SXSWedu: Diverse But Optimistic Viewpoints

What's the secret to fixing a broken system?

AISD Superintendent Meria Carstarphen speaks Tuesday at SXSWedu.
AISD Superintendent Meria Carstarphen speaks Tuesday at SXSWedu. (Photos by John Anderson)

If there is one point of consensus at SXSWedu, it is that education is somehow broken. Too much testing, too little love of learning, too little investment, too few challenges. Where the attendees split was on how to improve the situation: Do schools and policy makers have to play the game better, or do they need to rewrite the rules?

For Nikhil Goyal, the 17-year-old education policy wunderkind and author of the book, One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student's Assessment Of School, it's time for a tectonic shift. During his keynote speech, he called for educators to throw out the old pedagogy of top-down information dissemination, and policymakers to dump the destructive and clumsy accountability systems. He pointed to the Brightworks School in San Francisco, where students don't leave with a grade sheet but a project portfolio. Similarly, he praised the MIT Media Lab, which emphasizes process and creativity rather than just the end result. He noted, "These kind of projects can't be graded in the conventional manner." He posited students building a boat. If it sinks, he said, "No one needs to tell us that boat isn't working. We don't need that F."

The Austin Children’s Museum booth, with Prinda Wanakule, a technology education intern, pictured. [Photo caption was misidentified in print and corrected online March 12]
The Austin Children’s Museum booth, with Prinda Wanakule, a technology education intern, pictured. [Photo caption was misidentified in print and corrected online March 12]

That's the curse and the possibility of project-based learning: The result is hard to grade. And that's not something that the massive testing industry – and its powerful lobby – seem likely to accept without a fight. Goyal announced that he was starting his own grand project – a learning revolution whereby he implores families and students to abandon high-stakes testing. However, as Austin Independent School District Superintendent Meria Carstar­phen noted, "You are not a child in AISD unless you know how to fill out a bubble sheet." Her solution to the new challenges, as summed up in district policy, is a commitment to a diverse portfolio of options. She presented a positive spin (and none of the controversy) about the district's doubling-down on single-sex education, and on the changes in dual-language education. For her, educational diversity is about "giving today's students and families more choices for their futures." Such campuses, she said, can be "a lighthouse of hope" for the community.

Both viewpoints were profoundly optimistic: that kids will respond to project-based learning and that the demise of the generic high school will tend to all academic desires. But there was little talk of how to deal with kids who don't want to learn, or how a school district can provide every opportunity for every kid.

Ultimately, not all learning can or will ever happen in the classroom. MAKE magazine publisher Dale Dougherty emphasized the value of informal learning, and used the modern cell phone as the ultimate proof that people are smart enough to learn anyway. He said, "We didn't learn it in schools. We picked it up on our own informally." The issue is how to make this experience quantifiable and repeatable, and that's a problem. He said, "When it comes to education, 'informal' is like magic. It happens, but we really don't understand how it happens."

So will the rules change, or will schools just navigate the current system better? Dougherty said, "The future of education is iffy, and I mean that in a good way. I mean, we just don't know."

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