Ready to Return

My blog has been essentially dormant for the past year.   I’ve been working on this:

And while I had hoped to keep the blog alive during this journey, the reality was that time was forever a currency in limited quantity.  For every opportunity I seized, there were many opportunities that were not seized as a result.  I quickly learned that this is the reality of life at Harvard: it is a place of endless options.  And so, I chose to defer things like blogging, which could be done post-Harvard, in attempt to absolutely maximize the number of Harvard-specific things I could take in during my short time here.

I am satisfied with how this strategy played out.  I was able to capitalize on many unique opportunities that pushed my thinking, expanded my world, and left me with memories to cherish.

Pictures can do little to encapsulate the experience, but here are a few photos of the journey:

  • Conversations with Noam Chomsky and Howard Gardner

  • Jeb Bush at an Askwith event

(The Askwith forums are livestreamed on the day of the event and are available on video after the events.  Past events are on the HarvardEducation channel on YouTube and more information about the events, including calendars of upcoming events can be found here.)

  • Visiting science PhD friends in their labs, and learning first-hand about the incredibly work they are part of

  • Boston in the fall

  • Idyllic social events

  • Studying at the Widener Library

  • and participating in research studies

The list goes on.  It was a great experience and I am so grateful for the opportunity that I had to be in this environment and saturate myself in learning.  Now that my program is complete and my degree has been given, I hope to return to blogging and begin to document some of the lessons that I’ve learned and the questions that remain.  Here’s to a world where there is always more to learn!

Onward.

 

Deep Understanding

I currently have the pleasure of taking a course with Tina Grotzer, a cognitive scientist and educator at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  One of the assigned readings was a piece that she wrote on deep understanding back in the nineties.  Although much time has passed since then, it is still a concept that is met with much resistance in some respects.

For example, in 2010, Alberta introduced a new math curriculum.  Seven years later, parent groups and a political party still take issue with many aspects of the curriculum and put out a steady call to go ‘back to the basics’. (As a side note, this is a concept that always intrigues me in the education realm.  We would be quite distraught if our medical professionals ‘did things the way they always did’ rather than have them advance their practices as knowledge and technology advances.  Why do some people hold opposite expectations for education and not want practices in this field to advance as our knowledge about teaching and learning advances?)  One of the components that was a source of frustration in the 2010 curriculum was that it reduced the number of concepts that were required to be taught, and the assumption was that this would lead to less learning.  In her article, “Understanding Counts!: Teaching for Depth in Math and Science”, Tina explains why this is not true.  She builds a strong argument for deep learning and explains why teaching fewer concepts with greater depth is more beneficial than teaching many concepts superficially.   I believe that this is the intent of Alberta’s 201 0 math curriculum.  Yes, there were problems (particularly that the roll-out of the curriculum was poorly done and that teachers, who themselves lacked deep understanding because they had been taught superficially, were therefore ill-equipped to foster deep understanding in their students), but the curriculum’s intent at deepening students’ understanding of math is not one of those problems.

Tina has graciously allowed me to post the pdf of her booklet.  Take ten minutes to read it through and see why deep understanding matters!

Grotzer: Understanding Counts!: Teaching for Depth in Math and Science (shared with permission from Tina Grotzer)

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: Book Review

It’s rare that I read an informational book in the same “can’t put it down until I finish reading it” method that I use for novels, but Sam Kean’s book, The Tale of the Deuling Neurosurgeons, was definitely one such read.

Kean’s wit and humour marry with his descriptive explanations and advanced vocabulary to lead the reader on a delightful tour of the brain.  He uses masterfully crafted anecdotes of individuals whose less-than-fortunate experiences and abnormalities led to discoveries of the human brain.

Many familiar brains, such as H.M. and Phineas Gage, make an appearance, but the lesser known details surrounding their circumstances provide context and bring their stories to life in a fresh way.  The book also provides a plethora of lesser-known stories of lesser-known legends.  He recounts stories of siamese twins who can see through each others’ eyes, of phantom limb pain numbed by mirrors, of electrical impulses on the tongue to counteract a loss of balance and of clicking tongues to help the blind ‘see’.   He tells of brain preservation gone right and brain preservation gone wrong, and of an autopsy being secretly performed on a cadaver that was supposed to be at its own funeral.

Kean preserves the humanity and highlights the resiliency of the characters in his stories, while enticing the reader to read on in disbelief.  We owe much gratitude to those who willingly underwent risky surgery or who not-so-willingly fell to the hands of fate and dove into the neurological unknown, before the days of MRIs and other modern technology, and taught us what we know about the brain.  Likewise, we have learned much from the doctors, surgeons, and neuroscientists who acted on finesse, persistence, and wisdom, (or in some cases, sheer ignorance, carelessness, and lack of thought) to discover the mysterious organ contained inside our skulls.

For anyone with an interest in human biology, neuroscience, medicine, psychology, or history, this is a delightfully entertaining read that will push you to the end of your seat and leave you with a better understanding of the human brain.  Fortunately for you, your brain will remain intact and untouched, but you will learn and be challenged by those who weren’t so lucky.

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Research-based vs. Preference-driven Teaching

I recently had a Twitter conversation with a researcher from the Netherlands who was reiterating the importance of using research to guide practice.  He pointed me to this journal article from the mid-90s, which raises concern over educators who have a tendency to use preference to guide their practice, even if their preferences defy research.  The paper identifies this as both (understandably) problematic and (surprisingly?) common.

This brings to mind a relatively recent article from the Edmonton Journal.  Ever since this debacle a few years ago, Edmonton media does a great job of portraying this part of the country as a hotspot of poor assessment practices.  I hope that there is a disconnect between the reports of the media and the actual practice being employed in classrooms there, but their local media sure seem to have a love affair with promoting practice that is based primarily on preference and that laughs in the face of research.  It tends to paint such practice as bold, brave, and desirable.  Equally as concerning are the public comments which further support such preference-driven practice while bashing research.  I find this “if it feels good it must be good” approach to be troubling.  Why does statistical data not have a more prominent role in determining what happens in our schools?  Why is so much left to preference?  (As an aside, I do realize that statistical data can be taken to the extreme and used in places where it doesn’t apply.  Particularly when dealing with people, not everyone fits into typical statistics and I’m aware of that.  I’m looking forward to reading this book for more on that topic).

It’s tough to stay on top of the research.  There is so much to know and limited time to learn.  Educators have a never-ending stream of tasks to be done in any given day, and sifting through journals to find information pertinent to our individual areas of desired growth is a nice wish but not a reality for any educators I’ve ever met.  Not to mention that for many (most?) people, sifting through journal articles doesn’t make it into the “ways I enjoy spending my time” category.  Even if it was something a particular teacher enjoyed, Hardiman et al. point out that “teachers do not typically possess the background knowledge that is necessary to parse research articles and apply findings in appropriate contexts”(p.136). And yet, despite the difficulties that are inherent in being wise consumers of research who use research to inform and drive our practice, I firmly believe that we can do more; we can do better.  There simply must be a way.

Twitter has become such a tool for me, (read more about how I use Twitter for my professional development here), but it has its limitations too.  Twitter can become a venue for groupthink or a means of propagating  preference-based practice if opinions are left unchecked.  With the right connections and knowledge of where to look it can, thankfully, also be a sharing space for research.  Unfortunately the latter is more difficult to find.  There are opinions aplenty but sharing of research among educators seems to be a much less common occurrence.

I’m not sure exactly what this means for educators in general, but I do have some ideas of what I’d like it to mean for me.  I’d like research to take a more dominant role in my practice.  Not the “I think I read it in a book somewhere so I’ll defend my practice by prefacing my conversation with generic ‘research says'”kind of research (oh, I’m guilty of using that tactic!), but the more authentic “these researchers in this study in this year found these findings and this is the conclusion that I’m drawing from that” kind of research.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think that’s the answer for everyone.  I think that most of us, certainly, could benefit from having an increased general awareness of education-related research data and we could be more intentional in sharing that data and in using that data to drive our practice, but I think there’s room for variation in specifically how that looks from one person to the next.  Could we each agree, however, to be a little more intentional in reading, finding, and sharing data that can inform our practice?  I’m willing to venture a guess that the results of this would be noteworthy.  After all, ‘research says’.

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Photo source

 

Two Common Misuses of Rubrics

Rubrics are not a new concept in education.  Their benefits have been touted for by many and a quick Internet search reveals large amounts of literature on the topic for anyone interested in learning more.  Likewise, one does not have to look far to find examples of rubrics or websites that will create rubrics.  Given this familiarity, it seems a bit surprising that they are still used incorrectly.  While the benefits of rubrics are significant (see information under “Why use instructional rubrics” here), these benefits are not harnessed when they are used incorrectly.

There are two major misuses of rubrics that I see in action on a regular basis and I would like to take a moment to address them:

  1. Rubrics are not assessment checklists.

Itemized lists with point values, like this, are not rubrics:

non rubric

(Source: studenthandouts.com)

One of the dominant benefits of rubrics is that it forces the teacher to have a very clear understanding of exactly what the student did well and what they would need to do to improve and this information is communicated to the student.  If a rubric is used well, the student will have a very clear understanding of what they need to do to improve in each category and will not have any need to ask the infamous, “why did I get this mark” question for any item on the rubric.

Rubrics, then, should have a descriptor for each level of achievement.  On the above example, if neatness is a category on a five point scale (assessing neatness to determine if students know a social studies concept is a whole other topic for discussion), students should have a clear explanation of what category five neatness looks like, what category four neatness looks like, and so on.

In her article, “Using Rubrics to Promote Thinking and Learning”, Heidi Goodrich Andrade provides the following example of a rubric:rubric example

In contrast to the non-example rubric, Andrade’s rubric has clear explanations for each level of achievement.  There is still some degree of subjectivity within the descriptors (as will typically be the case), but it is far more clear how each level of achievement is attained.  Thus, the student knows what must be done to arrive at the next level of achievement for each category and can use this to inform his/her work from this point on.  This is how rubrics become tools for learning.

     2.  Rubric grades and descriptors need to match

Rubrics are often written into a scale of four or five levels of achievement.  Mathematically speaking, five levels of achievement would mean that each category on the rubric is calculated out of five.  If percentage grades are given (another assessment issue that is yet another topic that needs to be addressed), that would mean that the categories compute to the following percentages:

  • 100% (5/5)
  • 80% (4/5)
  • 60% (3/5)
  • 40% (2/5)
  • 20% (1/5)

The problem with this is that the descriptors for the rubric can often be generalized into something like this:

  • 5/5 – great work.  No improvement needed.
  • 4/5 – really good work.  Just a slight tweak needed somewhere.
  • 3/5 – pretty good work.  A bit of a misunderstanding or oversight is present.
  • 2/5 – beginner stages.  On the right track, but at the very beginning of the road.
  • 1/5 – not there yet.  Shows significant lack of understanding, or no evidence of understanding, or this component of the assignment was not included in the project.

The problem here is the disconnect between the descriptor and the grade.  If a 2/5 reveals that a student is in the beginning stages, can we confidently assign a failing grade of 40%?  It seems more logical to assign a grade that is at the lower end of the spectrum of a passing grade.

Just because something can be computed mathematically, does not mean that it should.

The lesson here is that, when designing a rubric, the numeric grades sometimes need to be skewed.  Again, if reporting is done in percentages, the teacher needs to look at the descriptors of the rubric and determine an appropriate percentage equivalent that matches the descriptor, rather than assigning a percentage based on a mathematical computation.  For example, a 90% might be more appropriate for a 4/5 on a rubric, rather than the computational score of 80%.  Just because something can be computed mathematically, does not mean that it should.  When using a rubric, it is often necessary to give each level of achievement a grade that is not mathematically derived.

As a side note, there really is no need to put an actual numeric score on a rubric.  In fact, many would argue that that actually reduces the instructional component of a rubric.  When a numeric grade is written on a rubric, students tend to look at the numeric grade and derive their sense of achievement from that, rather than having to read the descriptors to learn how they did and what they could do to improve.  Putting a word descriptor for each level of achievement (rather than a 5-4-3-2-1) will be more informative for students and parents and will allow the teacher to assign a value for each level of achievement that better matches the descriptors than a grade out of five.

 

Rubrics can be incredibly effective tools to use to assess students, to teach them, and to show them where they are at and where they are heading, but it is necessary to ensure that our rubrics clearly communicate each level of achievement and are calculated in a manner that is fair and accurate.

 

 

Picture Books to Encourage Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck’s work on the concept of growth mindset is something that has significantly impacted the education world in the last decade (I’ve given further explanation of the concept here).  I strive to bring that growth mindset into my classroom, but doing so requires some intentionality.

Although the students I currently teach are in grade six, I often use picture books in my teaching.  This summer, I decided to purchase a number of picture books that support growth mindset so that I could use them as a tool for reinforcing the concept of growth mindset with my students.  I stumbled upon a few books that I quite love:

Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg  photo (28)

I adore this book!

When it came in the mail, I was disappointed.  I hadn’t realized that it was a board book – the kind written on thick, cardboard-like pages that’s intended for toddlers?  As soon as I read it, however, that was an irrelevant detail.

Each page includes some type of error but offers the reader the opportunity to interact with the page to discover how the mistake was turned into something beautiful.  There is no storyline in this one, but its tactile nature leaves a strong impression and it makes its point very clear: mistakes are often the precursor to masterpieces.

The Perfect Percival Priggs by Julie-Anne Graham photo (31)

I really appreciate this one because it parallels what I see in so many of my students.  The main character, Percival Priggs, is an extreme overachiever.  He fears failure because he associates it with his sense of worth and thinks that he will lose his parents’ love if he fails.  He participates in a plethora of extra-curricular activities, most of which he doesn’t enjoy, but he feels that they, too, help to establish his worth.  Predictably, Percival messes up and creates a bit of a disaster.  To his surprise, not only does it not alter his parents’ love for him, but it opens up a dialogue about his fears.  He discovers that, contrary to his prior beliefs, his parents aren’t perfect, either.

A fantastic message, wonderful illustrations, and some creative humour create an enjoyable read that drives home some important messages: we are loveable even though we make mistakes, and it’s important to pursue things that we enjoy.

Your Fantastic Elastic Brain by JoAnn Deakphoto (32)

This one is a true non-fiction, informational book.  It gives an overview of the functions of the different regions of the brain and focuses on the concept of neuroplasticity.  Brain research shows that the brain has a continuous capacity to grow and develop (see more on that here) and this book explains that in a way that is understandable for children.  It also speaks of the importance of developing new skills and persevering to develop skills in areas that are difficult for us.  Additionally, it gives several great statements about the importance of making mistakes.

It’s Okay to Make Mistakes by Todd Parr photo 2 (12)

Todd Parr uses his trademark catchy art style to deliver an important messages about accepting imperfections.  I particularly appreciate the fact that he not only mentions typical mistakes, but he also touches on character traits or other tendencies that are not mistakes, as such, but are things that we might have difficulties accepting about ourselves.  He mentions such things as getting upset, being forgetful, and being clumsy and normalizes them in an easy-to-understand manner.

Unlocking the Professional Development Power of Twitter

A few years ago, I learned about the incredible community of educators learning together on Twitter (more on that here).  I started up my own Twitter account (for the ‘how to’ on that, look here) and dove in.  Since then, I have been blessed with a constant stream of personalized, free PD that is deeply relevant and meaningful to my journey as an educator.

Tapping into such professional development is quite straight-forward:

  • Find people to follow
    • The starting point for making your Twitter use meaningful for you is to find key people to follow.  Begin by following a few people and see who they are following.
    • Additionally, you can see if they have any “lists” (to do that, go to the person’s profile page and click “lists”) and add people off of those as well.  twitter lists
    • (Lists are just a way for you to group people.  If you make a list, when you click on it, you will get a Twitter feed of tweets that are only from the people in that list. You don’t need to follow people for them to be on your list).
    • The folks on this list are a compilation of a few educators on Twitter in general and a few educators from Alberta and the western provinces.
    • Once you add a few people, Twitter will suggest others to add.  If you hover your mouse over the suggested person, their bio will show.  Use this to find people who share the same learning interests as you, who work in a similar position as you do, or who are experts in an area where you’d like to grow.
    • Remember that who you follow and how many people you follow is just one of the ways that you can customize your learning.  Whether you add many people representing broad interests or a few people with aligned interests is up to you.
    •  (When adding people, you might also want to see if their latest tweets are recent.  Some Twitter accounts are very active and some are hardly used).
  • Find hashtags of interest
    • Hashtags are a fantastic way to customize your learning on Twitter.  What are your interests?  Find the correlating hashtags and type them into your search box.  This will take you to a new Twitter feed of tweets that relates to that topic. (It’s also a great idea to go to the hashtags of your interest areas and follow the people who use those hashtags.)
    • You can’t “follow” a hashtag and make it show in your newsfeed.  They are something for you to keep in mind and search up whenever you want to learn about a specific topic.  They are also good to know so that you can use them in your tweets, so that people with similar interests can find your contributions.
    • Hashtags are not Twitter accounts.  Anything can be turned into a hashtag, thus instantly becoming a link for tweets on that topic.  Because of this, there are endless possibilities of hashtags to follow.  There are documents with gigantic lists of recommended hashtags for educators, but that’s a bit misleading since anything can be hashtagged.  The best way to find the hashtags that interest you is trial and error.  Take any topic, stick the hashtag symbol in front of it, put it in the search box and see what comes up!
    • If that’s too ambiguous for you and you’d like a few recommendations to get started, here are a few of my favourites:
      •  #edchat – ignore the “chat” part of this title (I’ll explain that further down), but know that this is a great meeting place for many prominent educators on Twitter.  I highly recommend keeping an eye on the information that flows through this stream.
      • #tlap – this is an acronym for “Teach Like a Pirate” – a book by Dave Burgess (If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favour and read it.)  This stream is the place to go for ideas for jazzing up lessons and turning learning into an experience.  Questions such as “Would students come to your class if they had a choice?” are pertinent here.  It is a treasure chest of ideas for increasing student engagement and interest in learning.  Even if you think you have to teach the most boring, obscure lesson ever, you’ll be sure to get some useable ideas here!
      • #growthmindset – this is based on the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck (another very worthwhile read).  Here you’ll find ways to encourage students, teachers and parents to rethink the way that we define success and failure.  Growth mindset means that mistakes are accepted as a natural and necessary part of learning, rather than as failure.  It also is a recognition of the fact that we all have the capacity to learn and grow.  Certain areas of study will be more difficult for some people than others, but we still all have the capacity to improve. (I’m totally oversimplifying, here.  Did I mention that it’s a book worth reading?)
      • #ffcaedu – this is the hashtag for the school system where I work.  While this specific stream isn’t likely to be particularly meaningful for you, your own school authority undoubtedly has a hashtag that’s already in use.  Find some educators from your school district and see what hashtag they’re using.
      • #abed – this is the hashtag for Alberta Education.  Again, unless you live in Alberta or the western provinces, it’s probably not of great interest to you, but your province or state likely has its own education hashtag too.  Check out the accounts for some prominent educators in your area and see what local hashtags they’re using.
      • #yyc – this is the hashtag for Calgary.  Your city will have a hashtag in use as well.  While this one isn’t directly related to education, let me remind you that one of the lovely features of Twitter is that it’s customizable.  If you would like to use your Twitter account for more than just purely education-related content, your city feed is a great place to look.  (Of course you could definitely use this hashtag in your posts about your school as well!)
    • I could go on and on about hashtags but with a little exploration you’ll be sure to find your own!  If you still feel that you need a list to consult, here are a few decent ones (but keep in mind, there’s no limit to hashtags – anything and everything can be one!): Teach Thought’s hashtags or Cybrary Man’s hashtags.
  • Participate (or at least lurk) in some Twitter chats
    • Twitter chats are whole other dimension of Twitter.  They are a group of educators who meet at an agreed upon time to discuss a specific topic through Twitter.  The duration of the chat is typically one hour.
    • Chats always centre around a particular hashtag.  Often, but not always, chat hashtags will have the word “chat” in the hashtag (eg: #satchatwc)
    • Chats are usually once a week.  During the remainder of the week, people might continue to interact about that topic, using that hashtag, but not in chat format.
    • To find out what chats happen when, use this document (there are a few other such documents out there, but this one is consistently the most comprehensive one).
    • Chats always have at least one moderator.  This is the person who is running the chat.  The moderator usually identifies himself/herself on the chat hashtag just as the chat begins (and often in the half hour or so leading up to the chat as well).
    • Many people use external sites (like Tweetdeck) to manage chats but it can totally be done through Twitter as well.
    • To lurk (follow but not participate) in a chat, open a couple of Internet tabs.  On one tab, follow the hashtag for the chat, and on the other follow the moderator.  (For the hashtag tab, be sure that your screen is set on “live” rather than “top” so that you see all of the tweets).twitter live
    • If you’re participating in the chat, open a few additional tabs.  I recommend having one open for notifications and one for your own profile, in addition to the previously mentioned hashtag and moderator tabs.
    • Begin reading in the tab with the hashtag for the chat and keep the other tabs handy for quick checks as necessary.
    • The moderator will usually begin by asking people to identify themselves.  This gives an idea of who you are speaking with and how many people are participating in the chat.
    • Some chats will have just a handful of people participate, while others will have hundreds.  The speed of the chat is proportionate to how many people are participating.
    • After a few (usually five) minutes, the moderator will pose a question. (This is why you have a tab open for the moderator.  If you get lost in the chat and can’t find the question, rather than scrolling down through hundreds of tweets, go to the moderator’s page).
    • The tweet with the question will begin with “Q1” for question 1.  Subsequent questions will follow the same format.
    • People will begin answering the questions.  All answers will being with “A1” and so on for subsequent questions.
    • Be sure that you don’t begin your answer with “Q”.  People’s brains are trained to hone in on the “Q” tweets, which should only contain the question.  Regardless, it seems that most of us accidentally begin a few answers with “Q” when we begin.  No biggie – people will extend lots of grace.  Just be aware of it and try to remember to use “A”.
    • People’s answers will start flooding the hashtag’s stream.  If it’s a large chat, you won’t be able to read them all.  Just read what you can, and when you find a tweet that raises a question or comment, interact with that person.
    • Be sure to include the hashtag for the chat on every single tweet that is related to the chat.  So, even if you are responding to someone directly as a result of the chat, include the hashtag.  This ensures that it comes through the feed and allows other people to jump in on the discussion as well.  Often additional people will join in and add to a conversation that was initiated between two people.
    • If it’s a decent sized chat, the hour will fly by and will feel like a matter of minutes, and you’ll feel overstimulated, inspired, and encouraged by the end of it.
    • Chats can be intimidating, but the participants are very gracious.  If you’re confused about the actual process of the chat, just tweet out a question (be sure to use the chat hashtag) and you’ll get a quick reply.
    • The learning potential from Twitter chats is unbelievable.  They are an amazing way to connect with other educators and to engage in deeply meaningful learning.  Whether you prefer theoretical or practical learning, or a mix of both, you’re sure to be able to find the learning you love and a community of people who love it just as much as you do.
  • Finding Twitter Chats to Join:
    • In case you missed it above, this document is the resource to use to find a chat that interests you.
    • Some of the chats that I enjoy are:
      • #satchatwc – Saturday Chat West Coast.  There’s an earlier “#satchat” version as well, but given the time zone difference, I’d have to be up way too early for my liking to participate in that one.  Both chats are very similar, however.  They centre around a variety of education-related topics but they’ve always been topics that I find to be very meaningful and they’re always well-organized chats with many participants.
      • #sblchat – this is a chat about standards-based learning (sometimes referred to as outcomes-based grading, or similar terms).  Assessment is an area of professional interest for me, so the content of this chat is something that I really appreciate.  What stunned me the first few times I participated in this chat is that some of the biggest names in assessment research participate in this chat.  People whose work I had been reading for years were suddenly interacting with me one-on-one – very exciting!
      • #tlap – this is the “Teach Like a Pirate” hashtag that I mentioned earlier.  Unfortunately, I have other commitments at the time that this chat runs, however, since one of the wonderful things about Twitter is that it’s customizable, I can go back to the stream after the chat is done and still read the content that was generated from the chat.
      • #colchat – Culture of Learning chat.  This is another one that I am not often able to participate in live, but I appreciate the content and join the chat when I can.  This one is about things that we can do to improve the culture of our classrooms/schools/districts so that learning can happen more readily.  The moderators of this chat are putting the finishing touches on a book that they’ve written based on the content that’s been generated from these chats.

In summary of my now rather-lengthy post (sorry!), to get started with using Twitter for professional development: follow people, find hashtags, and join chats.  You can spend as much or as little time on Twitter as you like, but the learning is always available, it’s always customizable, and it’s always free.

Happy learning!