Reflecting on SXSW EDU 2018: Seeing Students Through a Different Lens

SXSW EDU brings together innovators and entrepreneurs from across the education ecosystem. With more than 400 sessions to choose from, it’s a four-day blitz of ideas that are both energizing and exhausting.

At the heart of SXSW EDU are the students, and the adults that teach, support, coach and design for them are challenged to put students first. As I scrambled from one session to the next, with a few furious coffee breaks in between, I considered the complexity and richness of the student experience and the many personas they take on during their journey.

To simply call a student a student feels inadequate. They are explorers, designers, creators and, most importantly, humans. Schools that recognize and nurture these identities told their stories at SXSW EDU, and I’m grateful to learn from and share their good work.

Students as Explorers 

Expeditionary learning, place-based learning, the Montessori method, virtual reality and other approaches, both old and new, call on students to investigate the world around them and engage with what they find. These schools use exploration to help students forge new understanding, develop a sense of self and grow to appreciate the process of inquiry:

  • Grand Rapids Public Museum School, an XQ Super School winner, takes place-based learning to a new level. Physically housed in the Grand Rapids Public Museum, students use the museum and the city as their classroom. Students are making the museum their own, recently partnering with Urban Roots to repurpose an ornamental garden into a functioning community garden.
  • Magnolia Montessori For All in Austin is the flagship campus of a growing network of public Montessori schools. The Montessori method takes a whole-child (physical, social, emotional and cognitive) approach to education and encourages exploration and independence within a carefully curated environment. Aesthetics matter in Montessori, so I wasn’t surprised during my SXSW EDU tour to see that Magnolia’s new campus exudes a quiet but inspiring simplicity and a home-away-from-home spirit.

Students as Designers

According to Evin Shutt, chief operating officer at 72andSunny, the second fastest-growing job class is the creative sector, outpaced only by the service sector. One-third of today’s jobs live in the creative sector, yet they represent 50 percent of income and 75 percent of discretionary spending in the United States. The demand for creatives is poised to continue growing, but how are schools preparing students to compete?

  • Da Vinci Schools, a network of charter schools in California, anchors their work in project-based learning. They partner with industry leaders to offer internships and work experience opportunities to students. 72andSunny, a partner, sees their work with Da Vinci as a chance to diversify creatives.

Students as Creators

Children see the world as a playground of new possibilities, so their capacity for creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship should come as no surprise. Schools are tapping into students’ creative energy through the infusion of the arts, real-world project-based learning and Maker Education, to name a few methods. There are numerous schools and programs taking these approaches, but I learned of a new, notable example at SXSW EDU:

Students as Humans

Every child comes to school with their own story, with passions they can’t get enough of, hopes for what the future holds, and fears and limitations that sometimes get in the way. Schools must accommodate students en masse, so regard and attention to each student’s unique humanness feels like a tall order. There are schools, however, that are finding ways to identify, celebrate and design for just that:

  • Spero Academy in Minneapolis serves 110 students with a range of cognitive and physical disabilities, many of whom are hypersensitive to their environment. With the opportunity to build a new school for Spero students, A.J. Paron-Wildes, an interior designer and a mother of a child with autism, helped cast a vision for learning environments that are better suited for their students’ needs. Design was informed by the Autism ASPECTSS Design Index, a set of evidence-based guidelines specific to people with autism spectrum disorders.

RISE High Academy, another XQ Super School winner, opened in August 2017 to meet the needs of students who are disconnected from school and who require a networked family of educators, agencies and support centers to thrive. RISE facilitates personalized teaching and learning in co-located spaces, but also uses a mobile center to bring schooling to students who need it most, particularly homeless, foster and formerly incarcerated youth.

An extended version of this article was also published on Getting Smart