Category Archives: Reflections

Takeaways from Attending #SXSWedu

Scaling Innovation SXSWedu Session – Sketched by Dan Ryder

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend SXSWedu in Austin. As I sifted through my tweets and notes from the conference, I tried to look for themes and key takeaways that came up throughout my various sessions.

In general, I attended workshops, panels, and sessions focusing on innovation and specific approaches to teaching and learning (e.g., Design Thinking, PBL, maker). Here are the recurring ideas that could have a truly meaningful impact on our schools if we put them into practice:

School must BE the “real-world”

So often, we talk of preparing students for the “real-world” that they will enter after graduating high school or at least higher education. At SXSWedu, many of the discussions instead centered on the idea of students engaging in real-world problem solving and projects while they are in school.

Students are not just imagining becoming engineers and entrepreneurs nor simply learning skills that will help them to do that work one day/someday, they have become them in many schools. This shift from “playing” a maker to being one in “real-life” is a dramatic change for many educators, administrators, and school systems yet the power of being able to take an idea or a product from something that is conceived in your head to one that is available to the public is immense.

By inviting students and teachers to engage in innovative ways of teaching and learning (e.g., design thinking, making, and global collaboration), schools can become another piece of every child’s real-world experience. For example, as Amanda Kruysman said, “DT is a way to solve problems for real users & you can look to your home community for those problems.” In fact, the Design Thinking in the Humanities panel eloquently demonstrated with concrete examples from their classrooms how valuable (and feasible) it is to bring the real-world into the classroom and invite students to engage in human-centered problem-solving that not always, but many times, has far-reaching and tangible real-world results.

Stop Accepting Space Constraints

There was one important ingredient to facilitating these real-world school experiences that was raised repeatedly at SXSWedu – agile spaces. As Steelcase demonstrated with their crowdsourced poll, everyone learns and thinks differently:

So having rigid, single-use spaces that cannot shift to accommodate different learners or learning activities will inherently leave some students behind. I ran into this first-hand when trying to setup the room for our core conversation on Scaling Innovation, which was arranged in concentric circles and was not conducive to small group work.

One of the Buck Institute for Education PBL sessions I attended also addressed this issue. We spent a lot of time discussing transformational learning experiences which almost always involved addressing real-world problems. To facilitate those types of learning experiences attendees came to the conclusion that schools need spaces that support active, hands-on work, hacking, play, collaboration, and a wide variety of learner interactions. Another session focusing on holistic design also discussed making schools more flexible and agile to respond to students’ needs. In small groups, we problematized the idea of traditional roles and spaces, imagining all teachers as learning coaches and every space as a place for discovery and collaboration (e.g. Learning Stairs). Schools were re-imagined to have “neighborhoods” with centralized resources and spaces that could be responsive to change over time. Ultimately, though…

Innovation Leaders can Help 

To help the people involved in schooling change their behaviors, schools need support and guidance. One way to achieve this is to ask for help by appointing one or more educators in your school who can serve as Innovation Leaders. Lindsey Own and I led a core conversation on this topic at SXSWedu.

Our hope was to give people a process (resources here) that they could bring back to their schools and organizations to explore the question of how to scale innovation and also help everyone walk out with some concrete takeaways (i.e., challenges to scaling innovation and a job description for an Innovation Leader).

Innovation Challenges

We began by asking everyone to map what innovation currently looks like at their schools, thinking about whether it is centered around specific people/hubs and how it flows (or doesn’t) within the school. From these maps, we invited groups to pull out challenges they saw (e.g., silos, a lack of resources) and after organizing by these themes, groups worked together to dive deeper into why these challenges might exist. Using the 5 Why’s exercise and small group discussions, attendees were able to get to the root of the issues and discover what would be needed to help overcome these challenges.

The groups were then able to chart what mindsets, professional/personal qualities, experience, and team needs an Innovation Leader would require to overcome that specific challenge. Combining all of their responses together, we could see clear themes that align with with many of the ideas of other SXSWedu sessions. For example, having varied experience (e.g., working at a startup or in a specific industry) and empathy are key outcomes of the real-world experiences students should be able to have in schools and being flexible and a risk-taker are helpful when trying to re-envision learning spaces and think differently about traditional school setups. .

Final Thoughts

One of the reasons educators attend conferences like SXSWedu is to come together and hear inspiring stories and learn from amazing speakers. These stories give us hope that every student and each classroom can become a place for students to have those “wow” factor experiences that can be life changing for both students and teachers.

Just look at the stories shared by Emily Pilloton about her work in If You Build It or with nine year old girls who have learned welding and an assortment of other equally impressive, tangible skills! You’ll notice how the homework she assigned everyone is also connected to my SXSWedu takeaways and does not involve a single worksheet.

And I think Mimi Ito, in her closing, might have shared the key that we are all looking for when we come to these conferences – connected learning. She encouraged everyone to help students find a #learninghero:

Isn’t that exactly what we, as attendees, are searching for?

While I learned a lot in the different sessions I attended, the most meaningful part of SXSWedu was connecting with my tribe, the #dtk12chat colleagues and friends (Thank You!!) I knew from Twitter (but mostly never face-to-face) and the new people I connected with who are passionate about innovating and using technologies to create and connect students globally. These connections and the natural exchange of ideas, resources, and support that come with them, are the key to my own growth and learning. I think it is the hidden, unnamed link we all share as innovation leaders.

The attendees in our session did not seem to notice that their very presence in the session speaks to a powerful component of an Innovation Leader. She or he is always looking for connections and new learning heroes who can “infect them with passion and expertise” and inspire them to connect school experiences to students’ own passions and interests. In order to help students capitalize on connected learning, bringing in local and global real-world problems and reimagine what classrooms can and should look like, we need Innovation Leaders who are connected, leaders who are always looking to add one more learning hero to their network.

One of the biggest challenges raised in our Scaling Innovation session was silos, within schools and between them, but maybe we are not so siloed, we just have to help each other and our colleagues find their tribe and understand how to nurture and build upon the creative synergy that results from being part of a virtual neighborhood of learning heroes.

Joining the #Learning2 Family

Well, it has been far too long since I’ve made time for a reflective post here! There are so many posts I still want to write – about the amazing design thinking experience I had at FUSE14, the hubbub of ed tech tools and ideas that always come from attending ISTE, my experiences teaching two new summer classes on Raspberry Pi and coding, and my work facilitating a four day faculty workshop at my school. It was a busy summer (and a hard one)! So busy, clearly, that I haven’t had a chance to write about it … yet.

But instead of trying to rewind, I want to first share some reflections about the wonderful experience I just had at the #Learning2.014 conference at the International Community School in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. If you haven’t heard of Learning2 … yet … check out this page about its history and start following the hashtag because there will be a second conference in Bangkok in just one week!

As one of the Learning2 Leaders (L2Ls) at the conference, I had the privilege of arriving a few days early so I could participate in additional prep and professional growth with the other L2Ls and the advisory team. I think this is one of the many things that makes the conference unique and particularly meaningful. If you are going to speak and present at the conference, the advisory helps to make sure that you have an in-depth understanding of how the conference will work, what your role as a leader will be, and then helps you tweak and improve your own work before everyone arrives.

I was able to practice my five minute TED-like “Learning2Talk,“done in the presentation-zen style multiple times for the advisory audience and get critical feedback to help make it stronger. I also had an opportunity to work one-on-one with another L2L so we could share, review, and provide feedback to one another on our three hour Extended Sessions. One of my favorite parts of the pre-conference was hearing a quick elevator pitch from each L2L about what their session would be about and then providing feedback, ideas, and resources to help support that person. Not only did I get some great tips when I shared my own session but I was able to get ideas each time another Leader shared her or his presentation that I could use at the conference or back in my own school!

This type of time and support for presenters is awesome because it makes it so much easier to continue growing as a speaker and educator and it also helped to develop a deeper community of practice among the L2Ls that I hope we can continue to build and pull on in the future (hint hint). I wish every conference provided and even required this type of experience for its presenters.

Once all of the L2Ls had practiced and improved their presentations and prepared their spaces for the different sessions, it was time to kick-off the conference!

Learning2 is made up of 6 core components:

  1. Learning2Talks
  2. Extended Sessions
  3. Nutshell Sessions (45 min. versions of Extended Sessions)
  4. Workshops
  5. Unconference
  6. Cohorts 

In addition to these pieces, there is an emphasis on, and time set aside for, social connections that are woven throughout each day.

This social dimension is designed very purposefully because one of the principles of the conference is to “put participants first” and another is an understanding that “learning is a social act.” Therefore, making time for all of the participants to talk, reflect, share and even rest is critical. This was demonstrated multiple times during the conference when the organizers made changes in response to participants’ requests (e.g., changing bus times to accommodate requests to arrive/leave at different times and creating a “mindfulness centre” for participants to pause and be mindful).

Another way that participants get to drive the conference is by running workshops and suggesting and facilitating unconference sessions. This allows time and space for attendees to share their own areas of expertise and also to have a forum to talk about questions and ideas that might pop-up during the conference. For example, I attended an unconference session about social media in early elementary. It was proposed by an attendee who heard about the idea of social media being used with young children and want to hear from other people who were trying it and what the benefits might be. It turned into a great conversation and through Twitter, I was even able to invite a kindergarten teacher I know who uses social media extensively with her students, to join the discussion virtually!

This week, as I’ve been recovering from jet lag and trying to get back into my usual school routine, I’ve used moments lying in bed at night or in-between classes to reflect about what was so meaningful about my Learning2 experience. I’ve concluded that two elements really made it into one of the best conferences I have attended: an almost perfect learning menu to select from each day and the community.

Similar to going to your favorite restaurant, Learning2 has a menu of 6+ options that you can choose from and each one is great but has a unique flavor and might meet a different person’s tastes or interests. There’s something for everyone and probably a few options that might push you outside of your comfort zone, but that’s what learning is all about, right? 🙂 For example, you can go in-depth and work hands-on for three hours into just one specific topic or you can answer burning questions you have in a cohort session or you can get bite-sized pieces of new knowledge and ideas from the poster sessions. There’s something for everyone, allowing the conference to meet so many different learning needs.

Then, there’s the community. This is really the cornerstone of Learning2 for me and I think many other attendees. The Learning2 community is powerful because it’s inviting and passionate. Although the conference has been running since 2007, there wasn’t the exclusiveness to it that I’ve seen at other conferences. Too often, it’s hard to break into the group if you’re not a “groupie” of the conference. Instead, Learning2 was all about networking, branching out, and meeting new colleagues who you could connect with and then stay in-touch with later through social media. It was about having time to engage in those passionate conversations about teaching and learning and the best tools to help meet varied goals and needs of different contexts.

I would go as far as to say that Learning2 was about becoming part of a family, a large, diverse, and geographically spread out family that loves to share, reflect, learn, and connect. It’s also a family that loves to have fun and that joy, of being together and learning together, was pervasive throughout the conference.

So, if you have a chance to attend a Learning2 conference, I highly encourage it and if it’s a bit too far for you to travel (at least until they are up in running in Europe and the Middle East), then jump in and join our active #Learning2 community on social media! Thanks again to everyone who helped make the #Learning2.014 Africa experience so memorable and for inviting me into the family.