Classroom Technology

TikTok Teacher Prep: Preservice Teachers Are Getting Inspiration From the Platform

By Alyson Klein — June 26, 2023 5 min read
The icon for TikTok pictured in New York on Feb. 25, 2020.
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TikTok—the social media platform of dance videos and viral challenges—might not seem like an obvious gold mine of high-quality professional development.

But many preservice teachers can’t wait to implement ideas found on the site in their future classrooms, according to research conducted by Stefanie McKoy, who recently received her doctorate in curriculum and instruction from the University of Arkansas.

That is the case even though some experts have sounded the alarm about the dangers of using TikTok, which is owned by Chinese company ByteDance. They say the platform presents big, potential data privacy problems and is often used to spread misinformation.

Through TikTok, preservice teachers can search for videos offering approaches specific to the subject and grade they teach—say 3rd grade math. They can find ideas from colleagues around the country, and even the globe, allowing them to “collaborate with this whole world of teachers,” McKoy explained.

The advantages of a TikTok video over an hour-long presentation in a teacher prep program or district professional development session were obvious to future educators, said McKoy, who conducted 15 semi-structured interviews of roughly an hour each with preservice teachers to inform her research.

“What they liked about TikTok was that it was a short form video,” she said. That allows preservice teachers to see a strategy in action, in a short, easily digestible format.

That’s a contrast from how preservice teachers usually learn in their preparation programs. For instance, a teacher educator might explain an approach for differentiating instruction and “could give examples all day, but until [preservice teachers] see it, they’re not going to really comprehend it,” said McKoy, whose research is scheduled to be presented at the International Society for Technology in Education’s annual conference this week.

Plus, teachers often lament that the professional development they receive isn’t relevant to the content that they have to teach. This incoherence is frustrating for teachers and a problem for student achievement, say researchers at the RAND Corporation.

Preservice teachers appeared to give more credibility to videos shot in a classroom, even if there were no students in the background. And they were more likely to trust advice from videos that had higher “production quality behind them,” McKoy said, including music, bright images, and words on the screen.

They especially liked videos made by “young teachers like them,” she added. In fact, they seemed most impressed when the educators featured “mirrored what they [themselves] looked like in appearance and even [clothing] style.”

‘How do we know this is credible?’

Preservice educators reported sharing the videos with friends or classmates from their program, often including their own takes on the showcased strategies. That’s hard to do with a traditional district PD session, McKoy said.

Many of the student teachers were reluctant to immediately implement the advice and practices they saw in the videos, in part because as student teachers, they didn’t want to contradict or criticize their mentor teacher’s style and practices. But they planned to put what they learned into action as soon as they had their own classrooms.

Teacher education programs have a role to play in helping preservice teachers turn a critical eye on what they find on social platforms to determine what is and is not useful, McKoy said.

“I think that teacher education programs need to use videos and use social media and talk about how do we know this is credible? How would we use this?” she said. “I think we can teach student teachers to be more purposeful about it.”

But lessons on how to make the most of social media rarely happen in prep programs, McKoy said, in part because “I think they’re scared of it. There’s limited research on whether what’s [presented on TikTok is] high quality, right?”

That’s true of other PD too though, McKoy argued. “I could go to a professional development session and listen to somebody talk, and it may not be good quality,” she said. “And then you waste several hours. [With TikTok] you could just watch a 32-second video and go ‘nope’” if it’s not useful.

‘You can’t be afraid of it’

Videos popular with preservice teachers often offered tips on classroom organizing and behavior management, or explained how to make the most of educational technology.

Some of those videos showed how to set up a “calm corner” where students can get a minute of alone time; or use floor lamps and Christmas lights, rather than standard issue fluorescents, to create a cozier classroom atmosphere. Preservice teachers also liked videos explaining how to set up a token economy, where well-behaving students are rewarded with tickets or stickers they can exchange for prizes.

Less popular: Videos that showed negative consequences for poor behavior, like putting a student’s name on the board or taking a privilege away from a student or a class. Preservice teachers didn’t think those strategies matched what they were learning in their classes about handling behavior problems.

In fact, preservice educators generally tended to “avoid negativity, because teachers ‘quit talk’ is a huge thing” on social media, McKoy said. “And so, if they saw something like that, they went past it.”

Preservice teachers paid attention to both the video itself and the accompanying comments, which appeared to be from educators who had put a showcased strategy into action and could give more information about how it did or did not work.

For instance, teachers in training were intrigued by a tech tool that showed an image of bouncing balls, which became more active as a classroom got noisier. The teacher in the video touted the tech as an engaging way to remind kids to use their inside voices.

But some of the commenters begged to differ, McKoy’s subjects told her. They wrote that their students intentionally shouted to generate lively bouncing action or were so captivated by the balls on the screen that they ignored their classwork.

Another popular video showed a teacher who played the same song for her students every time they needed to line up, with the goal of getting everyone in line before the music stopped. In comments, some educators said the strategy was a big success. But others said their students turned lining up into a disruptive dance party.

Some states—including Arkansas, where McKoy conducted her research—have banned TikTok from being used on state-issued devices or internet connections. That wasn’t a problem for the preservice teachers, who just used their cellular data to view the videos.

The lesson for teacher prep programs and districts providing professional development: Embrace social media, McKoy said.

“You can’t be afraid of it,” McKoy said. “You’ve got to learn how to help the next generation think critically about what they’re seeing on social media. And how they take what they see and implement it into the physical world.”

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