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.
— Margaret A Powers (@mpowers3) March 9, 2015
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…
— Margaret A Powers (@mpowers3) March 11, 2015
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).
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. .
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:
— Margaret A Powers (@mpowers3) March 12, 2015
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.