Last Friday was an upsetting day. The conference I had attended for the past 10 years (SXSWedu) announced it was cancelling along with the larger SXSW that often brings thousands of people to Austin and over $356 million dollars in revenue to the city. Whether you agree or disagree with the decision, I was frustrated. I realize that being frustrated at something like a conference cancellation is extremely small in the scope of what is happening around the world, but I’m just being honest. This event was the most diverse conferences I have attended, and selfishly, I looked forward to growing global collaborations and connections as well as the sharing of ideas for learning.
That night, I agreed to meet my friends downtown at their new bar, called Idle Hands, on Rainey Street here in Austin. When I arrived the mood was somber. The service staff were depressed. Uber drivers, stage crew, bands, waiters, bartenders, valets, food trucks and more make a significant amount of their income from the SXSW event and all the subsidiary events that happen before and after it takes place. In the case of one of the bartenders I spoke with, he makes almost half of his yearly income in the span of just a few weeks because of it.
While this was happening, I pulled out my phone to look at see what the reactions were on Twitter, Facebook, and text messages. The responses ranged from “thank god they cancelled it” to those that were now stuck here because of the late cancellation. Many of these people were from overseas.
People like Ryan King from China and Tracy Mehoke from Wisconsin (by way of Abu Dhabi) were here in Austin and now wondering what to do with themselves. Others like Krista Vaught from Florida and Vitor Bruno from Brazil were educators in a similar predicament of having already arrived here and literally collecting their baggage when the announcement came out. These people began to find each other through various social platforms and quickly formed an “EdUnconference” Slack channel as a way to connect and try and coordinate some meet-ups around Austin.
While this was happening, an idea started to rise up in my mind. We have all of these brilliant minds trapped in Austin, but no way for them all to gather. I’ve hosted educational conferences for years in Austin and around the world. While those events take months to plan, I didn’t have that kind of time. I had 72 hours.
I also needed a place. Enter Idle Hands. Like many bars in Austin, their space had been rented out for SXSW, but those sponsors had since dropped out leaving a fully-stocked event space with complete with service staff but missing an important thing….people. I pitched them the idea of hosting “an alternate event” to SXSWedu. They were all for it and excited to help out. The owners of Ranch Hand, a local food truck that had taken up residence in the kitchen of Idle Hands said, “We have nothing to do and would love to have some people to serve!”
I immediately put the news out on Twitter that night.
Within minutes Krista reached out and told me about the Slack channel. Magic started to happen. On Saturday, I got up and bought a domain and built a website out for AltSXSWedu.com. I threw together a quick form for presenters to submit ideas (so quick that I left off the field for people to enter a presentation title!) and an Eventbrite page for people to get their free tickets. By mid-day Sunday we had 20 submissions with over 50 people that were listed as attendees and I started to think…this might actually happen.
On Monday, I met up with Krista and Tracy for the first time in person. We started going over the logistics of what the 2-day event would look like and how we could utilize the space (a former house converted into a bar) to facilitate discussions and learning. I’m the type of person that thinks and creates better collaboratively and having these two share and bounce ideas off of was amazing. Krista agreed to lead the opening session with an activity called “Collaborating with Strangers” and Tracy was going to MC some “Flash Talks” – quick, 5-minute talks with no slides, for anyone that wanted to get up and speak. We had poetry, topic mixers, round-tables, and immersive experiences. Late Monday night some signage was put together and name badges were created.
I reached out to some local vendors like Bulb, Kahoot, Squarecap, Firia Labs and Brainpop to cover items like waters, coffee and snacks for attendees. I contacted good friend Humberto Perez to see if his band MariaBloom and another band could play both days to wrap up the event. All of this happened in less than 48 hours. My INCREDIBLE wife, Renee, who always is so supportive of my crazy creative ideas, was by my side for the next two days helping run registration, logistics and answer questions.
Then Tuesday morning arrived. I didn’t know what to expect. As people started to arrive, I grabbed my portable speaker and started blaring some Stevie Ray Vaughn to welcome our international guests to the event. The learning could not be stopped!
In all, over 120 people would attend and over 30 sessions were shared either face to face or virtually. Using my daughter’s portable karaoke speaker, I kicked off the event by telling everyone that they were not attendees….they were organizers.
We shared ideas.
We invented the #AltHandShake (photo left)
We argued about educational strategies and theories.
We collaborated on how to address the rapid shift to online learning that was about to take place.
As the event wrapped up on Wednesday afternoon, I was physically exhausted but mentally and emotionally fulfilled. I made connections and learned ideas that I rarely do at a large conference. This event COULD NOT have happened without the support of the amazing companies like those mentioned above and amazing people like Ryan, Tracy, Krista, Renee, Anne, Jami, Humberto, Vitor, Meghdut, Pauline, Anna, Claudio, Carolyn, Al, Nikki, Rebecca, Sarathi, Maru, Suzanne, Reyna, and many, many more that made this event happen.
Minds from all over the world, brought together because of a virus, showing me that learning can’t be stopped even when the world around us is facing uncertainty.
I will cherish the new connections I made, the things I learned and the memories I made for the rest of my life.
We did have a few news agencies come by to see what we were up to. If you’re interested in hearing more, here are links to their stories about AltSXSWedu:
Language Arts, Math, Science, and Social Studies. For decades, these subjects have been the staple of the modern American educational system. The creative arts and physical education have also been played somewhat of a secondary role in that system. While all of these subject areas play a role in the development of our youth, they are based on career needs of the mid-20th century. According to this Pew Research study on Changes in the American Workplace, there has been an exponential demand on the social and analytical skills.
However, in our schools, we still teach the same “four core” areas and then fill in the rest with other subjects ranging from World Languages to Robotics. What’s interesting is, those original core 4 were considered the staple in preparing students for a 1950’s factory model work force. In this Sir Ken Robinson animated video, he talks about how our schools are designed for the assembly line. One only needs to look at the following graphic of companies that no longer exist to see that the American economy has shifted rapidly since the early 1970’s.
Compare the above with the graphic below which shows companies that didn’t exist in the early 1970’s that are now on Forbes top 200 list.
While there are some mainstays in terms of travel, service and retail companies, there is a huge growth in technology based companies. Now taking these new companies into account, let’s focus on the skills they desire for their future employee and see where schools stack up. This graphic by Tracy Clark (@tracyclark08) has been one that I’ve shared for many years. It’s sort of a “Soft Skills Bingo” chart of things that employers in those Fortune 500 companies look for when hiring.
I don’t see any of the “core four” subjects listed on that chart. While you could definitely argue that communication plays a role in language arts and critical thinking plays a role in math and science, I start to wonder why we are trying to “fit” these soft skills into our 1950’s core?
What would a modern core curriculum look like? And probably even more importantly, how would we transition from the current curriculum to a more updated model?
Let’s break apart both of these questions so I can attempt an answer.
Future Ready Curriculum –
If we were starting the American school system from scratch today, knowing what skills our students will need, we could change the subjects and not base them on what big-time publishers want us to focus on with our students. Building on some of the great work from FutureReady.org, the ISTE NETS for Students and keeping in mind those most desired future job skills from above, I would propose the development of the following 7 courses for every student:
Collaborative Outreach – A way for students to both serve the communities around them, but also work in teams, plan projects, and practice empathy.
Entrepreneurialism – Thinking “outside-the-box” but in a class form. Many of the ideas from this class could work hand-in-hand with the other courses listed here. Again, working in teams, students create solutions or products with the goal of developing the entrepreneurial spirit.
Communication & Design – Oral and written communication still play a major role in our current system, and by all accounts they will in the future. However, what about visual communication? What about making a visually pleasing presentation to pitch a product or reflect on an outreach opportunity? This course would encompass those skills.
Creative Expression – Having outlets to express yourself creatively and time for passion projects is huge in the workplaces of Google and Apple. The same should be true for schools. This course could be all about an app you are designing or a sculpture you are trying to complete (either by hand or by 3D printing).
Critical Problem-Solving – Much of the curriculum from math and science would fall into this course, although elements would be sprinkled in the other courses (like economics in the entrepreneurial course and science in the Environmental Mindfulness & Outreach courses)
Investigative Thinking – This course takes many of the research skills taught in social studies and applies it with a twist. How can looking back and investigating history help predict future outcomes? Traditional statistics would play a role in this course too.
Environmental Mindfulness – We need to allow time for students to be outside and/or active during the traditional class day. We also need to allow time for students to reflect on what they have learned and set goals for their future. This course takes some of traditional P.E. and mixes in meditation and deeper thinking exercises as well.
Transition to the Future
Creating these courses is the easy part. The hard part would be transitioning our current core areas into the above. It will take me an entire new blog post to outline that plan for this transition, as it involves some heavy change in mindset (by both educators and community). In the meantime, here’s where I feel parts of our current courses would fit in the above new curriculum:
Mathematics – Critical Problem-Solving, Entrepreneurialism, Investigative Thinking
Language Arts – Communication & Design, Investigative Thinking, Creative Expression
Science – Critical Problem-Solving, Environmental Mindfulness, Collaborative Outreach
Social Studies – Investigative Thinking, Communication & Design, Collaborative Outreach
World Languages – Collaborative Outreach, Communication & Design
Fine and Performing Arts – Creative Expression
Physical Education – Environmental Mindfulness
Career and Technology – Entrepreneurialism, Collaborative Outreach, Creative Expression, Communication & Design
If we really want to prepare kids for what’s next, whether that be in a high-tech career or the service industry, we need to transition our curriculum into areas that will help them be more successful in a highly automated future. I feel like the new core curriculum I am proposing does that while at the same time folding in some of the ‘classic’ curriculum models of our educational fore-fathers.
What did I miss? Chime in on the comments below.
Listen carefully! We are a group of individuals that represent a large faction of educators. While we respect the way you have run the training methods of your organization in the past, it is time for a change. As such, we are holding your teachers’ learning hostage. Their learning is safe and unharmed at this time, however, if you would like to release their learning, you must meet our list of demands when it comes to how you provide training for adults. Failure to meet these demands will result in the wide-spread lack of professional growth and lack of improvement in pedagogical practice by your staff.
It doesn’t hurt to spend a little energy and effort promoting professional learning and getting teachers excited for it. Come up with a theme and make it feel like an exclusive “members-only” type event. While some of them may come because they “have to”, it helps start the training off with excitement and energy. One example would be to send out a video or graphic that highlights the training in a fun way. Here’s one that takes a “Point Break” theme to make learning about High Quality Assessments just a tad more exciting:
Building on the buzz and excitement from your promotion, take some time to create an atmosphere for your training event. This can be as simple as having some appropriately-themed music to adding some simple decorations around the tables. When someone walks into your room, they should be excited about being there, not dreading it. Know that many educators are entering your room with the expectation that this will just be another 6 hours of “sit n’ get”, which is why it’s important to create that exciting first impression when they walk in. Have fun activity for them that involves more than just making a name card like “tweet what your first job ever was” or “find a picture of what super hero best represents you”. This will give you as the trainer an opportunity to connect with the attendees as well as give you some material that you can use later.
Research shows that hunger affects the brain and cognitive development. While we know funding is always tight and food is the first thing to get cut, this is a list of demands. If you want your staff to learn, make sure they are not hungry. This doesn’t mean you have to provide a 5-course meal, it can be as simple as a basket of chocolate or some protein-heavy snack mix. Having protein in your diet not only creates better avenues for neurotransmitters to help with learning and retention, it increases happiness according to this study.
And this doesn’t mean have 10 minutes set aside for walking around and adding notes to those giant sticky chart papers on the walls. Take a moment and put yourself in the shoes of the attendee. Would you attend your own professional learning? “Fun” can sometimes be a negative word when it comes to learning and it shouldn’t be. Making learning fun, even for adults, will not only increase engagement in the learning, it will keep them coming back for more.
Having periods of movements or “brain breaks” throughout your training not only provide some much needed breaks from what is being input into the brain, research shows that movement facilitates brain plasticity (essentially the science of having the brain learn something new). Doing a brief improv activity or having your attendees move and stretch increases oxygen flow to the brain as well as this plasticity. A side-effect of doing a group improv activity is that it creates an environment of trust and risk-taking as well as collegiality between staff that might not normally be working along side one another.
How many times have we heard that adults shouldn’t lecture children all day? Do we think that what’s best with pedagogy wouldn’t also apply to what’s best with andragogy? Who’s doing the work and talking during professional learning? If it’s more the instructor than then the attendees, you need to rethink how you are engaging your adult learners. When outlining your day for professional learning, try and employ somewhat of a “chunk n’ chew” method to the day. Break the day up into 20-30 minute segments that involving both introduction of a new skill, but also time for attendees to try it out and discuss ideas for application.
Taking into account the demands for engagement, movement, and making things more student-led, you must create opportunities for staff to collaborate on an idea or solve a problem. Providing time for collaboration in your professional learning allows opportunities for staff to discuss best practices around a topic or share strategies around a particular pedagogical problem.
Learning new things and skills takes a lot of cognitive ability. Having a training where all you do is show a series of new tools or tricks can be overwhelming to the brain and makes it nearly impossible to internalize all of it. As mentioned in demand #6, creating “chunk n’ chew” learning opportunities throughout the training will give staff an opportunity to try out the new skill as well as plan for application. Taking time to plan for application of the skill when it is learned, has a greater chance to translate into actual practice in the classroom.
We try to differentiate for learners in our classrooms, why not do the same for staff? Every single person comes into a training session with a different set of prior skills, knowledge, and preferred learning methods. When planning your professional learning, you need to allow opportunities for both the struggling learners and the high-flyers to be successful. This can be as simple as sharing your outline for the day ahead of time on Google docs or a website so that some can go at their own pace, while others can revisit a newly learned strategy.
Our final demand is that you provide some time for staff to reflect on what they have learned. When planning the professional learning experience for your staff, make sure there is time to reflect throughout the day. This doesn’t mean just spend the last 5 minutes reflecting on something they learned that day, but rather actual pockets of time throughout the day where they can reflect in the medium of their choosing. After all, educational reformer John Dewey once said, “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.”
We feel our list of demands are not unreasonable. Please secure these demands prior to your next professional learning event or your teachers’ learning will suffer the consequences.
The E.B.P.L. (Educators for Better Professional Learning)
I’ve attended every SXSWedu since the beginning. As it’s located in Austin, it’s a great opportunity to learn and share with leaders from around the world right in my backyard. This year, we are sending quite a bit of staff to stretch their thinking and grow as professionals. As usual, Ron Reed and the crew at SXSWedu put together a dynamite line-up that doesn’t disappoint. One thing I created to help guide staff is create a “manifesto” of sorts for those that are either going for the first time or are just needing help not being overwhelmed by all the great sessions in their lineup.
If you are a first-time or veteran SXSW-er, hopefully some of these tips will help you as you make your way towards Austin next week.
If you are with a group, create a Slack channel
Attending a large conference with a group can be engaging but you also can run into serious FOMO (Fear of missing out) on sessions you don’t attend. I invited all of our staff attending to our own district Slack channel. Slack is a great way to share resources and communicate in a group format that won’t crowd your inbox during an event like this. I consider it kind of like a group text on steroids. We will still encourage staff to follow along at the #SXSWedu hashtag, but using a private group Slack can be powerful when reflecting and sharing after the event is over.
Parking can be tricky…and Uber is gone
The days of free parking in downtown Austin are over (unless you are comfortable walking a long distance). That said, most of the parking around downtown is reasonably priced ($10-$15 bucks), but I’d encourage you to car pool if possible. Here’s a map of downtown parking for some ideas of where to find parking. Also, as Uber and Lyft pulled out of Austin since the last SXSWedu, you’ll want to use an alternate ride-share company like Fare or Ride Austin to get around down town. If that doesn’t work, there are always a bunch of pedi-cabs!
Registration is located on the Northeast corner of the convention center (Exhibit hall 5). You should have been sent a badge via email from email@example.com that has your Quickcode to scan when you get there. You can also link your account with the social.sxswedu.com account to upload your picture ahead of time if you don’t want them to take it when you get there.
You can pick up your badge starting at 4 PM on Sunday (advisable if you want to avoid longer lines on Monday).
Lunch places are always changing year to year so check Yelp for some good options. Prices do vary and “rush hour” is generally between 11:30-1:00. Some newer places downtown include Cafe Blue and one of the BEST pizza food trailers down Rainey street behind Craft Pride called Via313 (Detroit-style pizza). One of my favorite burger joints continues to be Casino El Camino on 6th street. Of course, if you are looking for BBQ and don’t want to wait too long in line at IronWorks, I’d highly recommend LaBarbecue (order the rib, it’s pricey, but worth EVERY penny!).
SXSWedu has several events that happen in the evening. There are multiple movie screenings happening throughout the week. One of note is a screening of the movie “Hidden Figures” on Monday from 7-9pm at the Stateside Theater (with a Q&A panel with @RafranzDavis and others to follow). Another event that I am personally involved in is the CatchOn Launch Party on Tuesday at 7:30pm-11pm at Cedar Street Courtyard. It’s a start-up company I’ve been advising on and we have all sorts of fun stuff planned for that evening including a little live band karaoke! Your SXSWedu badge will get you into all of these events.
SXSWedu doesn’t follow traditional conference schedules (1 hour sessions repeating throughout). There are variety of sessions from 15-minute talks, to Think tanks, to meet-ups, to Future 20s, to longer workshops. Be sure to create a log-in before arriving and ‘star’ the sessions you are interested in but also note the start and end times as many overlap. Also, note that with the exception of keynotes, most of the sessions Monday through Wednesday run from 11am-6pm and on Thursday they are from 9:30am-2pm with a closing party to follow. (you can sleep in!)
Sessions that intrigue me
I’m super pumped to see Tim Ferriss keynote on Wednesday at 9:30am. I’ve been a fan of his podcast and books for the last couple of years and I’m excited to hear what he has to say about learning and mastery. Sessions that focus on design thinking, student empowerment, and artificial intelligence tend to draw my interest this year. I’m also all-in on the Breakout EDU concept and I’m excited to see good friend and super-engaging speaker Adam Bellow at this year’s event. This year, not only am I attending, but I’m also moderating an interactive panel called “#AppOverkill: Going Beyond the Buzzwords”. I’m excited to hear from the panel of experts we have assembled and we are also going to be doing some different activities to engage audience in the conversation. Come be a part of the conversation and fun at Tuesday at 11am!
Takeaways and Reflections
Attending an event like this can be incredibly rewarding and energizing to those of us in education. However, it’s important that those that attend also bring back and share their learning with others on campus.
Here is a list of questions to keep in the back of your mind as you attend sessions and look for things to bring back. (Thanks to Lisa Johnson @TechChef4U for curating this!)
- What are the top sessions/topics that you liked?
- What are the top sessions/topics that you would like to take back to your campus to impact change?
- What are the top sessions/topics that challenged your beliefs?
- Who was someone you connected with that impacted you?
- Who are the top people that engaged you?
- What are the top resources you found most impactful?
- What are the top pieces of research or studies you feel are most impactful for our students and/or teachers?
- How will I share my new discoveries from this event with my staff?
While there are many other questions you are thinking about than the ones above, keeping these in the back of your mind while attending SXSWedu allows you time to reflect when it’s all over and also think about ways to share your new discoveries with others when you return.
This year at iPadpalooza we were looking to do something a little different with all that “transition” time in between sessions. Often times, when you attend a conference, you find yourself in complete session-mode. You rush from session to session, never taking time to reflect, interact or collaborate with others at the event.
And so, the APPMazing Race was born. When the team at iPadpalooza started brainstorming ideas, the thought of some sort of app-based Olympics was being passed around. Last year, we did an Aurasma scavenger hunt to get people interacting with their space. It was a great time-filler but was purely for individuals. Inventing a challenge based on teamwork would make the actual event even more meaningful was the hope. We ended up with 47-teams of 3 to 4 players signing up for the race by the end of the opening keynote. At midnight of the first day, they received their instructions of what they had to accomplish in the next 36 hours.
1. CREATE – A logo and team name for your team
2. LISTEN – Create a 15-20 second audio podcast that summarizes your favorite session. (background music/sound effects for a bonus point)
3. CONNECT – One team member must make a new friend from somewhere else (not on their team) and ﬁnd 3 things they have in common. Create a Thinglink to represent your new friend and the 3 things you have in common. (Bonus point for ﬁnding someone from a different state or country)
4. SNEAK – A team member photo-bombs an Eanes iVenger (hint: they will be wearing red crew shirts on Wednesday) Clariﬁcation: A proper photo bomb is when someone sneaks into a photo from behind.
5. CAPTURE – Take 5 selﬁes with vendors and post to Instagram with hashtag #iplza14 and your team name. Capture all 5 for ﬁnal submission video. 1 point per selﬁe.
6. EAT – Create a Canva poster based on your favorite food item from the food trucks.
7. DRAW – Using a drawing app, create your best caricature of another team member.
8. CHALLENGE – Create and post a Vine of a team member asking a presenter a question. (please don’t interrupt a session just for this – that could result in a deduction)
9. OUTREACH – Connect with someone over FaceTime who is not at the event and show them around. Take a screenshot that displays evidence you are here.
10.SHARE – Upload and share your final video submission somewhere visible on the web. Your final video must be no longer than 2 minutes.
We also had two scheduled challenges from 3:30-4:30 in the main room of iPadpalooza on Day 2 where the teams had to complete these –
1. DRIVE – Control a Sphero through an obstacle course. 5 attempts per team. Bonus points to the top 3 teams that take the shortest time to complete the challenge.
2. SMASH – Create an Appsmash LIVE during the day 2 closing activity. Theme of the smash will be given at 3:30. You must smash as many apps as you have team members +1 (so a team of 4 must smash 5 apps).
Bonus points we possible for teams with evidence of the top tweets and creativity of final video submission. While we could have just made it a checklist of items and drawn names out of a hat, we decided instead to judge their final submissions. Rather than fact check every item, the 2-minute video was the proof teams had to submit to at noon prior to the closing.
We had an amazing 18 teams complete the challenge and many were made up of people from completely different districts. In retrospect I would have loved to given every finishing team an award, but we ended up just awarding the top three prizes. Here is what the winning video submission looked like from Team “FargoFromDownUnder Appletes”
While there are always areas to improve, this race was successful in bringing colleagues together (either from the same district or even different countries) to engage and collaborate with an event rather than just being an passive participant. We look forward to even more teams competing next year and know now that the bar has been raised!
Official APPMazing Race Rules & Challenges 2014 PDF