My Top 5 Inspirational Experiences at SXSWedu 2017

Insights   16 March 2017
By Monica Snellings


…when these elements are denied or invalidated, we as education stakeholders strip away learners’ humanity and do violence to their sense of self.

SXSWedu IS, IN A WORD, MAMMOTH—it takes a well-organized plan and strong discipline to land in the spaces I think I might want to be in. And, even with all of that planning, I still find myself making a few unexpected discoveries during the four-day journey.

At this year’s conference, one thing was as consistent as ever: The lineup of keynote speakers was amazing. From the opening keynote by Dr. Christopher Emdin to the closing presentations by Dr. Brené Brown, Dr. Sara Elizabeth Lewis, and Roberto Rivera, these powerful speakers added critical and urgent points for our consideration as educators and as human beings.

Dr. Emdin opened with a talk entitled “We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service.” The talk (and title), inspired by the latest album by A Tribe Called Quest, challenged conference attendees to honor and value the culture and creative expressions of brown and black learners. He emphasized, when these elements are denied or invalidated, we as education stakeholders strip away learners’ humanity and do violence to their sense of self. As we readied ourselves for the four-day event, he asked all of us to carry this lens with us in each of our experiences. I highly recommend you watch his presentation in its entirety.

Feeling motivated and inspired after this opener, I found myself walking around SXSWedu with an even more focused eye on finding truly learner-centered presentations. Four presentations really struck a chord with me, plus a bonus discovery that spoke to the kid inside me. Here are my reflections:

The End of School as We Know It

Will Richardson welcomed attendees to what he believes (and we would concur) is possibly the most disruptive moment ever in education. Adding to the challenge handed down during the opening keynote by Dr. Emdin, Will encouraged the audience to examine a new context for education and modern learners. He was emphatic that educators accept that all of their content is readily available via the internet and their role as “teacher” needs to transform. He asked educators to start seeing themselves as co-learners in the journey of education, rather than just as teachers imparting knowledge. He suggested that we need to allow young people to teach us as much as we feel the need to teach them.

To explore more wisdom from Will, visit Modern Learners and download their white paper, 10 Principles for Schools of Modern Learning. Then, check out their brand new initiative, Change.School—“an 8-week experience for educational leaders who are serious about designing and creating relevant, sustainable change in their” learning environments. Finally, check out his TEDx talk, The Surprising Truth About Learning in Schools.



Going forward, people need to build the mindset of a lifelong learner and always be “running with the river.”

Internships at Scale from Big Picture Learning

The Big Picture internship program has learners out in their communities one or two days a week starting in 9th grade. To put it simply, they leave school to learn. Learners’ interests drive the process and result in the formation of powerful, long-term relationships with community mentors. In fact, the learners at BPL truly own the entire process of identifying their interest area, recruiting a mentor, and co-designing their internship experience.

Big Picture’s secret sauce in creating these opportunities is the result of lessons learned over their years of testing and iteration. But, their experience and commitment to this style of learning doesn’t make the exercise of actually seeking out opportunities, recruiting mentors, and scaffolding internship experiences any easier than when they started. Rather, they have simply opened up more and more opportunities to make the program even better for their learners. That’s what makes it all worth it.

Now, in an effort to share what they’ve learned, go big, and make this type of learning available to learning environments everywhere, they’ve launched ImBlaze, an internship management platform. BPL Co-Executive Director, Andrew Frishman, shared that ImBlaze is currently live in 12 environments. Over the next few years, they plan to iterate and improve the platform with the goal of adding more schools along the way, so many more kids can embrace the world as their classroom. For educators interested in taking action today, Andrew suggested three things:

  1. Support learners in inviting guest speakers aligned with their interests.
  2. Launch an “Interview A [scientist, veteran, writer, artist, or business person] Project.”
  3. Conduct interest-based job-shadow days.

As you consider how a learner-centered internship program would bring positive learning experiences to your environment, Andrew also recommended reading Developing Talent in Young People by Dr. Benjamin Bloom—a deep dive into a groundbreaking study conducted in the 1980s. For more information on how to connect with Big Picture Learning and their ImBlaze initiative go here.

A Voice from the Future

John Maeda is the foremost expert on the intersection of design, technology, and education. He is formerly head of the MIT Media Lab, the 16th president of the Rhode Island School of Design, an advisor to KPCB—the venture capital group—and now Global Head of Computational Design and Inclusion at Automattic.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Maeda took questions from the audience via Snapchat. As he scrolled through the questions, he spoke to his study of how, from a user perspective, China uses smartphone technology in a more sophisticated manner than American citizens. He wanted to learn from them, so this Snapchat experiment was one of his playful studies. As he answered various questions, he made the case for mentors or “Yodas.” He remarked, “We all need them—you might have the keys, but a Yoda opens the doors.” And, how do you find a yoda? Identify and ask. Don’t expect them to show up on your doorstep and invite you under their wing. Thinking back to the BPL conversation, I reflected on how learners themselves could take this advice into action if they are empowered to go out in the world and simply ask for mentorship.

Digging into his personal experience, Maeda spoke of practicing constant renewal throughout life—believing that there is always something new out there. Through trying, failing, and working at the edges, he said he could have stopped and regretted things but chose not to. For more reading on this idea of growing through failure, he referenced an essay by John Gardner that has sustained him. You can read it here.

Speaking specifically to education, he is hopeful about progress being made in the K-12 sector. However, he believes higher-ed needs to be turned upside down. Going forward, people need to build the mindset of a lifelong learner and always be “running with the river.” He closed by saying, “I encourage you to do uncomfortable things—to remain relevant to the things people are thinking about.”

If you want a peek into the future of work, visit Automattic. This is the world we need to be preparing our learners to enter. Also, check out his 2017 Design in Tech Report for a deep dive into “design trends revolutionizing the entrepreneurial and corporate ecosystems in tech.”

Social Sensory Architectures

In the image below, you’ll see an installation of social sensory architecture that engages children with Autism on their terms. This tactile surface addresses the proprioceptive dysfunction (difficulty understanding the position of the body in space) some children experience when diagnosed with a sensory processing disorder. This pressure sensitive surface transforms with touch to assist with things like grading movement. These spatial environments are physically, visually, and sonically responsive. By using meditative sounds and visual cues that occur when your hand or your body applies pressure to any spot on the surface, you begin to improve your understanding of your body in space. It is an incredibly beautiful and delightful experience. Check out the research and researchers behind this effort here.

And Now for Something Totally Fun—BreakoutEDU

BreakoutEDU is an immersive games platform for learners of all ages. In BreakoutEDU games, players work collaboratively to solve a series of critical-thinking puzzles in order to open a locked box—an actual real box with physical locks just like you find in Escape Rooms. Each Breakout EDU starter kit costs about $125 and can be used to play hundreds of games. Right now, there are over 345 game choices. There are games for players age 6 up to adults. They also publish templates and resources so you can design your own games. Explore more here.

Carrying a pleasantly exhausted mind into the final speeches of the four-day conference, I was reenergized by the unique, thought-provoking presentations by Brown, Lewis, and Rivera.

Brené Brown spoke about vulnerability—the willingness to be brave and take risks. For many of us, shame is the biggest thing that gets in our way. Up to age five, shame is the threat of being unlovable. She cited that 85% of people can remember being shamed in school and the transformative effect it had on the way they thought about themselves. And, 90% could name a teacher that influenced and changed the trajectory of their lives for the better. Brown asked the audience not to ever question the power you have to make a difference for the people you teach.



“Art can move people in ways that reasoned arguments cannot. Art makes present and concrete our common humanity.”

Next up was Dr. Sara Elizabeth Lewis, an Assistant Professor of Art and Architecture and African American Studies at Harvard. She is also the author of The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery. Dr. Lewis shared her thoughts on the power of art and the artist to uniquely address social justice issues. She demonstrated her thesis with powerful, evocative images. The phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” came to mind, but I think it goes much deeper than that. Art can move people in ways that reasoned arguments cannot. Art makes present and concrete our common humanity. Dr. Lewis stated “the arts are how we overcome our collective failures.” What occurred to me is the enormous potential we could unleash if we truly committed to having a place for the arts in education in the same way we do for reading or math. In my mind, a truly learner-centered education system would open up a new renaissance of creativity and lead to a more humane and just world.

Roberto Rivera closed things out by sharing the story of a young person named Carlos whose misdirected entrepreneurial skills were being employed on the street corner. He was told early that he was learning deficient. Over time, he discovered he simply learned differently, and he was able to go from helpless and hopeless to helpful and hopeful. From “a dope dealer to a hope dealer.”

Turns out, Carlos is Roberto Carlos Rivera, and this was his story. He explained that the Latin root word of education “educare” means to bring out that which is already there. He stated that the job of educators is to 1) see the beauty and brilliance in our youth and 2) help them see that and experience it in themselves. He spoke movingly about the power of community and social emotional learning research on Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG). As we teach, engage, and create with our communities, he sees enormous potential and opportunity if our mindset is one of abundance (not deficit) thinking. Check out Fulfill The Dream, a social and emotional learning curriculum he created to engage youth in culturally relevant ways using media, movement, and music at here.

Watch the keynotes here.

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