Trick or Tweet?

by Robert Pondiscio
October 27th, 2009

Some months ago, I challenged teachers to give examples of good classroom uses of Twitter without using the term “engagement.”  In other words, is it possible to use the micro-blogging site to extend learning or create understanding in a superior way to other teaching methods?  It led to a lively discussion, but I’m not sure I ever heard a compelling answer.

Along comes a recent EdWeek look at classroom uses of Twitter, which describes how teachers “first found Twitter valuable for reaching out to colleagues and locating instructional resources. Now, they’re trying it out in the classroom as an efficient way to distribute assignments and to foster collaboration among students.”  Kathleen Kennedy Manzo’s piece also sounds a cautious and skeptical tone, noting the educational effectiveness of Twitter “or the implications those quick, short-form communications may have for students’ thinking and learning are not known.”

The piece reproduces a series of Tweets from an 11th grade history class in Virginia:

teacher From slavery 2 White House, Michelle Obama’s slave roots revealed. Comments please!
7:46 PM Oct 8th from web

student 1 @fhsush this is really shocking that they traced it back that far and found a tie it really just amazing
8:07 PM Oct 8th from web

student 2 @fhsush thats AMAZING. times have really changed. that is amazing that they can trace back that far.
8:11 PM Oct 8th from web in reply to fhsush

student 1 @fhsush WOW! i would have never guessed that. its awesome to see such a connections to slavery in our own White House. amazing
8:19 PM Oct 8th from web in reply to fhsush

I don’t wish to be unkind, but this is not exactly a riveting exchange for 11th graders, although to be fair, 140 characters is not a lot to work with unless you write headlines for the New York Post.   Lucas Ames, the history teacher in the above exchange apparently gives students the choice of “participating in the Twitter feed or writing an extra research paper.” (Somewhere Will Fitzhugh is clutching his chest and gasping for breath.)

“These students are not always sure about how to use the Internet to find and filter information, so this is forcing them to do that,” said Mr. Ames, who requires students to submit only school-related tweets. “It’s getting kids who aren’t necessarily engaged in class engaged in some sort of conversation.”

Manzo quotes Dan Willingham extensively in the piece.  His attitude seems more agnostic than skeptical. 

Like any other tool, the way we make it useful is to consider very carefully what this particular tool is very good at, rather than simply say, ‘I like Twitter, so how can I use it?’ ” said Mr. Willingham, who is the author of the new book, Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom.  “The medium is not enough,” he added. “People talk about the vital importance of Web 2.0 and 3.0, and that kids have got to acquire those skills. But we can’t all just be contributing to wikis and tweeting each other. Somebody’s got to create something worth tweeting.”

Having started out as a Twitter skeptic, I’ve warmed to it a little.  I’ve certainly found it helpful, as Manzo writes, as a way to share resources and keep up with what others are saying and reading.  But it’s not very satisfying for anything other than one-way communication—sending or receiving.   It’s the equivalent of scanning the headlines of the paper.  When something intrigues me, I need more than the headline offers.  Thus my challenge to describe a learning activity for which Twitter offers more than student engagement may be a fool’s errand.  In the end, that might be the alpha and omega of what Twitter is good at, per Willingham.  That’s not nothing.  But engagement isn’t learning–it’s a prerequisite to learning.


  1. Lucas Ames, the history teacher in the above exchange apparently gives students the choice of “participating in the Twitter feed or writing an extra research paper.”

    That is unbelievably sad.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — October 27, 2009 @ 1:11 pm

  2. Twitter is too limited. If an online conversation is sought, use This may be of value. I’m only used it lightly.

    For teacher/staff interactions, PRIVACY must be maintained. Use with private groups and with the use of tags such as #robertsmith for a student named Robert Smith. This serves as real-time record that is fast and easy. The teachers I work with find this useful, if they leave the tab or window open. Half don’t – limited skills.

    Comment by Dennis Ashendorf — October 27, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

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