Stanford History Education Professor Sam Wineburg Learns To Tweet

Last June, Stanford history education professor Sam Wineburg went to Umeå University in Sweden to accept an honorary doctorate. He had prepared remarks on his recent Howard Zinn critique [pdf] but instead chose to analyze his complicated sense of relevance in the age of Twitter.

It’s fascinating introspection on what counts as scholarship, how status is awarded, and how we define academic relevance in the 21st century. It’s particularly interesting given that he’s a tenured professor at an elite university. He’s throwing stones from inside the glass house, basically. On a personal level, having felt forced to maintain something of a firewall between my Internet advocacy and my work at Stanford, it was cathartic to hear that one of my professors isn’t just aware of Twitter but understands that it complicates and enriches his professional existence.

There are plenty of interesting moments throughout the 20-minute talk. Here are a few I wanted to transcribe and collect:

On publishing:

After I received tenure … I had an opportunity to reflect upon the way that my own values had become changed by the culture of the university in which I was rewarded for publishing in the most prestigious journals, whether or not those journals had any effect on anyone else except for the small number of people reading those journals.

A foundation supervisor asked him about his theory of change. His response:

Our theory of change is that we will produce materials that are better than those that are commercially bought and the commercial companies will start to see that people are downloading our materials for free and they will start to copy what we are doing and imitate what we are doing.

On the waning relevance of universities:

Our worry is that, as we continue to produce only our refereed journal articles, we are not understanding the profound changes in how information is disseminated in modern society. The university, particularly professional schools that are supposed to be producing knowledge for practitioners, are being left behind. We are becoming less and less relevant to the people who most need our knowledge – teachers and students and principals and decisionmakers in the field.

He’s on Twitter. I’ll encourage him (and anyone else feeling his angst) to look to Jon Becker, Cedar Riener, Sara Goldrick-Rab, and Bruce Baker as academics doing interesting advocacy on Twitter.

2013 Feb 19. Here is another disclosure from Prof. Wineburg, a brief interview on his struggle with depression.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. As I understand it, the reason academics shy away from open-access tends to be around the cost of having their papers peer-reviewed. Many open-access journals are apparently transferring these costs to the author from the end-consumer, which I think would make anyone shy away from them. You have to be pretty committed to an idea to pay for it out of your own pocket. Research grants have not yet caught up to this issue, which means that open-access publishing means less money for the researcher to do their work, which means less research gets done.

    Of course, that applies only to open-access information. You do a lot of research and share your ideas through your blog, and we act a type of peer-review for your ideas. However, I don’t think we can completely replace the kind of critical (and anonymous) peer review expected in a research journal. We follow you because we tend to agree with you, and ideally critical peer review requires an eye that actually disagrees with the ideas presented.

    We need this research to be open. We need to change our funding formulas so we can afford quality peer review. We also need to be more willing as informal reviewers to disagree with the ideas presented AND take the time to explain our disagreement.

    Our current system has got to change. It is somewhat unbelievable to me that the only way teachers have access (and time to review it) to research is essentially when they start their Master’s degrees. Who designed a system which keeps the knowledge necessary to do our jobs well from us?

  2. Absolutely inspiring.

    Thank you so much for sharing this.

    As someone who is on the road to becoming a researcher, this had a profound impact on me. I had been focused on doing research fueled by my interest and curiosity in the field of math education. Nonetheless, there has always been an implied motivation of wanting to change the field — to make a contribution to the field at large. Wineburg’s experience and remarks have clarified this motivation of mine, and gave me an opportunity the possibility for significance through such a pathway.

    It is certainly a complex issue.

    In my experience, I’ve spoken to many teachers who believe professors and researchers to be detached from the teaching reality — that they sit in a chair and come up with wild theories about education, which they then push on the poor poor teachers. This not only speaks to a fundamental misunderstanding of the roles of researchers, policy makers, education reformers, and teachers, this also speaks to the aversion to change.

    Can this change be bridged by more accessible communication between scholars and “ordinary teachers” as Wineburg puts it? Will the information lose its potency and intentions when it is funneled through media like blogs and twitter? What will happen to institutions built on the structure of academic hierarchy? So many questions, but I am unsure that I can produce many answers.

    Having hated mosquitoes all my life, this is the first time I am considering the power of one.

    Thanks again for this ;)

  3. No doubt scholarly research on best practice needs to find a better way to reach its intended audience. For example John Hattie’s Visible Learning research

    was exhaustingly painful to read but I’ve become a better teacher as a result. While his arguments presented in printed form are more convincing than a 140 character tweet or infographic, perhaps he and others should publicize their findings using other media forms.

    A final thought, if education research enters the realm of social media, educators will need to be able to discern between what is most popular and what is most effective. We also sometimes confuse research with surveys i.e.

  4. Here are a bunch of questions that I’m sure you and other readers can help me out with:

    1. Are hits measuring the same thing as journal circulation numbers?
    2. Do publishers feel pressure from freely available curricula?
    3. Are teachers and university researchers on the same ground when it comes to disseminating curricular work to practitioners?
    4. Can the curricular work of researchers be done by people currently in the classroom?
    5. What do math teachers need and want? Do they want fully available curricula for free? Do they want little bits and pieces?

  5. So interesting you are referring to him. He wrote one of my favorite papers of ALL TIME:

    (1991). “On the Reading of Historical Texts: Notes on the Breach Between School and Academy,” American Educational Research Journal (28) 3, p 495-519.

    If you’re doing any thinking about novice and expert, authenticity of discipline, or how we teach students how to learn, I really recommend it. It was eye-opening for me way back when. I re-read it this year, and it was eye-opening all over again.

  6. @Michael: What do math teachers need and want?

    What I want are more math ed researchers to start blogs. If Terry Tao can manage to make a post every time he publishes a new paper, so can you.

    What I don’t want are trainings (like I have been to many times) which gives some system with a mnemonic using a dodgy acronym and being told “research says this is best practice” without any backing or details.

    For one thing, in some cases I know of contradictory research or significant controversy.

    Additionally, there is often some nuance being smoothed over to enough of an extent that I have no idea what to believe. For example, we’ve known since Ebbinghaus if people memorize a list, the beginning and the ending are remembered best. This principle has been applied to other contexts, but by the time it gets to a training it has translated to “exit tickets are the best thing to use to end a class” which is several leaps removed from basic psychology principles.

  7. Thought experiment. For a new algebra teacher, we aggregate “best practices” from peer-reviewed journals. Places where methods have been empirically evaluated and there’s some degree of consensus. I realize this doesn’t quite exist, but we do our best.

    We next feature a kind of “best of…” from heavy-hitting blogs (here, nowak, nguyen, shah, danielson, etc.).

    Which would better serve:

    -student achivement?
    -student engagement?
    -teacher pedagogical content knowledge?
    -teacher content knowledge?

    In other words, what is the optimal mix of the old and new worlds?

  8. @Michael: The “Research to Practice” name has already been taken, but if you (or someone else) comes up with a good title I’d be happy to help administrate such a blog.

    It needs to be non-threatening so non-researchers will be willing to read it.

  9. I don’t think I’m going to manage to turn this into a whole blog post, but I’m definitely creeped out by Dr. Wineburg’s decision to write the anti-Zinn piece for American Educator. Not that it is out of line with his approach, or the AFT’s, but it is a bit of a non sequitur. While Zinn’s work has influenced a lot of teachers over the past thirty years, it is hardly dominant and not apparently growing in American history classrooms.

    So… why that article now? An attempt to curry favor for his newly Common Core aligned projects with conservatives? Covering his program’s right flank?

    I don’t know, but it certainly seems carefully calculated (or very oddly random), and doesn’t seem consistent with his “they don’t teach us this stuff in grad school” shtick.

    I also think it is curious that the Gates Foundation’s support for the Beyond the Bubble’s work is not acknowledged on their site.

  10. @jason, @michael – I don’t think the “Research to Practice” can really be considered “taken” since it is so generic. There are tons of sites and blogs with that phrase in the title. Especially if you narrow it down with a tagline or subtitle, like “Research to Practice: K-12 Teaching Forum” or something like that.

    Also, if you want something a even less academic, you could go with “Research to Action”

  11. Technology has clearly changed how easily people share a message and how that message is valued. For example, an actor with a million Twitter followers can send a tweet out about global warming while a climate scientist’s views are left unheard by the general public. Depending on your perspective, this change in dissemination and quality control may be a blessing or curse.

    In terms of dissemination, journals such as Education Week are still very helpful in getting your message across as they have a well-developed readership, but they still have to agree that your message is worth sharing before you are published. Individual blogs are easily published, but it is challenging to distinguish yourself from the peloton and build a following.

    As for quality control, anything that goes through peers or editors must pass their standards. Weak content is weeded out but material that is ahead of its time or out of the norm may also fail to make the cut, resulting in a limited range of ideas. On the Internet, everything goes and crowdsourcing is the only realistic means of quality control. Messages that resonate are spread with amazing speed. Others never see a single viewer.

    One thing I have come to realize is that trying to “win” social media is an effort in futility. Someone is always going to have more subscribers, get more retweets, and in general receive more attention than you. Professor Wineburg laments the lack of attention his work receives even though he believes that it is of higher quality than commercially available work. I’m not sure his viewpoint would be changed even if he had thousands of Twitter followers.

    In regards to what Michael Pershan wrote, “Are hits measuring the same thing as journal circulation numbers?”, I think the bigger question is how do we measure how successfully a message is being spread. Professor Wineburg begins by showing how many subscribers several major journals receive and later compares that to his website downloads and Twitter followers. It is in human nature to want to rank things, but I wonder if simply looking at total views ignores the quality of those views.

    Another point worth reflecting on is who any of the people reading this stuff is anyway? What percent of your colleagues read any type of math education news/blogs/tweets? What percent of your colleagues use Twitter academically? I imagine this will change over time, but I think the answers are slivers of the overall group of math educators.

    I think what it comes down to is that when a person spends significant resources on something and wants to share it, they want to be validated by others for their accomplishments. That part of human nature will not change, but how we determine whether we feel validated is certain to evolve.

  12. The discussion open access journals is getting hotter everyday in the academic society.

    The problem is mainly about costs applied by editors. Currently, buying any article costs something like 25$ per article for a limited access (between 24 and 48 hours). This is absolutely outrageous once you see that this price includes ONLY the editing process (and the data storage on a server). The authors usually give all their copyrights to the journal.

    Compared to any other publication, it’s overpriced. For 25$, you can usually buy a good book in its paper version and it includes the editing, the copyrights and the library benefit.

    Here, you get only an electronic version of something between 3 and 40 pages long. Make the math, but it makes the cost of the page rather high.

    I admit that editing and organizing the process of peer-reviewing has a cost, but as the reviewers are not paid, it’s not that expensive either. A more reasonable price would be of a few dollars per article for a limited number of copies.

    This price policy is made to oblige universities to subscribe to full sets of catalogs at a high prices.

    Besides, researches are compelled to publish in journals for their scientific career. They are caught in between the need of publishing and the need of subscribing to journals.

    As the price of the subscriptions is increasing by something between 10 and 30% per year (you’ve correctly seen the numbers) the system will soon start to break apart.

    Something really strange is that the scientific foundations paying researchers do not try to keep the copyrights for the produced work.

    As both a teacher and a scientist, I fully regret that teachers do not have access to scientific articles. It would help them to keep in touch with recent science and link it to the “old science” taught in high schools and universities. I am personally using full articles from the last few years to illustrate some concepts presented during my full course at the university.