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

By Ari Pinkus posted 03-17-2014 09:53 AM


More than 7,000 educators, researchers, educational technology leaders, policy thinkers, and others converged in Austin, Texas, for the annual SXSWedu conference and festival in early March. A sister to SXSW Music Film Interactive, this conference started four years ago with a modest group of about 100 educators in Texas, and now draws people internationally.

All week long, the speakers, attendees, and vendors gathered were sharing and building on ideas for redesigning school and learning.  And I saw the lines between educators working at public, private, and charter schools fading next to the glaring divide between stale and fresh thinking in the field.  Speakers and attendees echoed the refrain: school, as we've long known it, is an extremely outdated model from the industrial revolution that fails to prepare students for life beyond “school.” But no one stayed stuck on the problems of the status quo. They offered ideas on everything from employing independent school models, to using data to best teach individual children and make school-wide decisions, to engaging students through their interests and technology, to unearthing creativity and innovation for the world’s betterment. I was inspired by so much optimism and activity in the education community at this most crucial time.

Here's a new look at how school and learning are being redesigned through a values lens.  

Openness, Inclusion, and Transparency

A school’s culture holds up the three interrelated values of inclusion, openness, and transparency. This begins by embracing people from all backgrounds and extends to people at all levels in the hierarchy, particularly in thorny problem solving. In design thinking, abandoning all previous assumptions and considering “how might we…?” are starting points when coming to the table. In this approach, it is understood that problems continue to evolve and must be solved anew. Trey Boden of Mount Vernon Presbyterian School (Georgia) discussed changing the school bell schedule to allow time to work on such wicked problems. Along those lines, attendees and speakers describe a classroom that opens up space for collaboration, including having fewer walls and movable furniture. The library is often a hub for project-based learning. In the modern classroom, learning goals and rubrics used for measurement are transparent. In some cases, they might be posted on the wall. Meanwhile, for teachers, sharing their lesson plans online is now routine, with some teachers' resources being downloaded millions of times worldwide.

Freedom + Independence = Individuality

Freedom and independence are flowing through different channels, from the individual and the institutional. One way is by students taking charge of their own learning, pursuing subjects most interesting to them. In a session on self-directed learning, panelists discussed that the trend is poised to continue. This approach is not limited to certain students, but can include everyone, according to Adora Svitak, a child prodigy from Redmond High School who gave a precocious TED talk on the subject. On the panel, too, was NAIS Teacher of the Future David Cutler of Palmer Trinity School (Florida), who supports the notion of teacher as coach. Cutler discussed coauthoring an article with one of his journalism students that ran in Independent Teacher last fall. He mentioned that his students are currently working to create a website to fight social injustice, as he stands on the sidelines taking questions as needed. Nikhil Goyal, panelist and author of the forthcoming book Skipping Class: Unleashing Curiosity, Play, and the Love of Learning, addressed democratizing schools, giving students more control over decision-making.

Two independent school models surfaced that focused on expressing freedom and cultivating student individuality. Montessori representatives from The Post Oak School (Texas), Oak Knoll Kinderhaus (California), and Montessori in Redlands (California) stressed their unique form of schooling, established in the early 1900s. “Within the child lies the fate of the future,” Maria Montessori had said. Montessori reps noted that such child-focused schooling is well positioned for 21st century learning, with an interdisciplinary approach that gives children lots of room to explore in and beyond the classroom while the teacher becomes "a guide on the side." Children learn autonomy and how to take initiative. A Montessori school adjusts to the next level of the reality for children, and as they grow older, they are encouraged to be out connecting with, and even working alongside, those in professional fields whose interests they share. In essence, children learn how to learn, the most important skill to carry forward in a world that will require them to create their own jobs. The panelists noted that the Montessori model's largest growth is in charter schools, and an attendee mentioned that a new charter school in Austin will use it.

In another session, Betsy Hanelius from the Austin Waldorf School (Texas) described the Waldorf method. It is grounded in educating children within the stages of human development. That means in the early years until second grade, they are given lots of freedom to move, often out in nature, clapping, dancing, and marching. A teacher works to reach all kinds of learners (auditory, visual, kinesthetic) and sees the academic and artistic promise in each one of them. Much of a teacher’s work is in observing his or her students. Waldorf teachers typically remain with the same children from 1-8 grades, during which time they partner with parents to develop and strengthen their students’ characters. Waldorf teaching is grounded in values and stimulates creativity. Throughout schooling, achieving balance is recognized as a key value, particularly when in the midst of overstimulation. Waldorf prepares students for leaving the school behind and using their many strengths to positively impact the world. All students emerge into the individuals they are meant to become.


There’s renewed emphasis on people’s needs and desires. Teaching compassion is part of the curriculum as research correlates it with long-term success. A Montessori educator described that a new enlightenment age has dawned in which our rights and others’ rights are equally important. This aligns with design thinking as people-centered problem solving. In addition, the human element is imperative in innovation because meeting human needs is the purpose.  Educators who understand the creative process can speak more authentically about the ups and downs of design thinking. They’re also able to weed out the fear of uncertainty and help their students do the same.

Student, Faculty, and School Growth

Efforts are underway to make meaning of data in ways that personalize learning, hone teachers’ professional development, and improve schools so all children benefit. I was intrigued by a session on universal design for learning and data. UDL’s foundation: the brain is complex and causes us to learn in different ways.  Three principles have been named, according to One is providing multiple means for representation (the what of learning).  This is characterized by symbols, language, and expression, and recognizes that children with learning differences may require different ways of approaching content. Two is providing multiple means of action and expression (the how of learning). Students who have movement and organizational trouble approach “learning tasks” differently. Three is providing multiple means of engagement (the why of learning). Sources for differences in the way children are motivated to learn can stem from their culture, neurology, background knowledge, and the subject’s relevance to them. Researchers are absorbed in combining the framework of UDL and the big data available to understand and better meet the needs of all learners.

Data is also being used to improve schools as school leaders consider multiple measures of student success. Constant dialogue goes on among school leaders and teachers. Dashboards updated in real-time aid their daily decision-making. Teachers' professional development, too, can be tailored to what the data reveal.

When it comes to data, it’s important to remember that no number is bad; each one is an opportunity for understanding what’s happening with children and schools, and for improving and growing as needed, noted Vivenne Ming, chief scientist at Gild, a technology recruiting firm and a visiting scholar at the Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience at the University of California.


Student engagement is considered vital, but dissent surfaces when it comes to how to measure engagement and what role technology should play in fostering it. Just how do you engage students and teach concepts simultaneously? Play is attractive and takes many forms.  The maker model of hands-on creating and tinkering continues to be popular. Meanwhile, leaders of startup edtech companies are quick to point out how digital games engage kids in the classroom. One is a structure for challenge in which students understand that the game will become more difficult as they progress, says Kidaptive CEO and cofounder P.J. Gunsagar. The next question or stage is often at an ideal level of difficulty, one that is neither too hard nor too easy. Yet students still experience failing in a game and understand that it’s OK. They also learn how to transfer their understanding of a concept to different tasks as they develop the ability to sort, aim, and build things. Finally, they often engage with a game more than they do with a movie by playing to beat the game. On the subject of engagement through technology, Beaver Country Day School (Massachusetts) has kicked its curriculum to the next level by teaching students to code. It is the first school in the country to establish computer programming in its core curriculum. 

In visits to vendors’ kiosks, I learned of other ways to engage children in learning about the world and about themselves. One is through Books that Grow, which takes well-known fiction and nonfiction texts, including documents like the Declaration of Independence, and re-writes them for a range of grade levels.  Another is through creo studio, a human-centered, technology-based art class. Among the features are drawing tools on smartphones, tablets, and desktops used to unlock students’ latent artistic abilities. After making their artwork this way, students report feeling more confident as creators.  (See my previous post for cool, educational tech tools.)


Two forces, said former Secretary of Education Rod Paige, are shaping the future of education: technology and choice. But in my view, that keeps us focused on the "right" choice among public, private, charter, and other. We stay in a competitive mode, which is counterproductive. Certainly, we’re united in wanting students to succeed in today’s – and tomorrow’s – world. As the conference demonstrates, there's much to learn from one another.

The work of redesigning school and learning for students' long-term success is enormous, and it’s going to take all of us in the education field to carry it out well. What energized me about my time at SXSWedu: we’re already making some progress.

Read my other updates here and here. And check out the full program at

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