This post started simmering as I left Austin yesterday morning. Billed as a “conference and festival,” SXSWedu strives to foster “innovation in learning by hosting a diverse and energetic community of stakeholders across a variety of backgrounds in education.” From keynotes and panels to launch events and socials, I honestly believe that the event lives up to the hype. And yet, though there may have been as many technology people as educators in attendance, this did not feel like an ed tech event. In fact, you could not find a session with a “top 10 tools” title or “best ways to use ___” theme. Even within the Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality track, sessions focused more on the implications of the technology than the tool itself.

As exemplified by the panel featuring members from EdCorps: Where STEAM Meets Student Run Business, the essential question guiding the event may have been How can we give real world connection and relevance to classwork in K-12 classrooms?  In an era when students can “Google” the answers to most of the questions provided to them on worksheets and assessments, how do we create an environment that allows them to experiment, fail, and learn from those experiences within a context that has meaning?  As Dr. Christopher Emdin from Columbia Teachers College explained in his keynote, how do we create real project-based learning experiences and not fake ones? As an example, he exclaimed that we should NOT ask a kid to design a set of skis when he has never been on skis!

During the EdCorps panel, Ashley Greenway – a first-grade teacher from Rome, GA – further offered that too often, low expectations lead to low engagement. She articulated that schools and educators need to stop limiting what may be possible for students because of their view of what may be “age appropriate.” If we want students to solve real problems, we need to let them seek them out and not hand them prefabricated ones.

Through EdCorps and Real World Scholars, Ashley uses her student-run business to teach a myriad of subjects and hit a variety of standards while empowering her students within an authentic context. For example, one of her math standards requires students to master counting by 10, so she helped her students to price their product at $10.  Another standard necessitates that first graders learn persuasive writing, so Ashley’s students have to create advertising and marketing campaigns. The real world experience of running a business not only helps her students to become problem solvers but also allows them to see the relevance and authenticity of their learning within the community that they serve.

As panelist Dan Ryder further explained, real-world context becomes the “Wicked Focus” of learning.  For students to truly be successful and effective learners, they need social and policy goals as well as academic ones.  If we want students to consider their future and the role that they will play, then they need to view learning within  a real world context. Beyond academics and skills, Dan asserts that students need to learn a posture that they have the capacity to make actionable change.  We need students to be able to say with confidence that “Someone like me can run a business” – or anything else that they choose.

However, Dr. Todd Keruskin – Assistant Superintendents of the Elizabeth Forward School District near Pittsburgh, PA – warned, “If we are going to transform the ‘normal of school’ then we need leaders to support it.” Now that I am back to the reality of homework and dissertation research, I am wrestling with how to get all leaders, at all levels in the ecosystem of schools and districts, to recognize the urgency and need to embrace this “new normal.”

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