If time travel was possible, do you believe that a teacher from 2015 could handle being sent back to teach in a one-room schoolhouse from the 1800’s? When I think about that question and consider the different sociocultural contexts of that era, I am convinced that a teacher from today could not do the job. Regardless of the training that current teachers receive before entering the classroom in comparison to teachers from the 1800’s(which for many meant just completing school themselves), our dependence on technology to drive instruction, and society’s current viewpoint on the purpose of public education would make it difficult for a twenty-first century educator to do the job. While the above factors would make it difficult for a twenty-first century teacher like myself, there is one concept that is central to current instructional practice that due to its non-existence in the past, would lead to a current teachers demise: collaboration. Teachers today take for granted the ability to work with other teachers in designing lessons, evaluating student work, and supporting each other either in person or just a click away. For the Kansas teacher whose nearest school and teacher might have been fifty miles away, that individual faced a lonely world that a 2015 teacher would struggle to imagine.
Professional Learning Networks (PLN’s) have been defined as communities of educators working together collaboratively to improve instructional practices with the desired goal of increasing student achievement. While this is a general summary of the basic purpose of a PLN, the concept is much more in-depth. Education World defines the purpose of PLN’s as “a focus on continuous improvement” and “staff involvement of intense reflection upon instructional practices and desired student benchmarks.” Professional Learning Networks do not exist to just allow teachers to meet and share ideas, they are groups formed by teachers who are united by wanting to find solutions to two questions: What is missing in my instructional practices and how can I change my practice to increase student performance? PLN’s require teachers to critically examine their own practices, which is difficult due to how personal teaching is to teachers, and share their weaknesses with colleagues in search of constructive criticism for improvement. It is not easy to reveal weakness; as humans we never want to appear vulnerable, but in order for us to change our actions as teachers, we have to move our accountability from the individual to the collective group. The author of the Education World article identifies the work of PLN’s as a cycle that PLN’s must move through (often repeating steps) but once completed, PLN’s can change the culture of a school.
PLN”s are not new developments in educational practice. Teachers have always talked among themselves about what they do in their classrooms and exchanged ideas with fellow teachers. What we see that now defines PLN’s is how teachers make these connections outside of their school, their district, and even their country. Social media has been the strongest influence in how teachers connect and share with each other. Today with applications such as Twitter, Google+, and Facebook, teachers are connecting with teachers who they have never met in person but yet consider them to be close colleagues and sources of inspiration. By far, Twitter has been one of the most commonly utilized resources for teachers to form PLN’s. In 140 characters or less, teachers are sharing links, posing questions, and encouraging each other from around the world. This has truly become a tool that transcends countries, content areas, and languages. Twitter can also be applauded for being a tool that with practice, is relatively simple to use regardless of technology proficiency. Brianna Crowley in an article for Ed Week outlines three simple steps to guide teachers in how to create a twitter PLN that is both beneficial and customized for your own personal needs and interests as a teacher.
The most effective use of Twitter by a teacher that I have observed so far is my Foreign Language Methods instructor, Karen Tharrington. Through Twitter, she has found and contributed to a community of world language teachers who share a common goal for what they want to help their students achieve and created a community for support and personal reflection. Mrs. Tharrington uses Twitter to share links with her followers as well as to ask questions and answer questions. This week I had the opportunity to see this in practice when a language teacher in Kentucky asked a question and she and Mrs. Tharrington engaged in a conversation suggesting answers for the question. When I look at how she uses Twitter as a teacher, I see many similarities to the advice presented in the Ed Week article: she has identified general educational professionals who she follows and interacts with along with communities devoted to world languages (ex. #langchat) and she has found, as Brianna Crowley calls them, her “PLN buddies”-the individuals who make up the larger community(ex. the moderators of #langchat). As I used Twitter to create a PLN and participate in my second Twitter chat, I found the experience to be positive and inspiring. I now understand the power of this tool to bring together different teachers who share common goals from different places. In my own chat this week, one teacher from Iowa shared a Youtube playlist with us that we are invited to use in lesson planning. Although it can be overwhelming at first, once you understand the format of a Twitter chat, it is a great experience and collaborative tool. The chart below shows a helpful format to consider when using Twitter as a PLN resource:
As a teacher, I plan to use Twitter as a collaborative tool to connect with other teachers like I have started to do now. Within my limited experience as a pre-service teacher, I have yet to identify a more effective tool at connecting teachers with relative ease and one that allows teachers to share information quickly and efficiently. When researching PLN’s and the use of tools like Twitter to increase teacher collaboration, Edutopia provided a new insight that extends the idea of using Twitter beyond just connecting teachers: Twitter allows teachers to bring the outside world into the classroom and to move the educational experience outside of the walls of the school. In the process, teachers and administration are staying connected with regards to the instruction being provided, the work that students are completing, and students are connecting with peers around the world.