Day Three of SXSWedu - Keep Education Weird!

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I didn't take this picture of the Austin skyline. It's a stock photo from a few years back. You can tell because there aren't any construction cranes in the picture. Right now, as I type this, there are approximately 20 throughout the city. This city is changing fast, which makes it the perfect place to host a conversation about the sweeping changes that are coming to Education. Buckle up.   

Today got off to a better start — probably due to my not drinking cold brew coffee concentrate before bed last night. (You read up on how I learned that lesson in my write-up for Day Two of SXSWedu.) Well rested, I packed in a full slate of presentations today. And I carefully double-checked the room assignments to avoid a repeat of day two's confusion.  

This morning as I walked across the downtown, I stopped to grab a pastry and coffee, just as I have each morning I've been in Austin. It's an amazing city. And everyone here seems to know it. But not in a bad way.

That belief isn't rooted in arrogance. It's more like civic pride. It's the same sense you get from being in Portland, OR. Fun fact: both cities proudly encourage locals to "Keep (respective city) weird," but Portland stole the imperative motto from Austin.

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Visitors are encouraged to enjoy their time here and then depart promptly. If "weird" is good, then any change must be bad or at least less-good. It's a reasonable, if not reasoned, belief that's more civic pride than nativism. But everywhere you look there are signs that everything is changing at an accelerating pace. It's pretty rare to meet people who have lived here more than a few years. And there's some disagreement as to what makes Austin so great, which may foreshadow growing pains ahead.    

The whole situation is a pretty apt metaphor for the changing world of education. And this morning's SXSWedu keynote speaker, Tim Ferriss, provided a great illustration of the competing visions for the future of education. Ferriss was interviewed about his new book Tools of the TitansThe Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers

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During the interview, Ferriss focused mostly on his own self-guided adventures in learning. He talked about going from being a terrible swimmer to swimming 40 laps at a time in a matter of days. He talked about wrestling, JuJitsu, and dancing the Tango. Each anecdote comes with a neatly packaged principle that Ferriss posits can be applied to learning in general.  And he's right.  But some in the crowd found his presentation to be antithetical to what they consider to be true mastery and education.  And they're right.  They're both right.

To Ferriss's credit, he is a huge proponent of breaking challenges down into parts, experimenting with different approaches, and measuring results.  He strives to identify the minimum viable rather than true mastery in most endeavors. And he's very up front about that. He is a major advocate of A/B testing in everything, including education. And he was quick to point out that he believes that you should find what works for you and your classroom and go with it rather than take his word for any of this. Try it out.

When asked by the moderator whether he felt that there is any skill too important to pursue with a fast-learning approach, Ferriss quickly and unequivocally responded, "No. Nothing I've encountered." This response prompted some yelling from a man in the crowd who later attempted to climb on stage and remove the dress he'd been wearing. He claimed to be a best selling author of children's books. It didn't seem likely that was the case. Certainly, the "weirdest" moment I've seen during my time in Austin. 

At times, Ferriss spoke about inspirational teachers he'd had in the past. Those were the moments that seemed to connect the best with the audience. He spoke of how he learned that we need to be comfortable with discomfort. That apparent paradox really just means that we shouldn't be so certain of our limitations. We should push ourselves to find out what's possible — not a bad theme for SXSWedu in general. 

And in that way, Ferriss's keynote was the perfect symbol of the whole event: an at times uncomfortable conversation about education orthodoxy with the whole event framed against the backdrop of an amazing city that intends to retain its identity despite the massive disruption.

Educators face the same challenge: how to preserve the good things about education massive disruption that has already begun to take place. For Austin, the symbols of that change are construction cranes, Californians, and mispronunciations. For education, the symbols of that change are augmented reality, virtual reality, EdTech, untenable student debt, policy changes, and an emphasis on equality and inclusion.

And surprisingly enough, the best advice for preserving what's great about Austin and education while embracing all the great things to come is Tim Ferriss's central tenet of A/B testing. That was the wisdom in today's keynote presentation.

Sadly, not everyone got it. I overheard a woman on the escalator after his talk saying, "I just couldn't take him seriously. He looks like Bruce Willis, and he's super pretentious. I had to walk out." 

That's the kind of thinking — or lack thereof — that will take the conversation from uncomfortable to impossible. 

I also attended presentations on designing assessment tests, artificial intelligence, and improving the quality of educational videos. It was a mixed bag, but all three had some superb insights. And if it weren't already after midnight, I'd tell you all about them. 

Hopefully, I'll have some time tomorrow. See you then.  Thanks for reading!

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