - at least I - still haven't figured out the "magic bullet" for promoting PLNs for our teachers. In our district, it is becoming about the ONLY way to expand your learning as everyone is tutoring afternoons and no money for some other models of PD. I wish we could take some of the sit-and-get required PD time to allow teachers to explore what is out there! (I know I'm not sharing anything we don't all know.)