The Rhythms of Learning at SXSWedu

By Ari Pinkus posted 03-17-2017 10:02 AM


“Much like the best in any field, the best learners and teachers stress-test assumptions. The profound often hides with absurd, even heretical, experiments.” Tim Ferriss

AUSTIN, TEXAS — Ever since childhood, my need to learn has been unquenchable. Then, a few years ago, I discovered that “learner” is one of my top five strengths, per the Gallup StrengthsFinder talent assessment tool. This means I exhibit “a great desire to learn and want to continuously improve. In particular, the process of learning, rather than the outcome, excites” me.

In my third visit to the SXSWedu Conference & Festival in early March, I sought to leverage this strength by exploring how the learning process is evolving in the digital age. Joining more than 7,500 educators, thought leaders, educational technology entrepreneurs, policy thinkers, media professionals, and other attendees at the Austin Convention Center and hotel meeting rooms, I found that learning is accelerating, deepening, and sharpening amid the information onslaught. These trends open possibilities for educators to get creative in and beyond their classrooms.


In the keynote Q&A “The Secrets of Accelerated Learning & Mastery,” Tim Ferriss, author of Tools of Titans and The 4-Hour Workweek; and Charles Best, founder and CEO of, chatted about Ferriss’ "DSSS" framework to ease learning. Here is the methodology:

  1. Deconstruction. Know your outcome and work backwards to achieve it. Identify and separate the necessary skills in the most nonthreatening way. Ferriss learned to swim in his early 30s by separating kicking from breathing from upper body movement. Within a few months, he could swim a mile in open water.
  2. Selection. Adhere to the 80/20 principle (i.e., 20 percent of the Legos will bring you 80 percent of the results). Ferriss thought he was bad at learning languages until he started taking Japanese and focused on the language’s 1,900 common use characters to be functionally conversational.
  3. Sequencing. Once you figure out the 20 percent, consider a logical progression to lay out the Lego blocks. What if you did the opposite for 48 hours? Ferriss used this approach to learn to dance the tango in Argentina. He learned the female role first, and said it was the key reason he could compete in the Tango World Championship. As another example, in the movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” Ferriss noted that the teacher began one lesson by clearing the pieces off the board, leaving the king vs. king and pawn. The idea was to reduce the complexity by focusing on the principles, not tactics.
  4. Stakes. Build in incentives and institute accountability measures. He pointed to one enticing incentive: Set yourself up to donate to an anti-charity (read: hate group) if you don’t lose the 20 pounds you vowed you would. In an example of accountability, Ferriss and his friend gave each other New Year’s resolutions one year and, for Ferriss, that meant he had to learn to swim for himself and his family.

Ferriss told the audience that meta-learning is the No. 1 skill students need to succeed.

Another modern learning technique turns to the Hollywood playbook. In the session “Mashing Up Hollywood with Education,” Allan Staker, CEO of Brain Chase Productions, described how to structure a lesson as a concise, cogent Hollywood plot to engage students. Staker, whose roots are in the TV and film industry, outlined the Aristotelian Plot Structure:

Exposition --> Rising action --> Climax --> Falling action --> Resolution

In a Hollywood movie, the learning happens at the climax, Staker said, and suggested that educators build a lesson around that point. Send students on a quest or initiate a mystery to arrive there. Also, provide daily wins to excite kids about what they’re learning.

To see this in practice, we participated in the lesson “Storified Exercise: Geometry” about angles.

We began by watching a three-minute video, emotionally connecting us to the topic and characters. We quickly moved to the inciting incident, which sent us on a story-based quest. Next, we met the rising action of obstacles to advance the narrative arc. Then, we came to the climax and solved the problems by making difficult choices. In our case, it was figuring out how to draw the right angles to lead us to the treasure’s location. Finally, we reached a resolution — a.k.a. the location — and tied up loose ends.


The Paramount Academy for the Arts’ Literacy to Life/Story Wrangler Program leaders described teaching Texas third-graders the foundations of creative writing by taking what students put on the page and translating it to the stage. Students take ownership of the stories they’ve written, and the whole school goes wild when professionals act out their stories live, according to presenters Brian Fahey, associate director of education and outreach; Jessica Evans, community and school program manager; and Mitch Harris, literacy to life program manager.

In drama-based pedagogy, students learn to imagine, collaborate, and retain information more readily because of the immersive aspect. By using juicer words (like gobble instead of eat), then embodying them in the process, students expand their vocabularies. They also make connections to larger ideas, in part because their work is no longer private between them and their teacher.

In the program, the students must agree that every idea is a good idea, that they need to respect each other, and that they will generate lots of new and fun ideas. This instills in students that they are enough and that their ideas are enough, the presenters said.

Students first write as a full class, then break up into smaller groups. Their writing process follows the familiar flow: brainstorm, craft a first draft, revise it, and publish. Revision focuses first on organization, then word choice, and finally the main idea, which becomes the title.

As a session group, we took these steps to write a short story, then the wranglers acted it out for us with dramatic flair. Revisions are in red and green:

Once upon a time, Jasper found himself in a dark closet in the middle of the afternoon when he saw was captivated by something gleaming in the darkness. He wanted to relive the glory days of being a tap-dancing cowboy when he had a regular paycheck. But in 20 years, he only received second place so he had developed a lot   plethora of negative self-talk. Then he decided to dust off his shoes and not give up and get back out there. The door locked behind him. He decided to tap anyway because he heard his grandmother say, “Jazzy, never stop tapping.” And ever since that day you can hear a tapping coming emanating from inside that dark closet.

In the session wrap-up, we learned that the Journal of Literacy Research is publishing an article about the Paramount Story Wranglers work later this month.

That storytelling is ubiquitous and deepens our engagement and empathy came across loud and clear in another session, “New Media Literacy: Storytelling as Change Agent,” given by Billy Corcoran, a learner experience designer at Design39Campus; Sabba Quidwai, director of innovative learning at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine; and Michael Hernandez, a media arts teacher at Mira Costa High School.

The presenters then discussed integrating digital storytelling into atypical areas, including medicine. Quidwai pointed to our mobile devices as powerful storytelling tools because they’re equipped with cameras.

She described how changing a 40-page paper to a short documentary bridges the gap in experiential learning. Her medical students who were working in underserved communities went out to give a voice to those without one. As they conducted interviews on the streets of L.A., they began to put themselves in their patients’ shoes. Biases were exposed. One student believed residents were scared because of their surroundings, but found the opposite in her survey work. Later, all the students’ videos were curated into an interactive ebook.

From their research, students began to find problems, then set out to tackle them. After realizing that homeless people couldn’t take advantage of resources because they risked losing their spot, or home, the students decided to implement a street medicine program in Venice County that would become part of their rotation.



“Today’s young Americans are immersed in a news environment that is mobile and social by default. At a time of widespread eroding trust in traditional media institutions, they are on the front lines of navigating an increasingly complex and polarized digital media environment.”

—How Youth Navigate the News Landscape, Knight’s Data & Society Research Institute, March 2017

The quotation above launched the session “Secrets Revealed! How to Break the Fake News Cycle.” Local Student Reporting Lab journalists, educators, and a representative from the "PBS NewsHour" talked about how kids experienced news in the 2016 election, their information consumption habits, and how learning to produce news videos has made them better able to discern what is and isn’t true in the information landscape.

Asked to define fake news, one student responded: “Anything that’s put out to intentionally mislead people.”

Student reporters said their generation must deal with this problem because of the fear it stirs up and how fast things snowball on social media. Being on the front lines has made these student journalists realize that people don’t know how easy it is to manipulate a photo — or even what Photoshop is. One student admitted she is more skeptical about stories she sees online because she knows it takes her a lot of time to find and tell a good story. The students also learn to be unbiased in their reporting — the opposite quality of fake news, they said.

Discerning fact from fiction surfaced again when English Education PhD student Jason Griffith kicked off his session “Examining Truth: Teaching the New Nonfiction” with an existential question, “How many truths are there?”

To demonstrate this concept, Griffith, author of the book From Me to We: Using Narrative Nonfiction to Broaden Student Perspectives, gave us 10 minutes to write a true story of what we were doing at 1:15 that afternoon, March 8. He directed us to use a scene format with characters, dialogue, action, and active verbs. As we circled the room, we heard about people’s lunches, bathroom excursions, and session nuggets. The point was to show that at a certain point in time many different stories were unfolding in downtown Austin. Even two friends had two different accounts of their lunch together.

In the classroom, Griffith uses the perspective walk activity, he said. To paraphrase from his book, here’s how it works: Take students on a 10-minute walk around campus, perhaps outside, without explaining why. When you come back to class, ask students to write about the walk, including any significant conversations or events. The story should be as active as possible. Let them share with a classmate, then ask for volunteers to read their scenes to the whole class. This activity jump-starts a conversation about ultimate vs. relative truth and how relative truth guides narrative nonfiction writing. (See page 66 for details.)

Narrative nonfiction also acts as an inquiry portal to learn about historic and current issues, lives, and ambitions through various media. Recent examples of books-turned-movie-or-TV-show abound, including “Hidden Figures,” “Sully,” “Unbroken,” “Wild,” “Lincoln,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Orange Is the New Black,” and “Friday Night Lights,” he noted.

Whenever studying a narrative nonfiction work with students, Griffith conducts “empathy check-ins,” he said. This requires stepping back from the text and analyzing how the author’s character renderings can influence readers. He asks key questions:

  • Do you like the narrator? Why or why not?
  • Is the narrator fair? Why or why not?
  • Whether you like the narrator, do you trust the narrator?

The issue of truth vs. fiction comes up often in this genre, as Griffith can attest. He relayed a former student’s sentiment from one of his lessons: “There’s one truth. lt exists independently of us, and we may or may not be aware of it.”

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Educators, how are you employing experiential learning in your classroom? Share your ideas in the comments or email me at


Read My Coverage of Previous Conferences

SXSWedu 2015

At SXSWedu, a Creative Process Outlined by Constraint and Collaboration


SXSWedu 2014

SXSWedu Epilogue: On the Quest to Redesign School and Learning for Lifelong Success

SXSWedu Day 2: In the Trenches of the Creative Process

SXSWedu Day 1: Design Thinking & 21st Century Learning 101