If you’re not on twitter, or never played on twitter, this post won’t do much for you. I’d recommend you skip it. Really. I’m writing it with the assumption that you know how twitter works, as a user.
The ridiculously funny Justin (@SchleiderJustin), the always thought provoking Rusul (@RusulAlrubail) and I were talking about managing our Twitter feeds, and it has exploded as Justin kicked off his week-long #slowchatPE discussion involving many other people. He asked, “How do you keep your PLN small enough to have personal contact but large enough to learn?”
Now, I tend to use the term PLN to mean post-lunch narcolepsy. But to teachers and educators, it means Professional Learning Network. I have always found this phrase fascinating – words have meaning. I can infer certain things about what a PLN should do, just from those three words, right? If this were an Army thing, I would flip open the corresponding field manual, go to the back, and read the definition first for Professional Learning Network, before going into the field manual to understand the corresponding doctrine.
Teaching and education do not have field manuals. There are some explosives, a few projectiles (often vomit and poop), but no field manuals. People use terms and phrases like this, catch as catch can. Two people can use the same phrase in the same conversation, and have it mean two different things. How do I know this?
I say this with confidence, as I am not a teacher, but I hang out with teachers. A lot of them. I am in their Professional Learning Networks. I am that wolf in sheep’s clothing, a parent who grazes the grass of twitter with them and talks about teaching and education. And I ask them questions, to include questions about their language. It’s a lot like being a sociologist.
I should also add that educators who talk about their Professional Learning Network, their PLN, do so on Twitter. And when they do so, they often do it in a way that is interchangeable with what could otherwise be described simply as the people they follow on twitter. “I love my PLN” could also read “I love the people I follow on Twitter.” “Today, my PLN gave me ideas for….” becomes “Today, the people I follow on twitter gave me ideas for…” (see footnotes below for a little bit more on this)
Which leads to one of the great debates about “having a PLN on twitter” (I cringe just writing that), and the source of the title for this post: having a few, or having many. So, let’s talk about that.
Let’s say that you add everyone into your twitter feed. You follow every great teacher and educator (and EVERY PARENT YOU SEE IN EVERY DAMN #EDCHAT EVER! HELLO? THEY’RE UNICORNS!), and take the advice of every #FF you’re tagged in, and listen to every #edchat moderator who reminds you, “OK, don’t forget to follow everyone who’s been great here!!!!” And, of course, you follow-back everyone who follows you, no matter what – the Plato bot who follows you, because you re-tweeted a Plato quote once, for example. In no time, you’ll find that you are following 3000 people/things on twitter, that your twitter feed itself is going faster than shit through a goose, and your “PLN” is rockin!
I call this the River Approach. With it, one has cast the net so wide, one could catch a Buick. Or a serial killer. Or a Plato bot. All of which, I fear, will do little for one’s profession or professional development (or personal development), or learning, or even networking. The argument, made by the world-famous Kory (@TritonKory) and others, is that in making the best river you can, you become the bear who can wade in and snatch out the awesome fish you need, at any time – you river is so teaming with life and goodness, it’s so plentiful, that it will nourish your every need.
There’s something of a catch to the River approach: you have to read a lot of your feed. You have to be invested in twitter, regularly, sifting through that river of yours. Maybe it’s less of a river, and more of an IV drip. Your spouse / significant other may call it your addiction.
Because the counter-argument that I and others make, is that a Professional Learning Network that big is more akin to panning for gold. There’s so much content, so much water in the river – more than one can actually read, more than one can actually sift through and ingest and make sense of on a daily, sustained basis – that the reality may actually be that you’re left taking in more in your twitter feed than a human can assimilate, and it’s an overload. And you’re left with the additional task of information management, too.
For this, the standard answer is, “Get Tweetdeck! Make lists!” which really means make sub-rivers of your giant river. Or, in essence, start over again by culling out people who are producing content that you specifically want to always read, and putting them into a separate place – alone, or with others. A list of principals you like, or a list of bloggers who write often, or a list of people who are funny, or who post pictures of cats. Instead of panning for gold, when the gold was neat bits of information to find, now you’re to the point of panning for gold, when those nuggets are people.
The Chat River
But there are other less overwhelming, seemingly less permanent ways to swim through an abundant river for a while: go spend more time in great chats, with great people that you don’t follow, and enjoy what they say in chats. (The definitive list of #edchats is here.)
#edchats are great and moderated (key!) discussions on oftentimes critical topics related to specific fields. And people tend to flock to their favorite ones, for the topics as much as the moderators or the community they draw. Great – find ones that work, see the same people on a regular basis, and energize your brain, work our issues, engage in lively debates that scratch some itch of yours – without polluting your twitter feed or polluting your river.
And because someone is a great conversationalist in a chat, does not mean that they have a lot of great things to say on their own on twitter. They may not be posting an original thought on twitter outside of chats. If you know who they are, and where and when to find them (because that’s how #edchats work – they’re scheduled), take comfort in knowing that if you want or think you need to follow up with someone specific, you can reach out to them any time, or you can even wait for the next chat. (Chat buddies are almost like drinking buddies. Shhhhh!)
I first wrote Gold Producers as this title, but Rick Rubin is a much better. There are people out there – on twitter, on the internet, in dark alleys and at #edcamp – who really are having deep thoughts and are producing some out of this world ideas. Much as Rick Rubin has done at Def Jam records, as I see it. People who write incredible blog posts. People who share incredible examples. People who are the complete package of ideas and the ability to communicate them.
These are often people one never gets to meet, but they produce gold. And when educators talk about their Professional Learning Network, this is the gray area – as I see it – when twitter, social media, and the web begins to cross over into actually being useful for just that, a Professional Learning Network.
If you’re looking for an example, go check out Ben Gilpin (@benjamingilpin). Take a look at the kinds of things about which he blogs, like this. Because that’s gold. He is on Twitter; he’s just not on twitter, going back and forth all day with the 6000 people following him. He has a job running an elementary school. But he’s truly producing gold.
And that’s awesome. That’s worth finding. Mine twitter, and add those people to your feed. Let your feed let you know when they are dropping #truthbombs or writing at length on topics that really matter – because teachers and the field of education need more of that, and less #rantchats about poorly planned and poorly executed faculty meetings.
What I do not hear educators talk about – EVER – is how their Professional Learning Network, or members of it, or the greater twitterverse supports their actual professional development goals.
Professional Development, PD, is baffling to me. People point at it like a Baby Ruth floating in a pool. As if it’s something someone else did, and something someone else should be responsible for – their admins, their union rep, someone somewhere else besides them.
I think that’s crap. In the course of your career, there actually is little that is more important that your professional development. If yo don’t manage it, it won’t happen. If you don’t think it through and chase after it, it’s not going to come to life.
If you’re going to use Twitter as your PLN, and your dream is to move into, say, admin because you have dreams of becoming a principal, you damn well had better being zeroing in on the best, brightest, and most amazing principals on twitter, and using every opportunity with them to advance that.
If your actual professional development goals include graduate school and advanced degrees, I do not understand why your twitter use does not include actions that move you in that direction.
And take that down to even more hands-on things: If your professional development goals include getting out of math and into tech, good grief…. do you see where this is going? I’m stopping now.
Coaching and Mentoring
And one last note, before the big shift in topics on Professional Learning Network. Twitter can be a great place to find, follow and engage people who can and will coach and mentor. Learning and growing in your profession – whatever that profession is – is a lifelong and career long process, so treat it as such. And coaching and mentoring need not happen over a table with a cup of coffee; today, it can be done half a world away. I strongly believe that the best of it is done informally.
Those are people for your twitter feed. That’s a great use of many forms of social media, and for a Professional Learning Network.
But what should a Professional Learning Network really be?
I have some strong feelings about this. Like I said, I am not a teacher, I am an Army guy.
Determine what you need. I know, I know – this sounds like a lot of hard work. I can tell you – it’s only had work if you do it. But determining first what you need from a Professional Learning Network will make it a hell of a lot better in actually building a Professional Learning Network. I think the same is said of cars.
And for that matter, it’s important to come back from time to time – ok, regularly – to review what it is you think you need. Because you change. The world changes, the environment in which you’re doing things changes.
If you really think that your professional development is important, put that much effort into it. Match your emphasis on your professional development with how much effort you put into it.
Don’t do it alone. Schools often assign formal mentors to first year teachers, but give serious thought to who you consider to be your current mentor or coach. (I prefer the term mentor, because of the Army doctrine on the subject.) And as you work to and refine your professional development requirements, do it with a mentor, or mentors.
A mentor requires trust. A mentor should be someone with whom you click. A mentor is also someone you really choose, once you’re past that first year of teaching. You want them for their advice, and their logic, for their experiences, and their judgement. You’ll want them because they’re available, and they’ll always take time and make time for the things that are really important – like figuring out what you really do need for a roadmap for your own professional development.
And they will probably say things like, “Well, I don’t know” before doing something like flipping over a napkin and starting to doodle out ideas and a roadmap for your professional development with you.
Match That to Time. Because once you have ideas where you’re going, or want to go, great – now you need to look at when you need to be where. And no, that’s not always a physical things. This is about milestones. This is about taking that roadmap and breaking it down into the pieces, that can be taken to their points and made into goals and events and become times or periods on a calendar.
If you don’t do this a lot now, don’t fret – it’s just your professional development we’re talking about. It’s not that big of a deal (that’s sarcasm). You have the rest of your life to deal with it and, oh yeah, remember that mentor or those mentors we were just talking about? Go talk to them about how to do this. And if they suck at it, it might be time to go find one who is great at it, because maybe this needs to become a professional development goal up front. But talk about it. Practice. Write notes, experiment, see how it works.
Because what you’re actually doing is adding in the ability to match what you want to do (the effect you want to have, in changing yourself professionally) with things you can now measure along the way.
Maybe you have 5 major things you want to develop in your life, and your math skills are one of them. And as you think through how to improve your math skills, you start sketching out how to do that over, say, the next three years. It’s a draft. Because as those things happen, you can and need to also ask yourself, are these things changing me in the way that I wanted them to?
Look for the Right People. And here’s where twitter and Professional Learning Network come back into play. If one of your goals for professional development is to improve your math skills, and your ability to teach math, then you’re going to have to bring in math people into your life. I say this, because you probably don’t know what you don’t know, and your plan to get better at math is probably flawed by your own inability to scope out what it will take to take you to the level you want to achieve in math awesomeness (whatever level that is).
Great. Go network, and go find those people. Bring them into your PLN. Get into one on one chats with them. Share your thoughts, your plans, your ideas, and use their expertise for this key and critical project. Because in this case, that is an awesome and truly applicable use of the Rest of the World Network to find you the right people to add to your Professional Learning Network for the people needed for this specific requirement that you have identified in your life.
Don’t settle for second-best on your PLN. Please.
Regarding “The People I Follow on Twitter.” There’s a second piece to this, and that’s how many followers one has, too. One can’t chose that. That just happens. Having lots of followers also helps, especially with getting help, or getting answers to questions. One can control how many people he/she chooses to follow, but can not control how many others chose to follow him/her.