Chapter 8: Retracing my steps

Chapter 8 introductory graphic

Rather than a conventional summary or distillation of ideas, as I sometimes did within the Gatherings (and felt unsettled doing so), in this section I offered two parallel accounts; one tidily arranged as an emerging theme (‘More than…’), the other a meandering pathway of experience more closely aligned with a flâneur’s account. Both of these accounts attempted to summarise the Gatherings. The ‘messy’ account presented a summary which follows the original trails. The ‘tidy’ account drew out some of the salient themes from across those trails. As I read through the ‘messy’ account, I am minded by Law’s (2007) observation ‘If this is an awful mess … then would something less messy make a mess of describing it?’ Then I look across to the tidy account and notice how ordered, much clearer, and easier to comprehend. Of course in smoothing out the mess some details were discarded and thereby become absented.

In my study, participants used various terms to describe their activity on Twitter: professional development, CPD, professional learning to name a few. The different views they express, the experiences they describe and the practices they produce are so disparate, that the point of focus keeps blurring as attention shifts. This is exacerbated by the diverse hinterlands each brings. Whether human or hashtag, actors often jump across space and time, hop from one activity to another and sometimes fade from view. Like Law and Singleton (2005), I may also be facing a similar ‘moving target’ which generates an unknowable mess, at least unknowable in conventional terms. As Fenwick and Edwards (2011) observed, ‘ANT’s key contribution is to focus on the mess, disorder, and ambivalences that order phenomena and not try to reduce them to tidy explanations.’ Although ANT might not care to do that, in the interests of producing an examinable thesis, I felt obliged to make an attempt and it is that that I now present.

Conceptualising TPD

The literatures covered in the Hinterlands chapter offered different ways to conceptualise TPD. The professional development literatures and workplace learning literatures parallel one another, yet remain only poorly connected (Hodkinson & Hodkinson, 2005). The emerging research into teachers’ professional development through Twitter has yet to bridge the two literatures, yet perhaps that is not necessary. Perhaps TPD is both different from and the same as professional development or workplace learning, depending on the way it is performed by those involved and by how researchers make it through the methods they deploy.

Compound learning

As described in a previous post, learning can be conceived of as an individual enterprise of interpretation and representation; as collegial participation in shared, situated activity; or as ongoing (re)formation of webs of relations generated as a process of assemblage. An actor-network theory-infused flânography requires a shift away from the visual metaphors of different perspectives, different views or different lenses towards one of performance, interaction and enactment, of things being done. In this rendering, different performances will result in the production of different worlds, different realities; a question of ontology. There is no anterior notion of learning; whether process or product; whether interpretation, participation or performance. What learning is depends on how it is performed. One consequence then is that the difference, profusion and variety which emerged in the Gatherings. My attempt to capture this is through what I call ‘compound learning.’

‘Compound’ is a word with multiple meanings and which does different grammatical work. This is helpful. In common usage, it can refer to:

  •    something composed of two or more parts (n);
  •    a substance in which the atoms of two or more elements are linked by chemical bonds (n);
  •    adding interest to both the original capital and accumulated interest (v).

In the brief summaries which follow, I have applied these different conceptions of compound to the learning practices of teachers on Twitter.

Compound as mixture in which different mixes of humans and nonhumans are engaged in different activities like resource sharing, discussing, supporting etc. It is the making, unmaking and reforming of the networks of associations during assemblage.

Compound (chemically framed), like compound as mixture, also involves assemblage of people, materials, technical and cognitive elements. Team English and MFLTwitterati have things in common and also have differences, like different compounds have different atoms, formations and behaviours. Hashtag chats are similar – some aspects the same, but others different. It can be characterised as multiplicity.

Compound (financially framed) involves accumulation where simple acts like retweeting and Liking might evolve into threads and more extended exchanges which assemble together become EduTweetOz. Or progressing through lurking, participating, moderating and founding hashtag chats. It still involves the original simple activities, but the cumulative effect of them all produces a compounded outcome.

Through the concept of compound learning, I suggest TPD is an ongoing process of assemblage in which actors like teachers and tweets, hashtags and hygge, communities and crib sheets, are bundled together, form, reform and break associations. TPD is more than growth in representational knowledge, more than skilled participation in the practices of a social group, and can instead be ‘conceptualised as a performative knowledge practice constituted and enacted by people and tools in complex collectives or assemblages’ (Mulcahy, 2012). Since different teachers are engaged in different practices and follow different people, they see different tweets in their timelines, reply to and retweet different tweets, follow different hyperlinks and read different blog posts. As a consequence, the knowledge performed is different and is better able to address the needs and proclivities of the individual. Compound learning produces diversity in the same way that different atoms and molecules react together and form different compounds. Through that diversity, personalisation  becomes not only possible, but inevitable.


Finding the language to discuss the issue of size, extent or degree of involvement in Twitter PD proved challenging. Although one might initially be drawn to describing different ‘levels’ of activity, this seems rather structural or hierarchical and would sit uncomfortably within an actor-network conception.  As I struggle to find more comfortable language, I offer ‘scale’ as a starting point to extend the notion of ‘compound’ across a further dimension. I propose three ‘scales’ at which TPD is enacted: acts, activities and practices. This builds from van Dijk and Rietveld (2017, p.4) who, in seeking to broaden the scope of ecological psychology through a sociomaterial understanding of affordances, proposed ‘that the whole (the practices) gives form to its parts (the activities unfolding within it) and these activities equally give form to the practices as a whole.’

As a researcher, attending to scale in this way necessitates zooming in and out through space and time to allow different aspects to come into prominence. This is not about developing different perspectives on the same activities, nor a matter of examining different levels in a hierarchy, but attending to different degrees of ongoing involvement.

Acts: Professional learning practices on Twitter begin with a single click … or tap. From the moment a new user clicks ‘Sign up’ to begin the process of creating an account, a learning assemblage begins to unfold. At times within the following accounts, I will draw attention to a single object. This is not to suggest it sits in isolation, unbound from the network in which it acts, but to help foreground the practices within which it is manipulated and manipulates (Thompson & Rimpiläinen, 2012).

Each Twitter user’s timeline is populated by tweets from those followed, so clicking a Follow button begins the process of assembling a network. One Follow after another increases the information flow through the timeline and begins to open new possibilities. With each new person followed, not only do their tweets begin to trickle through your timeline, so too will any tweets they retweet, and these may come from people not (yet) being followed. This is one example of compounding.

Activities: Asking questions, giving advice, sharing resources, providing support, discussing issues, keeping abreast and answering questions are all activities compounded from combinations of acts. Simply monitoring one’s timeline allows one to keep abreast of educational news, the resources and ideas others are sharing, and to a greater or lesser extent, what is taking place in people’s lives. However, anyone who moves beyond lurking, contributes to, and receives from the whole. Each participant within the Twitter environment, even when involved in (what might appear to be) a one-to-one exchange, is engaged in reciprocal acts with the whole. Professional learning practices are not solely about how to improve one’s own capabilities and extend one’s own knowledge, but they’re also about contributing to the learning of others. When activities become compounded by assemblage into various configurations, practices are produced.

Practices: It is possible to share a teaching resource by posting a link to a Google document as isolated action. Following a link in a tweet to a blog post about how Art takes its place within STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics), might merit a retweet, but matters may proceed no further. However, when people come together in a more concerted way, on a regular basis, ‘practices’ like mentoring, EduTweetOz, Team English, hashtag chats and crib sheets become possible.

Each of the aforementioned professional learning experiences begins with the acts and activities described, but each emerges differently depending on how they are assembled and sustained, or not. The ongoing, rather than episodic, nature of ETO and Team English perhaps best exemplify compound learning. Not only does each new host, each new member or each new resource add to the learning assemblage, but they also bring the actor-networks with which they are associated.

Combining compound learning and scales

In the following matrix I draw examples from the Gatherings, illustrating how these two dimensions of TPD map across one another.

Reading across the matrix shows how within assemblage, acts come together in activities which, when associated with one another, build to form practices. In compound learning as mixtures, this is achieved through a variety of actors mixing together in acts, activities and practices on an ad hoc basis. In compound learning (chemically framed), bonds form and reform between participants through the acts, activities and practices they enact. The practice or community is sustained and made more resilient when more associations form, or when those associations are regularly renewed. In the financial framing of compound learning, there is an intensification of any practice through the acts and activities which contribute to its assemblage. Through all the connections they bring, each new participant increases potential participation and activity by much more than that of a single individual.

By offering three nested scales, it allows us to think differently about Twitter PD in temporal or spatial terms. TPD can be brief and fleeting, as in an act, or it can be long-lasting and durable, as in practices. Importantly, this is not about devaluing acts as ephemeral events, but recognising that they work through activities to produce practices. The connectivity enabled through Twitter’s layered architecture, as described in an earlier post, extends network associations and increases participation space. Involvement in TPD becomes possible at each of the three scales depending on the choices and needs of the participant. They can feel their way with a few tentative acts, or leap straight into an activity. Scales allow a progression path for those who need it, or the opportunity to jump in at the deep end. Scales help facilitate personalisation.

By reading across the Gatherings, it became clear that Twitter professional development (TPD) defies simple description and neat pigeon-holing. It involves a rich mix of learning, development, support and friendship. It shifts along continua between planned and unplanned, structured and unstructured, social and professional, formal and informal.

I have thus far stepped over, around and through the mess, but another hinterland now resurfaces. When I was a teacher, I could never leave a messy classroom for the colleague who followed me. Despite my earlier reluctance to provide too simple an account, I cannot leave this chapter without an attempt to tidy up, which I’ll endeavour to do by returning with the PLDbot to the questions I sought to answer:

Fenwick, T., & Edwards, R. (2011). Introduction: Reclaiming and renewing actor network theory for educational research. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 43(s1), 1-14. doi:10.1111/j.1469-5812.2010.00667.x
Hodkinson, H., & Hodkinson, P. (2005). Improving schoolteachers’ workplace learning. Research Papers in Education, 20(2), 109-131. doi:10.1080/02671520500077921
Law, J. (2007). Making a mess with method. In W. Outhwaite, & S. P. Turner (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of social science methodology (pp. 595-606). London: Sage Publications Ltd.
Law, J., & Singleton, V. (2005). Object lessons. Organization, 12(3), 331-355. doi:10.1177/1350508405051270
Mulcahy, D. (2012). Thinking teacher professional learning performatively: A socio-material account. Journal of Education and Work, 25(1), 121-139. doi:10.1080/13639080.2012.644910
Thompson, T. L., & Rimpiläinen, S. (2012). (2012). Unravelling knowledge practices: The assistances and resistances of ANT. Paper presented at the ProPEL (Professional Practice, Education and Learning) Conference 2012, Stirling, Scotland. Retrieved from
van Dijk, L., & Rietveld, E. (2017). Foregrounding sociomaterial practice in our understanding of affordances: The skilled intentionality framework. Frontiers in Psychology, 7 doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01969


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