8 Lessons About Education I Learned From SXSWEdu

by Michele Spiezia

I knew even before I got off the plane that I was likely overestimating the amount of thinking/working I would get accomplished while in Austin.

Being at a conference like SXSWEdu can be completely overwhelming — a race to attend, listen to and engage with as many education-minded humans as humanly possible while stopping periodically to eat and sleep. The FOMO is real. While my mornings allowed me more space-time than I’m used to for stretching, meditating, eating breakfast (sitting down) and not setting an alarm, each day was brimming with intense learning, thinking and conversating from 9am to 6pm and beyond. It gave me some serious perspective and empathy on what it must feel like for my students every day. Whew!

What I didn’t underestimate is the lack of time & headspace I’d have when I stepped off the plane and got back to work, so I took the 4 hour flight to get my thoughts out and synthesize the myriad experiences I had this week at SXSWEdu. Below are my key takeaways and themes. (Author’s note: I didn’t actually finish this whole post on the plane. Have you ever heard that the last 10% of a project takes as much effort and time as the first 90%? Well… it’s the truth!)

TLDR: See my doodle notes!

(Also, disclaimer: I left SXSW on Thursday morning and missed some amazing things like @cultofpedagogy keynote and blockchain in education sessions. Boo.)

8 Lessons About Education I Learned From SXSWEdu

1. Genius Steals (Montessori)

People lit up with enthusiasm and curiosity when I told them I was a Montessori parent, educator and curriculum designer (and a middle school one at that!). And… I’ve heard a lot of things this week that echo the swan song of Maria — prepared environments, freedom of movement in the classroom, student agency, choice within boundaries and igniting students’ natural curiosities and interests. Hmph.

This actually puts Montessori schools in a prime position to evolve and adapt, though often because of the beautiful but somewhat rigid teacher training that supports a hundred year old curriculum to the letter, it’s challenging for teachers of ‘Orthodox Montessori’ principles to adapt and evolve their practices. They’re stuck in the ‘what’ instead of seeing Maria’s work for the why, to reinterpret what materials, manipulatives and group learning can be (especially if it involves a screen, a device or a ‘maker’ project).

I see them as one and the same. You can call it STEAM, STEM, the Maker Movement, whatever. It’s engaged and curious learning. We’ve been doing it for a century. WWMD? (What Would Maria Do?) Do you think she’d still be searching for information on vertebrates in a dusty old textbook, or would she take her iPad with her on a walk with children through the park and use it to explore interactive models of animals while taking pictures of them in the wild? We can use her timeless scientific exploration of the child and put it through a 21st century lens.

Montessori Rebooted.

2. Balance

I have students that come to my classroom and tell me technology is ‘dangerous’ and ‘addictive.’ Surely messages they are receiving from home or the media, and while these are few and far between, it seems to me that most kids are getting the message that this thing called technology that fascinates, engages and mystifies them in its many forms is something to be ashamed of. A guilty pleasure. A mindless wormhole of distraction.

Honestly, it’s all about balance. Over and over across every topic I encountered at SXSW there was a relieving and very sane call for Balance. Balance between individual and group work, between digital experiences and physical ones, between time at school and time with family. Between the urban jungle and the natural landscape. It’s all balance. Anything in excess or dearth is a disservice to a student.

Or any human for that matter.

Thankfully, I also heard lots of talk about balance between data and narratives. About using data gathering until the point at which it maximizes its returns, remembering that in education, as in all things human, that it’s a messy, non-linear, beautiful process that can’t always be captured or optimized by numbers, checkboxes or statistics.

The other important conversation happening around balance was in regard to over corrections of all kinds, but especially in the novelty of STEM and math/science/computer science focused programs, often at the high cost of rich experiences in history, the humanities, art & culture. While the future is certainly high tech, it’s undoubtedly Human. Connection between individuals, communities and even between humans and their machines, will be at the nexus of our ability to thrive. While focusing on the skills and expectations of a technologically literate society, we must also find balance in our long history of being human and innate benefits of interdisciplinary collaboration.

Finally, back to balance and tech. Personalized learning doesn’t mean 25 kids sharing a room but each staring into a device that’s putting them elsewhere. Personalized doesn’t mean singular. Technology doesn’t have to be isolating, or addictive, or distracting. Balancing how, when, where and why we employ technology as a tool is what matters. Our devices, from iPhones to VR to laptops aren’t worth their weight in LittleBits if we’re not asking the right questions.

3. Ask the right question.

So much of the discussion around engaging and serving students focused on agency, and the idea that in a world where the future is uncertain and fast changing, inquiry is at the heart of learning. Knowing how to ask questions, form questions and refine them needs to be a key element of teaching and learning in our classrooms and our boardrooms.

Asking the right question is a matter of working together as learners and educators, and keeping empathy and perspective at the center of our work. It also means being sure administrators and policy makers are solving the right problems, getting at the whys and not just the whats. It means breaking the assumptions we hold and questioning the most foundational systems we have created instead of simply creating more solutions within the same old structure. It means being vulnerable enough to say we don’t know, to dive into areas where we’re not experts, and learn right along with our students every day.

Our lens needs to widen to the most macro when considering problems and their potential solutions.

4. Context

Move over, content. Context is queen.

Now that information and content is ubiquitous and ever-more accessible, creating context around the work we do as teachers and learners is critical. Helping teachers and students define and create the context in which they are discovering and exploring ideas is the new cartography of innovation. The terrain is constantly changing, and looks different depending on your perspective — we can’t use the same old paper map stuck in the glove box of our ’89 Honda to navigate the spaceship. Encouraging students, educators and administrators to collaborate and connect across disciplines will expand and exponentially increase our ability to solve problems by creating multidimensional articulations — kaleidoscopes of possibility.

One thing that seems can be agreed upon regarding context is that it’s always interdisciplinary, which means our classrooms need to aim to be the same. You can’t talk about scientific discovery without engaging with policy and politics, civil rights and ethics. Physics would be nothing without its mathematical counterparts and none of it would be worth anything without art and design.

Bringing students together with an understanding of their passions, strengths, interests, and areas of weakness allows for naturally interdisciplinary experiences. This also requires an almost entire rethinking of how teachers are trained and educated, who makes a great teacher/facilitator, and taking a bit of our own medicine as teachers on that whole collaboration thing.

On a related note, there was a lot of conversation on Invention vs Innovation. That our students should be striving for ‘invention’ instead of or over ‘innovation.’ I talk a lot with my students about how ‘Everything is a Remix’ and that there are no new ideas. Genius Steals.

Does assuming the expectation of Invention over Innovation innately presuppose individuality? Of creating in a vacuum? Helping students understand the ‘Remix’ not only encourages them to collaborate and share in an ‘open source’ kind of way, it instead pre-supposes connection to the entirety of the human race, to one another, and all that came before us in an effort to evolve the future.

5. Time

Only rats win the rat race.

Here’s the big one. One that feels like a Goliath of all Goliaths. Time. I’ve written before that time is a slinky, stretching and slinking to expand and contract based on our feelings, brain state and circumstances. Being in Austin this week was yet another proof of that hypothesis for me. When you don’t have your kid, your husband, your student kids, your job, your dishes and laundry or your gym routine, time unfolds and expands in a way that’s almost inexplicable. The days are long, to say the least.

Time is a perception and you must choose how you use it. You are choosing how you use it in your homes and in your classrooms. You are allowing a preconceived structure to define your work, your students’ capacity to think deeply and denying space for wondering, working, collaborating, building, and heaven forbid, boredom.

Of all the changes my own team has made to our middle school program in redefining our curriculum, schedule was by FAR the most transformative. Break your schedules apart. Release yourself from old mindsets about class time and periods and siloed learning (see above notes on interdisciplinary approaches). Create space for deep learning. Create space for co-teaching, for discovery. Create space for impromptu tangents, discussions on current events and pop up field trips. You’ll be able to cross more standards off your list than you ever thought possible. I promise.

6. Choice & Agency

The world today (and certainly of tomorrow) is not going to tell us what to do. It’s asking of us ‘What needs to be done? How do we get there, together?’. Serving the student, not the system is essential to engendering the types of people who will be able to serve the world for good in the next generation and beyond. Giving students opportunities to define and create their learning, and work with educators to create experiences that are truly transformative is what needs to be at the center of our schools.

This does not mean personalizing content for each individual student, silo-ing them off from others in an attempt to provide every student with a unique, adaptive, technology-driven experience.

Choice and Agency also means Choice and Agency for Teachers and Educators.

It also means choice and agency for teachers and educators. It means having administrators and policy makers that listen more than they speak, and act in the service of educators and their students by fostering trust, communication and dialogue. There needs to be room to risk without the fear of failure. If we are asking the right questions, how might we redefine the indicators and outcomes that matter to us as a school, a district, a state or a nation?

We’ve moved far beyond things that are easy to measure. That is compliance. Just because it’s not easily measured today doesn’t mean we can’t create the tools to do so tomorrow, and if we don’t invent ways to explore and measure creativity, collaboration, motivation and leadership, we’ll be left with a broken system.

7. Micro/Macro & Scale

When I became a Founder & CEO of my startup, Bespoke, I devoured information, and two things have stuck with me — ‘Put your head down and get to work’ and ‘Do things that don’t scale.’

When talking about initiating change, the best and only place to start is with the people in the room. Your room. One kid, one class, one tiny experiment towards a huge vision of reinvention. The age of social media has fostered the misconception that it only matters if it’s a billion dollar, global-reaching movement. But it’s actually lots of tiny drops in a giant bucket until one day the bucket overflows. I know how loud the echoes in the bucket can be when you’re a single drop.

But simply listen to the voices and echoes of those around you, start by creating an environment that works for your community, whether its a single classroom, a school or your city. Start small and stick to it. Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing, or who’s watching what you’re doing. Worry about the people in the room. Create change with them. Listen to them. If what you’re doing works, word will spread. 

Note: this will take longer than you expect, and at first, no one may show up. Find others who are working on similar things. Talk with them and learn from them, but keep the balance (see above) between seeking answers outside your classroom and working toward them inside your classroom.

As a Gen X’er, the phrase ‘Think Globally, Act Locally’ is ingrained in me, and its relevance is truer today than I could have ever imagined. You’re going to have to do things that are messy, dirty and time consuming. Things that don’t look pretty on paper or translate to beautiful data visualizations. But the world of education (and the world for that matter) can be revolutionized with some post it notes, a whiteboard and an internet connection. Oh and lots of good pens (sidenote: bring lots of pens to SXSW! I ran out of ink. Twice.)

Do it your way and then see how others are doing it. Share your frameworks and find others that have similar ideas and frameworks. Encourage people to steal what you’ve created and make it their own. Want to ask the right question? Try ‘should this scale?’ Instead of ‘When/How will you scale?’ What will scale look like? There’s no carbon copy answer that’s going to solve the reinvention of education across the country or the globe. And there shouldn’t be. We can be open to agile and flexible frameworks that change as we change, that mold to the cultures, attitudes & needs of the kids in our care. That thing about asking the right question? It assumes and supports the necessity of a myriad possible answers.

Oh and about letting people steal your work and make it their own, the idea of open-source collaboration and sharing? If there’s a single systemic framework we need to blow apart and rebuild, it’s creative attribution for original work. Hello blockchain and web 3.0. A new future is coming.

8. Equity/Access/Diversity

Speaking of a new future, topics of inclusion, equity and diversity reigned at SXSWEdu. Supported by a focus on social/emotional skills, qualitative assessment and student-centered learning, creating our educational environments to serve everyone is key. A few thoughts on some of the themes I saw explored:

Girls in STEM: Yes! We certainly need more women across STEM fields and programs that support their inclusion, but let’s also consider:

  • In an age of gender diversity, the conversation of girl vs boy becomes a tricky one for me. How can we reframe this argument where and when it’s necessary? How can we create inclusion for non-binary, gender fluid, LGBT friends who may not sit on one side of this argument or the other?
  • Even with more women and girls in STEM related fields, we still have the hard work to do of raising boys and young men who have empathy, perspective, and bias awareness when working alongside our girls and young women (or any human, for that matter).
  • Let’s not forget our balance of Humanities/Liberal Arts fields, and encourage students to follow their passions and interests, working in interdisciplinary environments as often as possible, seeing and exploring problems from multiple perspectives and areas of study and being mindful of over corrections or novelty.

The SocioEconomic Divide: I am wary of programs and solutions intended to ‘bring 21st century skills’ such as coding and programming to low income communities. We must demand equity in educating all students on the ‘Why’s’ of technology, digital citizenship and humane/ethical approaches to technology, not simply create a new blue collar labor force of the future, meeting the minimum requirements of state and local standards to expose students to technology.

The word of the day here is ‘Access.’ Who gets access and why? Where is access limited, and how do we meet the needs of individual communities, adapt to their priorities while maintaining a high expectation of the availability of services, materials and quality instruction to all students?

7. Fear

Create the future, without fear.

There are only two emotions, love and fear; everything else evolves from these. Fear is undoubtedly our greatest enemy in the quest to redefine education. Fear of the future, of uncertainty, of not being good enough, of global warming, refugees, disease and dictatorship. Fear of the robots taking over.

We must create the future, without fear. We must embrace our uncertainties and take the long view on our place in the universe. It can be frightening, I know. But inciting fear in our children is clearly producing levels of anxiety, depression and a loss of the natural wonder of what it means to be a child. Re-educating ourselves as parents and educators is essential to providing the next generation of students with the sense of bravery, vulnerability and ethical leadership that will be required of them to innovate a future that is fair, equitable, peaceful and just.

We must redefine our view of success, of achievement and our willingness to ‘play the game’. We must demand change in the legacy institutions that drive inequality, the Goliaths of the Ivy League and the Boardroom. We must find the Davids in the world and make change happen, depending on policy makers and education re-imaginers to be the megaphone to amplify our message and put the microphone to our beliefs and our work.

We must require open source collaboration and information sharing, ultimately creating a new world order that supports education with the confining and restrictive rules of capitalistic greed creating cultural, educational and opportunistic imbalances. Change has to come from the bottom up, in pockets of innovation, providing pathways and choice.

8. Human First

We are all human, and that’s the place we’ve got to start from. The future is human. We need empathy and connection, and can leverage technology to allow for more meaningful connection. Bottom line.

In the end, it all comes down to trust. Uncertainty is scary. As humans, we don’t like it. As parents and educators, sometimes even more so. But the truth is, naming, accepting and embracing our fears when they erupt is the simplest way to disarm them. Being vulnerable with one another, choosing empathy over judgement, and supporting environments of openness in our homes, our classrooms and our communities is the only way forward. 

No one’s saying it’s going to be easy, but I promise, it will be better.

Footnote: What follows is a short list of ‘How to SXSWEdu. Do you agree with my hitlist? Have something to add? Let me know!’

  • Know thyself. Do what works for you at a conference like this. FOMO is real, and paralysis of choice can set it fast and furiously.
  • Allow space for serendipity. Some of the most interesting people you’ll meet will be the ones you share a power outlet with while charging your phone. For me, focusing on smaller group meetups and balancing workshop experiences with ‘sage on the stage’ sessions was key.
  • Take pictures of people’s badges that you want to keep in touch with.
  • Resist the urge to stay out late enjoying way too much food and cocktails (easier said than done).