Day Four of SXSWedu - 8 Lessons I Learned at #SXSWedu2017

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I blew it with last night's write-up. That was supposed to be a short series of anecdotes from day three of SXSWedu. But as I continued writing, a theme emerged that I hadn't fully comprehended when I sat down to write. I ended up with a really solid reflection on the event as a whole. Seriously, that should have been my closer. In fact, go read that one again. Then, if you're still interested, check out tonight's post: 8 Lessons I learned at #SXSWedu2017. Enjoy!   

As I mentioned, you may want to begin at the beginning:

Highlights from Day 1 of SXSWedu — Miss Frizzle Cosplay & Edward James Olmos

Highlights from Day 2 of SXSWedu — How to Sell Test Prep to Schools

Highlights from Day 3 of SXSWedu — Keep Education Weird!

Once you're all caught up, let's take a look at 8 lessons I learned from my time at SXSWedu2017.  

1.  Take notes (mostly) by hand. I say "mostly" because I still used my phone to snap pictures of important slides. But aside from that, I did it the old-fashioned way with a pen and unlined paper. I hate using lined paper. During my time at the University of California Davis, I learned that most of the reason I didn't enjoy taking notes on paper was due to my aversion for fitting everything into the lines. Today, most of my workflows are 100% digital, but during phone calls Clear Choice Test Prep clients, I still take notes with pen & paper. I find it much more effective.

And so for this week, I challenged myself to take all my notes by hand, the way I used to back in college. I retained more information than I'd expected I would. But more importantly, when I glanced around the conference rooms (read: salons), I noticed that many many people were busily working on other tasks: spreadsheets, unrelated lesson plans, twitter, and email. It felt GREAT to be disconnected from everything but the task at hand. I highly recommend you give it a try.

2.  Judge not, lest ye discover that you're an idiot. 
Tim Ferriss had just taken the stage when I arrived at the Wednesday morning keynote. Unwilling to inconvenience people by scouring the isles for a spare seat, I chose to stand in the back. I immediately regretted my decision. Directly behind me, there was a woman in a red shirt speaking loudly into her phone  — in Spanish.

For a few moments, I ignored her, thinking someone else would tell her to be quiet or take the call outside. But after the keynote had clearly begun and she was still talking, I turned around to give her a look that I hoped would communicate, "Really?" As soon as I turned around, a young man standing next to her darted over to me to let me know that she was providing the Spanish language translation of the event. I felt like an idiot. Because I was an idiot. 

3.  Make your own teachable moments.
It was very difficult to concentrate on the Tim Ferriss keynote with a woman directly behind me speaking loudly in Spanish. But I didn't want to leave because I hated the idea of her feeling like I was walking away thinking she was out of line by doing her job. So I stayed and redoubled my efforts to focus on the conversation on stage. It wasn't working. I'm a guy who uses noise canceling headphones when I'm working at home alone.

Then, after literally no more than two minutes, Tim Ferriss brings up his go-to anecdote about teaching himself Japanese. Suddenly it hits me; this is a perfect opportunity to brush up on my Spanish. So I turned my attention away from the conversation on stage and began focusing as intently as I could on the woman behind me. Amazingly, I found it pretty easy to follow what was going on. Later, I tweeted this:

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(I was pretty proud of that lifehack hashtag.)
 
 
4.  Sli.do is a pretty sweet app. 
I may be way behind on this one, but I had never used Sli.do during a live presentation. Basically, it's an app that enables everyone to ask questions through their phones and upvote questions they'd like to see answered next. More info here: sli.do. (Note: I have no relationship with sli.do. I don't make any money off that link. I just enjoy promoting excellent products.)
 
 
5.  The SAT & ACT aren't going anywhere. 
There is literally no clear path on how state assessment tests can feasibly be improved. I sat through a full hour conversation with three brilliant, well-connected policy-makers, and I can honestly say that they would describe their efforts as aspirational. Everyone seems to agree in theory that performance-based assessments are the way to go. The idea is that we want to measure how well a student can collaborate as member of a team, break down data, draw actionable conclusions, and implement solutions. Those are the skills our students will need for the future. (Note: I'm probably messing up all the jargon, but you get the idea). But these skills are really difficult to measure in the cacophony of a classroom full of nine groups of students who are loudly delegating, experimenting, recording data, and altering their approach to the solve unanticipated issues.
 
Don't get me wrong; it's amazing to behold. And I think I'd have thrived in these conditions. But how do you objectively measure each student's contribution? How do you convert that into a score that can be aggregated and then disaggregated meaningfully? And how will colleges and universities know what to make of these scores? It's worth noting that nobody in the room even mentioned the SAT or ACT. However, when I spoke with the presenters after the talk, they all agreed that the tests weren't going anywhere. 
 
 
The reason is simple: the SAT and ACT are products that provide data to colleges and universities. The universities demand an objective measure. They're fully aware that literacy rates are down, remedial classes are packed, while at the same time high school grades have... skyrocketed! But I digress.
 
 
The insight from one speaker was the only change for college admissions testing will come when employers find a way to hold colleges accountable for graduating students with employable skills (like the ones I mentioned above). Then the colleges will begin to demand more emphasis on those skills in K-12 education. Then, and only then, will we see a bridge between colleges and high schools in the form of admission testing that moves to become more performance based.  
 
 

6.  SXSWedu failed to anticipate the demands of its attendees. 
As an avid podcast listener, I was really excited about that offering. On Tuesday afternoon, I found myself locked out of a session on fostering deeper learning through podcasts. The smallish room was well beyond capacity and event coordinators would not allow anyone else into the room. Meanwhile, cavernous auditoriums sat largely vacant as presenters discussed, yet again, why inequality in education is a problem. 

Obviously, I agree with this sentiment. But that's the point. Literally, everyone in attendance would agree that inequality is bad and promoting equality is vitally important. We're all preaching to the choir. Had the conversations been more focused on actionable steps toward achieving those results, then I think they'd have better served their audiences. (Note: I heard from a few people that Christopher Emdin's keynote speech was not only powerful but also actionable. I heartily regret missing that one.) 

This pattern repeated itself over and over, with big draws stuffed into small rooms (e.g. How to Make Awesome Educational Videos) and audiences of a dozen or so occupying vast ballrooms (e.g. Designing Assessments worth taking). It wasn't just the room assignments that made no sense. The allotted presentation times were also pretty thoughtless. One of my favorite presentations was a 20-minute talk on the future of Artificial Intelligence. They flew a professor from Carnegie Mellon out to Austin for a 20-minute talk? Everyone in the room would have cleared their schedules for the rest of the afternoon if he'd been allowed more time. Bad move, SXSWedu event coordinators!

7.  Academic Cheating is a Big Problem  
Sophisticated technologies have enabled rampant cheating from elementary school through med school. Apparently, it's really cheap and easy to purchase a professionally written essay. That's a huge problem. However, unlike many of the issues being addressed at SXSWedu, technology is not going to help us solve this problem. On the contrary, technology, in general, is enabling cheaters more quickly than EdTech can shut it down. In general, those who are caught were careless. And when they're caught, they're capable of incredible feats of rationalization. 

The problem is compounded by the fact that high schools cannot report anything non-suspendable offenses to university admissions committees. And, like most things, parents make everything 200% worse by enabling their cheating sons and daughters. Teachers around the room from every grade level contributed horror stories of endless meetings with parents (and even attorneys!!) demanding that students not be punished for blatant incidences of cheating. For their part, colleges often look the other way when they catch cheaters because exposing a cheating ring reflects very poorly on the university. So even when technology does help us catch cheaters, humans often thwart justice.    

8.  The Merits of the word Y'all.   
The word y'all has always sounded pretty foreign to me. I wouldn't have described myself as a fan before this trip. However, at some point during my time here, I realized that it makes a lot more sense than saying, you guys. Perhaps it was the fact that I was here for International Women's Day, but all of a sudden I realized that Y'all is much more inclusive. At nearly the same moment, I realized that when I say you guys, I probably sound just as crazy to everyone else as mobsters in movies sound to me when they say yous guys.

The versatility and limitations of the word y'all are explored thoroughly in Y'all Need this Book. It's worth a read.

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9. (BONUS LESSON!!) Amy's has the Best Ice Cream in Austin. 
When you're there, be sure to try the Bats. And if I leave right now, I can still get to Amy's before they close. Have a great night! 

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Finally, if you'd like to learn more about how Clear Choice Test Prep can help you grow your tutoring company using our 100% custom branded test prep system, give us a call at 628-400-7737 (PREP). We look forward to hearing from you! 

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