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Jonathan Alter: The Most Important Discussion at SXSW Edu? ‘Changemaker Education’

March 13, 2016

Jonathan Alter
Jonathan Alter

Jonathan Alter is an award-winning, widely published author, reporter, columnist and television news analyst. He spent 28 years at Newsweek where he was a longtime senior editor and columnist and wrote more than 50 cover stories. He is on The 74’s Board of Directors.

Jonathan Alter is an award-winning, widely published author, reporter, columnist and television news analyst. He spent 28 years at Newsweek where he was a longtime senior editor and columnist and wrote more than 50 cover stories. He is on The 74’s Board of Directors.
Talking Points

Changemaker ed could help ‘the biggest scandal’ in education — horrible grad rates

Getting kids to launch changemaking projects could be better predictor of college success than GPA

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Austin, Texas
We all know that education— like most fields — is afflicted with jargon and fads and there was plenty of both at this year’s South By Southwest Education Conference and Festival. But occasionally a truly important idea for remaking schools is barely visible beneath the verbiage.
I saw one in Austin, not long before President Obama and the more entertaining parts of SXSW came to town.
The organizers of SXSWedu believe in letting a thousand flowers — and nearly as many panels — bloom. Many of the sessions offered little value and deserve to be pruned next year, though of course it’s always the other guy’s panel that should go. (My panel was mahvalous.) 
While corporations selling educational products were held somewhat in check, I saw too much hawking and not enough thinking and reflection.
For instance, the hot trend for “maker” education is fine; many classrooms benefit from students manually making something together. But the concept was treated as if the development of 3D printers and other technology rendered the idea new.
(More: Three Things We Learned about the Future of Education at South By Southwest Education)
In fact, it goes back more than a century to theories developed and implemented by John Dewey, Maria Montessori and other educators. More historical perspective would help keep teachers from repeating the mistakes of the past that have sometimes turned such efforts into glorified shop classes. (The 74: The Maker Movement is About More than Science and Math — But is All This Tinkering Effective)
The same goes for “competency-based education,” “design thinking,” “social and emotional learning,”  “student-centered learning” (called “independent study” in the 1960s and ’70s) and other vague, academic-sounding frames that all encompass promising strategies for change but — in Austin, anyway — needed more critical scrutiny and useful refinement.
And ed tech — the shorthand for using technology in schools — is still too often seen as an end in itself instead of a mere tool for achieving well-defined educational goals.
Two ed tech insights I gleaned from fellow attendees: Top-down procurement for classrooms leads to disaster, as with the Los Angeles Unified District’s ill-fated purchase of iPads for all students. Instead, districts, which pay hugely differing amounts for technology, should band together to negotiate discounts but not actually buy any technology for classrooms. (When they do, it often sits unopened in boxes in the classroom because teachers don’t want it).
Principals and teachers should get vouchers from the district office to buy technology for themselves — a model more in line with the way DonorsChoose brings in private funds for public school classroom projects. (Full disclosure: I sit on the DonorsChoose board). School boards and central office procurement officers won’t like this but it’s the way to go.
Where tech can help most is in tracking individual student progress, a fertile areas nowadays. This can be anything from ClassDojo in classrooms to huge university systems figuring out the fates of their students. Perhaps the biggest scandal in higher ed nowadays is how little effort is put into keeping students from slipping through the cracks. (The 74: From South LA to the Ivy League: Two Latino H.S. Grads Tell How They Made It and What It Takes to Stay)
Thus my biggest frustration with SXSW, which paid little heed to the elephant in the classroom: scandalously high dropout rates in high school and college. If there was a panel devoted to this central challenge, I missed it.
I did, however, attend one lightly attended panel called Changemaker Ed: Transforming How Kids Grow Up that got to the essence of how we should equip students with the self-starter skills and “agency” (a buzzword that reflects an essential concept) they need in the 21st century, when they will bounce from job to job in the DIY economy.
The panel was moderated by Greg Van Kirk of the Ashoka Foundation, which has designated 60 schools in the U.S. as “changemaker schools.”
The thinking here is that every student needs to learn to take initiative and make some kind of change in their world. It could be starting a club, getting the administration to change a policy on where hip hop artists can gather, bringing an outside speaker to the school, organizing something in the community or designing one’s own academic program. The ways to make “everyone a changemaker” are endless but the foundation is the same: learning the empathy that is essential to agency in lower grades then encouraging kids to take action.
Luis Perales, chief academic officer at Changemaker High School in Tucson, Arizona, said it took the professional staff some time to adjust to this exciting new lens on education. Some teachers are apparently “uncomfortable” that they are no longer running everything but are instead sometimes following the lead of students who have learned to initiate. They should get used to this feeling because it means they are succeeding.
It turns out that empowering students—helping them be changemakers— is often curative. Research is beginning to show that students who have nudged the world—made something happen—are more likely to finish college than those who haven’t. Anecdotally, I met several educators in Austin who agreed that starting a club is a better predictor of future success than GPA.
“Agency” ideas were present at SXSW if you looked hard enough:
Big Picture Learning, a network of 55 district and public charter schools that has at-risk students working two days a week as interns (often designing social media programs for employers), boasts much better high school and college graduation rates than comparable schools.
MyWays is doing pioneering work on student competencies like “Habits of Success” and “Wayfinding Abilities” that help kids find their way. Just because this kind of “social and emotional learning” is hard to measure on tests doesn’t make it less important than academic subjects.
Think It Up is a new expansion of DonorsChoose that allows students, like teachers, to write and post proposals for classroom projects on the site. Imagine how empowering it is for students to see their ideas turn into hundreds of dollars for their classrooms? Suddenly they're changemakers, too.
South By Southwest Interactive is famous for launching Twitter and other ideas that have changed the world.
Next year, with any luck “Changemaker Ed” will be the buzzword of choice at SXSWedu.