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

By Ari Pinkus posted 03-04-2014 08:50 AM


I’m Ari Pinkus, and I am blogging at the SXSWedu conference & festival taking place from March 3-6 in Austin, Texas.

First up, I was part of the session In the Trenches with K-12 Design Thinking, featuring a panel discussion with Trey Boden of Mount Vernon Presbyterian School, an independent school in Georgia; Alyssa Gallagher of Los Altos School District in California; Dan Ryder, an English teacher at Mt Blue High School in Maine, who also directs theater improv; and Jen Chan of Exhibit Change in Toronto, Canada.

Some key takeaways:

Design thinking = people centered problem solving

Iterate = to repeat all or part of design process learning from previous version

Wicked problem - Complex design challenge that requires creative and diverse solutions

Ask the question “How might we….?” when faced with a design challenge and understand that the question evolves each time people get together

Goal is to create more design thinkers; don’t get too caught up in design thinking process

Not necessary to spend six months on a real world problem

Student language begins to take on more design thinking language, and this metacognition shows that the concept is sticking

The task, the team, and the self form the crux of a collaborative effort

Failure is not an end point, it’s the opportunity

Crucial to reframe tensions as opportunities

Publicly reflect on failures to move beyond them

Teachers are natural designers

When you share a vulnerability with your students, it can change the dynamic within a day, Ryder says

When you own your mistakes, students start to own theirs

How to evaluate success in design thinking?

Significant value in developing people and their mindsets

Focus on making ideas actionable

Ryder looks at improv philosophy of A-C-T

  • Accept circumstances
  • Communicate well
  • Trust others and ourselves

Consider how design thinking fits into your culture

The practice thrives in a culture of openness, risk-taking, and inclusion involving everyone from administrators to facilities personnel

Defining problem is key in design thinking

Remember: You’re solving a problem for a moment in time; new problems will emerge making evolution and iteration necessary

Assume a beginner’s mindset; set aside everything you think you know

Tackle the time management issue that design thinking presents

Boden notes that his school had to look at its bell schedule to allow students to engage in solving wicked problems

Design thinking refocuses on the end user and puts the person back into education, Boden says

Real world problems will differ depending on the grade level (e.g.: hanging backpacks up in school, local dog park in disrepair, managing after natural disaster in city, etc.)

Ask students to redesign learning so it’s meaningful to them (e.g.: more democratic, more electives, changing course syllabus)

Allow students to see the process all the way through to implementation


Session: Bringing Exemplar 21st Century Learning to Life

Speaker Helen Soule of Partnership for 21st Century Skills addressed the group.

The demand for skills has changed:

In 1960, 50% of jobs required complex communication skills; in 2002, it was up to 64%

What skills and attributes are needed in the 21st century?

  • 4Cs: critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, creativity and innovation
  • Information, media, and technology skills
  • Life and career skills
  • Flexibility and adaptability
  • Initiative and self-direction
  • Social and cross-cultural skills
  • Productivity and accountability
  • Leadership and responsibility

What does innovative 21st century learning look like?

Attendees brainstormed and came up with the following:

  • Students are engaged, teachers are facilitators, students talk to each other, use tech to find solutions
  • Students apply the content and skills that teacher is teaching
  • Level of acceptable failure higher
  • Looking outside the classroom to other states, countries for answers
  • Some kind of disruption of physical space, kids not seated in rows
  • Student collaboration, learning from each other and building on each other’s strengths
  • Risk taking
  • Greater student communication of their learning
  • Higher student independence
  • Students empowered
  • Teacher and student both curating
  • Students creating content
  • Multimedia products incorporated
  • Appropriate use of technology or nontechnology
  • Transparency around learning objectives and outcomes
  • Rubrics being used for measurement are made transparent
  • Digital equity – all students able to access same page, same screen
  • Opportunities for student reflection
  • Digital literacy
  • Student ownership of their learning
  • Chaotic looking
  • Transparency of learning between and among classes
  • Highly contextualized and immersive in real world situation
  • Student choice and diversity of projects
  • Multiplicity of literacies: visual, kinetic, enviro, financial, health, digital, etc.
  • Broader sense of global awareness

On Google Hangout was Shannon Miller, a librarian in Van Meter Community School District in Iowa.

She was asked: What are some of your favorite tools to use in the classroom?

Ones she and her students like: buncee (sharing multimedia stories), Google drive, animoto (creating videos), piktochart (creating infographics), smore (creating fliers), flipsnack (flipping book software that allows you to convert PDFs into ebooks)

To me, flipsnack seemed particularly cool as she described how she and students use it. Kids create Google presentations and save them as PDFs. They can create beautiful ebooks. Miller then catalogs these ebooks in the library, so they can find their projects among related books.

Learn more about the conference at

The views expressed on this post are mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of NAIS.