Debating education on Twitter


I have been blogging and tweeting for six years. For much of that time, I have been involved in vigorous debates both on Twitter and in the comments section of my blog. However, when a recent debate flooded my notifications, I realised that my involvement is such discussions has become far less frequent.

There are two reasons for this. The first is a shift in my own attitude and the second is a shift in the character of EduTwitter itself.

People who don’t stand for anything

A few years ago, I would agonise over blocking people. I would warn them first and only make a block temporary. These days, I am far more ready to block and mute and I don’t feel the need to explain myself.

This shift initially came about due to a rise in anonymous trolls who specifically targeted people like me who write about education. They would have names like ‘Mr Strict’ and they would pop up to offer abuse. I began to block as soon as I was aware of them.

However, there are other, more subtle ways of wasting time on Twitter. The recent growth of identity politics has seen an increase in the number of people who want to infer racism where it does not exist or call-out others on their ‘white privilege’. When I have tried to engage, I have been told to read some obscure book because explaining any of this to me is ’emotional labour’. So I now completely ignore these people. It seems a shame because they may have valid points to make.

And for a debate to be worthwhile, both parties need to hold a position that can be scrutinised. My position is pretty clear: I believe in explicit instruction, a knowledge-rich curriculum and strong whole-school approaches to behaviour. The position of others is often more obscure. I have a lot of people who follow my output very closely and say things like, “I see Greg has tweeted about x. This paper is also about x and makes a slightly different claim.” This may or may not be a valid comment, but without an alternative position to scrutinise, any ensuing discussion rapidly descends into one of definitions and the relative merits of complexity versus simplicity. I know from experience that these discussions can go on for days or even weeks without getting anywhere and so I don’t bother any more.

Twitter has changed

I also think there has been a net growth in the number of people who won’t commit to a position on Twitter. We have seen a great deal of debate denial. People say things like, “The progressive versus traditionalist debate only happens on Twitter; it’s all a false choice; nobody is against teaching knowledge,” and so on.

It is invariably progressivist teachers and educationalists who make these claims and it is a way of avoiding scrutiny of this ideology. It works pretty well out in the real world when these people hold positions of authority, as many of them do. It means they can pursue their agenda whilst removing the grounds for challenging it.

However, Twitter is not hierarchical in this way. Imagine someone joining our little corner of EduTwitter for the first time. They will see, on one side, blogs about Cognitive Load Theory and knowledge-rich curricula, and other the other side, statements that, “Nobody is against teaching knowledge”. It would look like a consensus has been reached. With nobody making the progressivist case, it would appear that the debate is over and the argument won.

This is perhaps not true of the debate over behaviour. There are still many who will loudly complain about strong behaviour policies and argue for permissive ones, usually framed as a discussion about exclusions. So that’s still going on.

And a debate won on Twitter is not a debate won. People may hide their positions from scrutiny, but they will still be pursuing them in schools, universities, governments bureaucracies and through politics. The challenge for us all is to take the fight to these institutions without being assassinated in the process.

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21 thoughts on “Debating education on Twitter

  1. Hi Greg,

    Thanks for sharing this.
    I started blogging about a year ago. I don’t have Twitter. I’ll be honest, i’m reluctant to join.
    There have been several people who have asked me to because they’d like me to contribute to ‘debate’.

    For me, I much prefer to blog thoughtfully and fully express what I want to say.
    In the same way, I love to read others thoughts and follow their teaching journey’s.

    For me this is far more meaningful.

    Thanks for your words,

    Best

    R

      1. I’m pleased someone else thinks this too. I’m not saying I won’t join some day. I just find I actually far prefer to engage with people through slightly more extended discussion through blogging.

        There might be an argument to say that you can’t correctly ‘argue’ for anything in 240 characters.

        If there is no ‘arguments’, by the standard of the sloppy definition i’ve articulated here, is it then possible to say that what goes on in the Twittersphere ceases to be a debate?

  2. Hi Greg. I only recently began to use Twitter- after Research Ed in Auckland. Its great for keeping up with education ideas, but I do find it un-nerving at times and strangely addictive. Maybe alarmingly so.

  3. Edutwitter has been an instructive experience for me. If only to see just how quickly the hardened prog brigade shift the goalposts, resort to ad hominem, take refuge in edu-gobbledegook, snootily tell you to “read X and then get back to me”, impute their opponents with financial motives, or a combination of all of these.

  4. Thanks Greg – whilst you admit you’re retreating from certain kinds of Twitter debates/interactions, you aren’t shy of addressing that exact issue, and that is why I find you a compulsive blogger to follow: You’re as clear as you can be about what you believe and why you believe it, but also willing to explore (as much as can be reasonably expected) an encouraging range of contentious ‘issues’ on the periphery.

    I read the post wondering where I might sit in terms of your Twitter interactions, as we’ve had disagreements (though you haven’t blocked me, and indeed at the time of writing still follow me), and I sometimes might have appeared quite disconcerting in terms of the lines of discussion I’ve taken. For sure I think I can come across as both a “quibbler for quibbling’s sake” and as someone who might sometimes frustratingly seem to resolutely sit on the fence at times.

    I loved your simple explication of the three things you stand for. I know that to make such a declaration would both be helpful to others and also consoling to my personal psyche. I envy you, but in imagining myself declaring the same creeds, I can sense that it would feel either like I was ‘succumbing’, or perhaps ‘retreating’ to a position. For whatever reason, there is a sense for me of needing to sell-out to get to such a position at this point, and it could be for one of two reason: Either it’s because I’m too addicted to ‘nuance’ – and let’s be honest – there isn’t a belief, theory or ‘fact’ on earth which couldn’t be quibbled with at some philosophical or practical level, or it’s because I still feel that most ‘clear’ debating positions on education come about by taking a compromised/overly simplified position on what the purpose of education/schooling is.

    Ultimately then, I’m striving and yearning for your position of crystal clear clarity and rationalisation, but I can’t yet take quite the level of unequivocal plunge which you’ve clearly taken, and I hope you continue to take my remonstrations on Twitter in good faith.

  5. Not sure I agree with this one.
    Debates are frequently pedantic and irritating but there is little alternative for anyone not already committed to an opinion. Debating subtle differences is exactly the kind of logical behaviour you would engage in before committing to an opinion. However once convinced of a viewpoint theses are arguments seem repetitive and tedious.

  6. There are not a lot of people on twitter saying thanks for that useful insight it really makes me question some of the things I have been doing.
    There are a lot of people playing my contribution to my tribe really made me feel good. Nothing wrong with that in itself but their contribution seem to be sometimes just that they wasted your time or got you to block them – showing you are the one that can’t handle the truth.

    A suggestion. The very people who are quick to argue on twitter seem hugely reluctant to comment on your blog. It is as if twitter is neutral ground (or perhaps with their followers is home ground) and commenting on your blog would somehow make it more legitimate.

    So the suggestion is have a reply handy – in notepad or some text editor you can have open. Then just reply – “I’m muting this to focus on other things please join the commenters on my blog to raise this with my regular readers.”

    If people really cared about the issue they would go to your blog after all it is a better way to have a back and forth discussion when you really want to resolve an issue. If they don’t its almost nothing lost.

  7. well said Greg. I fully appreciate and agree with what you have said; I have experienced the same. One thing I will say about twitter is this: all these platforms are only as valuable as what we want them to be. I was encouraged to join twitter pretty late in the game, by other likeminded folk who said I would benefit from some of the discussions and data that are presented there. And I have. I will admit though that one could spend the entire day being sucked into meaningless conversations which quickly go down a multitude of rabbit holes, and you end up none the wiser after hours of debate, with a pile of laundry to still be folded, and hours of work untouched. It deserves discipline and a focus about what one wants to achieve on this platform.

    So, like you, I am much more discerning about discussions I enter into than when I first started a couple years ago, yet I do credit twitter for putting me in touch with some fantastic people – many of which I don’t necessarily agree with, but from whom I have gained an incredible amount of perspective and understanding on topics that I hadn’t previously known about had. It can be alarmingly addictive and it has heightened my awareness about what social media can have on my two teenage kids. But as grown ups, we can choose where we decide to spend our time. As I’m involved with advocating for better math instruction, it’s been invaluable for me.

    Thanks for writing.

  8. Having read some of the other comments, it does make me ponder just what makes me choose to comment on blogs via Twitter or via the blogs themselves. I certainly do both – sometimes simply due to whether I’ve noticed the blog via Twitter, or whether it’s been via a different route.

    Additionally though, I think that if a blogger has tweeted about their blog, that I might find myself inclined to respond by tweet if I have a quick and lightweight comment, or a question which I’m hoping for a quick and direct response to, or which I think might result in a back and forth discussion. Twitter does seem easier for back and forth discussions, and lightweight commentary.

    On the other hand, if I had something a little bit more detailed to say, I would comment on the blog, and this would extend to critiques and questions, rather than just observations.

    However, I do wonder whether Twitter does allow commentators a more public ‘playing to the crowd’ in terms of displaying your tail feathers to your own followers, whereas comments on a blog are very much only going to be seen by people who end up on that blog, and probably are supporters of the blogger. I’m personally very happy to have people place challenges as comments on my own blog, but I’m aware of bloggers who themselves would rather take debate away from their blogs – so as to keep them looking clean for posterity – and remove it to Twitter.

      1. I imagine it’s to do with the ‘showcase’ aspect of their blogs for marketing purposes. If you’re trying to sell a product, then dissent might not look good.

    1. In my comment I was not trying to say when someone should debate or exit a debate on Twitter. Just to have a handy exit that doesn’t burn any bridges and is very easy to deploy.

    2. Actually the most frequent commenter on my blog is someone who usually disagrees with me. But I agree that Twitter is generally better for the back-and-forth of debate unless an argument needs elaboration (which, sadly, it often does).

  9. Agree with this post. I find progressives often try to find “common ground” and declare such as if they have struck gold. And then they proclaim, “We’re really saying the same things.” We’re really not.

  10. I ignore Twitter. In concept it was a useful platform where one could alert the audience to a new article or blog post which they might go on to read, then write their own article or blog post. But no. It rapidly degenerated into a sewer of invective.

  11. I know you are speaking about debating on twitter, but I would like to respond to your ideas from this post and the one on progressivism. For background I’m an ELA teacher with 27 years of experience in the middle grades. Most of my experience is with 12-13 year olds.

    I agree with you that direct instruction is essential. In the early grades, phonics should be taught, penmanship for its value in graphomotor development and grammar in whole groups as part of language study throughout. I would go farther than just aiming for correctness; we should be teaching our students to recognize and craft sentences and texts. I believe that students should model on exemplars, learn to recognize and create rhetorical and literary devices and be able to identify logical fallacies that they will undoubtedly encounter in their adult lives. Students should read whole class books and dive into them together, and read independently in areas of interest using their personal choices to investigate and apply skills they learned in studying whole class. I believe in direct instruction and in facilitation and project based learning… take those skills and build them further through simulations (Like Model UN or mock trial) products (like a 4 color non fiction feature magazines or book trailers) and experiences (like debates or full length plays) Opportunities to create, make and synthesize should require explicit skills and use a demanding and rigorous criteria in their development.

    There’s a false dichotomy between direct instruction and constructivism that should not be there. Instead of the constant pendulum swinging, we can take what’s good out of each and create something better. In my view, those who pursue engagement without skill development are summer camp counselors, and that’s criminal neglect. Those who pursue a diet made only of direct instruction with no student agency or application are lazy and not very good at their jobs. I hope that I am neither of those.

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