Habits of mind à la Twitter.

I could go on about how Twitter has expanded my practice, my point of view, and my edu-buzzword vocabulary. Alternatively, I could debate whether or not educators should get connected via Twitter.

Instead…I have been considering my Twitter-use-fallout “habits of mind” that until recently I was not clearly aware of.

My top three habits provided à la Twitter training are:

1. The Habit of Backchanneling

I vividly remember 3 years ago, talking with a student as he received a text from a student across the room. I could not, for the life of me, fathom what on earth they were doing; talking to each other across the room via text? It was baffling and mind-boggling behaviour. However, it fascinated me, so much so, that I wanted to understand what exactly was going on. Similarly to travelling to Mexico and spending 2 weeks ensconced in a 4 star all-inclusive, you can’t really claim you understand the local customs. As a tourist in a foreign country you cannot judge social norms and customs until you have experienced them in context. I understood that I had to immerse myself before I could decide.

Now looking back I understand what students were doing; they were participating in a form of backchanneling. They were backchanneling class, back channeling their lives…I finally get it. Only now, because I have experienced it.

Using back channels at conferences, meetings and in class has caused me to think and communicate with clarity and precision, making my contributive puzzle piece clean edged and meaningful. When students Instagram their lab set up or Tweet out a funny comment made in class, I see how integral to creating a healthy and thriving learning environment each act is; they are selecting what is important about their experience then sharing and archiving it…they are actively participating in their learning!

2. Habits to tame the stream; thinking fast and thinking slow.

When I started teaching, I perceived information as an immobile mass sitting rigid and captive in a textbook. Occasionally an article would surface, making small scratches on the large marble statue of content. Now content no longer sits for long, content flows like a raging river during spring run off. Nowhere is this more apparent than out on Twitter. First immersion into this flow, can be mentally painful and overwhelming, like using a power washer on your face, blasting you backwards and putting you off-balance.

David Gelernter, a computer scientist at Yale, writes:

“This lifestream — a heterogeneous, content-searchable, real-time messaging stream — arrived in the form of blog posts and RSS feeds, Twitter and other chatstreams, and Facebook walls and timelines. Its structure represented a shift beyond the “flatland known as the desktop” (where our interfaces ignored the temporal dimension) towards streams, which flow and can therefore serve as a concrete representation of time.”

To work in this flow effectively I use both fast and a slow thinking to navigate. Thinking fast is needed when I am in the midst of the flow; I need to be agile, nimble and maneuver my way through the deluge of tantalizing tidbits. I need to instantly decide what is relevant and what I can ignore. I need the help of tools (Hashtags and Twitter lists are such tools) for sorting and efficiently storing the information for later processing.

Different Flows of Water.

The thinking slow is not an immediately obvious consequence of Twitter’s training. Thinking slow happens over long periods of time and may require back tracking, swirling in an eddy until the stream brings something new down that pushes me out and on. Fast and slow thinking complement each other, and I find fast thinking actually slows my slow thinking down, making it deeper and richer (see habit 3 below). Both these speeds are needed for my overall progress down the stream, one is not dominant or better, they travel together in the same river bed, just as the water pictured above travels at different speeds in the same river bed. Deliciously I (think) I finally get this sentence that has been a brain knot I have been working on for several weeks from Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age by George Siemens : “The pipe is more important than the content within the pipe. Our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what we know today.”

3. Habit of consuming “more concentrated” information.

Not watered down, not shipped in from Chile and tasteless…rather…ideas and content fresh from the source.

In the past ideas, initiatives and visions for change were “shipped in” from far away. By the time the message or idea arrived at my doorstep it was dilute, watered down or modified. Just as in broken telephone, each transaction had altered the original message every so slightly and the message that finally arrived was mangled and distorted.

In this new era of information distribution, I can go to the source, maybe even talk to the author on the phone to clarify (true story) and ask them to give pertinent and related examples.

I have acquired a taste for information in its purest form, undiluted by interpretation or agenda.


What mad skills or habits of mind has Twitter given you or made you aware of?

Make like a lichen: Get symbiotic and be a pioneer.

Are you trying to grow on a rock all by yourself?

Can you grow on rock?

Do you struggle to accumulate enough nutrients to sustain to yourself year to year?
Is your skill set suited to survival in certain conditions and you fear going extinct if the environment changes?
Do you long to colonize new and unchartered territory but just can’t seem to get a foot hold?

I used to believe….I could do it all alone. Change the world and ALL that. Inevitably though I would hit a bump in the road or run out of energy, survival mode would kick in and I would lose traction. I had the very best of intentions to embrace change and no doubt I have evolved as a teacher over the years. However I was frustrated but the minimal growth I would experience. “Baby steps” was one of my favorite expressions. My intentions were good, however the longevity and impact of my efforts were at best, superficial.

Enter symbiosis…….say what?
A lichen is a lowly, little, unloved organism that is expert at survival in harsh environments. The lichen looks like one organism, but actually is 2 species (a fungus and an alga) who coexist to the benefit of both.  The fungal partner protects the alga who is photosynthetic, producing sugars to feed both. Together they can survive in habitats no other organism can: they grow on rocks, in the extreme arctic, and even on toxic slag heaps. Their ability to extend their skill set gives them advantage in colonizing areas that no other organism can.

Growing on a rock is no problem!

Moreover these deceptively simple life forms modify the environment they inhabit and produce conditions under which other organisms can then live.
They act as pioneers for others. 

I hear you saying: “Heck, I am not here for a Biology lesson Ms. Durley!”, but hold up a sec.

What if to experience transformative growth we need to intertwine our learning in a symbiosis of sorts? What if we must allow ourselves to be vulnerable, dependent, and open, just like the fungus on the first day, admitting that there was no possible way that he could photosynthesize, but he was sure good at offering protection for survival in harsh conditions?

In the olden days, I equated needing someone else to get my job done as, not getting my job done. Over the years in my efforts to be strong I also became brittle. I had mistakenly categorized compromise as weakness. In my perfectionist mind-set, I believed that if I did not have total control, then the project, lesson-plan or venture would not “work out”.

But what if… in order to experience true and lasting change we need to go colonize some “barren rock” and to do that we need deep, meaningful collaboration with others. What if the collaboration has to go beyond….sharing, brainstorming, supporting and listening to each other. What if the relationship has to venture into the symbiotic, and we have to show up ready to be vulnerable like the fungus did on that very first day.

Are you ready to colonize that barren rock, can you do it alone, are you willing to get symbiotic?

Heads up, growing on rock is hard work, but sand is fine, fine, fine.