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We Snuck A Teacher Into SXSW.Edu This Year

We were only two hours in, yet Sarah and I had already hustled through the exhibitor floor, meandered in the Playground, created LED-light up clouds in a Makers Space session, and caught half a panel discussion on Competency-Based assessment. Now on the hunt for coffee, my 4th grade teacher companion, sporting a Canvas LMS tattoo sleeve, and Kahoot stickers proclaimed, “Wow, this is so different than any other conference.”

That caught my attention. “How so?” I asked. “We haven’t even really been here that long.” Without hesitation she exclaimed, “Everyone here seems so incredibly happy and optimistic about all of this stuff.” …then put a lid on small to-go cup.

“Hmmm, ok.” I responded. As we headed off to our next thing she abruptly stopped and turned to me. “Are there any teachers here, I mean really? ”

I assured her, “Well, it seems like there are more here than I’ve seen in the past. Do you think there should be more?” She pondered, “I’m not sure.” as we showed up late to a session on Mindfulness. “Actually, Yes. Although a bunch of teachers might bring a bit more reality to the scene than many here are looking for.”

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The best way to predict the future is to make it.

The next day we sat and listened to futurist and game designer Jane McGonigal during her keynote, make a case for shaping the future. Five years from its inception, I wondered if had taken steps to make a future where a teacher felt as if this was an education conference largely not attended by educators, or if in not planning, it had inadvertently become that. However, the “Signals of Change” that Ms. McGonigal alluded to during her address felt present this year. And in a message about understanding trends and projecting where they might potentially take us, there was a sense of collective I hadn’t felt in the past here, where potential solutions to problems should be the work of many, not just a few.

In years past, it seemed that key persons and groups used as a platform to boldly propose a future where technology (specifically, their technology) would inevitably solve all of education’s problems: Give us enough funding and enough data, and we will match it with enough venture capital bravado and programmers and young MBA’s in a newly opened, hip office in a dilapidated urban neighborhood and create the software to solve education’s problems for you. 

In subtle, but real ways…the message seemed to shift this year to: Give us enough understanding of your work, a sense of how you reach kids on a day to day basis through specific strategies and interactions, and we will come to your classrooms, listen to you, pay attention to how and why kids engage and use that to create supportive software to help amplify those approaches to solve problems with you. 

In a session titled, What Do We Mean When We Ask if EdTech “Works”?, Chief of Learning Innovation at LEAP Innovations, Chris Liang-Vergara, summarized his team’s research report Finding What Works with this (as interpreted on a half cup of mediocre coffee after a very late night – all apologies Chris):

When people ask, “What are the qualities of a good digital learning tool?” we want to resist the urge to place the promise of measurable learning gains on the tools alone.  The tool is such a small percent of the formula in relation to the skill of the instructor. Instead, we tend to look for tools that support innovative pedagogical practice, provide a learner focused approach, and enable the type of learner agency that the teachers are already looking for and fostering in their classrooms….where teachers don’t have these core expectations nor are implementing strategies that support student inquiry and access to diverse resources and differentiated sxsw_researchpanel_scldanbriandemonstration of knowledge, the tools provide little help to change the outcomes of those classrooms.

Having spent the better part of the last 7 years watching educational software development largely focus on processes that take place at the perimeter of the teaching and learning cycle, it was refreshing to hear and see groups begin to circle back to the important instructional authoring and delivery pieces that truly inform best practice and inevitably have the most promise in supporting learning gains.

So as part of a team that showed up to illuminate our recent work with our colleagues from the Smithsonian on their new Learning Lab, we definitely felt like we were a part of that message and were thrilled with the numbers that turned out for our presentation and later for our social mixer in downtown Austin. It felt right sharing how much time we spent in classrooms, and how much of our system could be cited back to a specific teacher’s needs or a given group of 6th graders trying to accomplish a complex learning activity with one of our many prototypes. I was happy to see two of the teachers in the crowd who had been part of our testing team across 3 years of research and development and to know that our lead researcher, programmer, educator-specialist, and project director knew them personally.

The questions we received during our presentation and the conversations at our follow-up event were pointed, vibrant, and clear. Afterwards, we invited an eclectic group to come meet the Smithsonian team that included this small band of teachers interspersed with industry leads from t’esNova, SETDAU.S. OET, National Film Board of Canada, the Annenberg Learner Foundation and NYLearns, amongst many others. (Thank you all for your attendance and support.) There was a general desire to see the ways in which teachers had played an active role in the organizing of open educational resources while applying of their own instructional cohesion as part of the process. The Smithsonian Learning Lab was received well, and many wanted to know what kinds of inputs, efforts, and culture supported its development and ongoing implementation. Good people intermingled with good drinks and food in a music filled environment where ideas could take form over handshakes, laughing, and genuine collegiality.

At one point I stumbled into a conversation amongst educators about what makes for a great teacher, and because we had asked people to remove their SXSW badges (and thus titles and affiliations) at the door in order to have people meet merely as people, I was surprised to to find out later that the conversation actually involved a software CEO, a lead actor/educator from the Royal Shakespeare Company, a middle school History teacher from Utah, and an Ed Tech Incubator from Tokyo. That evening was the culmination of one of the better experiences I’ve had at a conference in the last few years, and not one I would have suspected could have occurred at the events of the past.

Perhaps this conference really is growing into an educator affair? Perhaps we bring more teachers next time? I thought to just ask Sarah since she was sitting next to me on our long flight back home.sxsw_brian_sarah

Under the beam of the small personal overhead spotlight she had turned
on, I saw that she was scrolling through 3 days of emails from her teaching partner, scores of parents, administrative site announcements, fund-raiser events, etc. “Over 120 in all.” she tells me. She was working to select those that need immediate answers and those that can wait a day or two. So instead, I offered to start developing the slide show she’s required by her administrator to present to her faculty from my laptop while she openly cites from 3 days of notes. “That would be really helpful.” she replied with a sigh that I assume comes with connecting back to the reality of a teaching life waiting at home…”at least I got my grades in before I left.”

“So what do you want to share with your colleagues?” I asked, opening my laptop. She fished out her notes while I started a new Google Slide presentation, and typed What Sarah Learned @ SXSW.Edu.