South By Southwest Education Preview: 20 Sessions, Speakers & Surprises Worth Catching at SXSW 2020

From the science of learning to the future of civics education to a renewed focus on both economic mobility and the value of social capital, SXSW EDU 2020 promises a rich and urgent conversation about students, schools and the future of the nation

By The 74 | February 20, 2020

By The 74February 20, 2020

The annual four-day South By Southwest Education Conference and Festival kicks off March 9 in Austin, Texas, with an expansive program of panels, conversations, keynotes, competitions, screenings and live podcast recordings that will spotlight issues ranging from social-emotional learning to the science of learning, civics education, evolving state school policies and more.

In the mix of daily keynote sessions alone, attendees will find a diverse lineup of voices addressing a wide spectrum of issues: Sir Ken Robinson is set to ruminate on “revolutionizing education from the ground up” on March 10, Carol Dweck will speak March 12 on the science of motivation, and Jennifer Eberhardt takes the stage March 11 for her talk on racial bias. The kickoff keynote will spotlight five National Teachers of the Year peering ahead to the future of education on March 9. All SXSW EDU keynotes will be livestreamed at sxswedu.com.

One special series we’re looking forward to: Future20, a marathon of monologues that gives emerging leaders 20 minutes to discuss their latest projects, ideas or passions in a TED Talk-like format. This year’s lineup spotlights such topics as building youth movements, black boarding schools, modernizing high school math and the creation of a sex education chatbot.

Elsewhere, the Launch Startup Competition will spotlight an elite circle of education innovators with a Shark Tank-like pitch competition. The following companies will appear to present their products, competing for both $2,500 in cash and $20,000 Google Cloud credits:

Cognitive ToyBox, an online learning platform for young children.

Kiri Toys, which makes a “screenless smart toy” that helps kids learn languages and STEM subjects.

Learnabi, a learning app that provides personalized support to chronically absent students.

Presentr, an AI-driven platform that helps users improve their public speaking.

School Day Wellbeing, an app created in Finland that uses a daily student survey to recommend tips to students and educators for improving student well-being.

You can find the full SXSW EDU 2020 schedule here. (You can also revisit our roundup of 2019 highlights here.) We’ve combed through the hundreds of sessions in the program; here, in chronological order, are 20 of the most intriguing panels, events and talks that you might want to check out in Austin:

Monday, March 9

9:30 a.m. — A Decade of National Teachers of the Year: This kickoff keynote session features 2019 National Teacher of the Year Rodney Robinson and four former winners, Sarah Brown Wessling (2010), Jeff Charbonneau (2013), Sydney Chaffee (2017) and Shanna Peeples (2015), who will moderate the conversation. Panelists will discuss what is unique about education today and share their predictions about the future of teaching. (Read more about the session and panelists; will begin 9:30 a.m. Monday in Ballroom D at the Austin Convention Center)

● Interview — Rodney Robinson: Juvenile Justice Reform, Equitable Funding Among Priorities for the 2019 Teacher of the Year

11 a.m. — A New ‘Whole Child’ Era: Creating SEL Ecosystems: Educators are increasingly concerned about students’ social-emotional development, but just 1 in 10 teachers say their school has strong SEL initiatives in place. This panel aims to help close the gap by bringing together Steve Arrowood, Stephanie Jones, Weston Kieschnick, Venola Mason and Avis Williams to offer guidance for building an “ecosystem” that will serve every student’s needs. (Read more about the session and panelists; will begin 11 a.m. Monday in Room 400 at the Hilton Austin Downtown)

Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

11 a.m. — College & Economic Mobility: For All or Some?: Higher education can be a “powerful engine of social mobility,” but often it’s not accessible to students from low-income backgrounds. At this session, Brown University Professor John Friedman, University of Michigan Vice Provost Kedra Ishop and journalist Paul Tough will discuss why that is — and how it could change. Panelists “will analyze the barriers confronting low-income students and propose solutions to help educators, policymakers, parents and students.” (Read more about the session and the panelists; will begin 11 a.m. Monday in Room 12AB at the Austin Convention Center)

● Our Myths About Mobility — 74 Interview With Paul Tough: Class, Race & the Pursuit of College. Tough Addresses Higher Ed Admissions, Mobility Myths and What His Critics at the College Board Get Wrong

11 a.m. — Media Lit Meet Up: Students as Thinkers & Makers: From identifying disinformation to creating original content, media literacy is crucial for students today. Leah Clapman of PBS NewsHour and Robin Mencher of KQED are hosting this meetup for educators to discuss best practices for teaching students to produce and critically consume media. (Read more about the session and the facilitators; will begin 11 a.m. Monday at the Austin Convention Center’s Austin Suite)

12:30 p.m. — 20 Policy Issues in 50 States: In 2019, every governor who delivered a State of the State address mentioned education, and nearly all of them say education is crucial to their state’s success. In this panel discussion, Pennsylvania Education Secretary Pedro Rivera, New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education Zakiya Smith Ellis and other experts will discuss “how issues ranging from early childhood education to workforce development are trending across the states, and what the future holds as we look to the 2020 elections and beyond.” (Read more about the session and the panelists; will begin 12:30 p.m. in Room 12AB at the Austin Convention Center)

2:30 p.m. — An America to Me “Real Talk” About Racial Equity: “America to Me,” the critically acclaimed 2018 docuseries, followed students in a Chicago school for one year, raising questions about equity and race in American education. In this workshop, Mikel Brand Oliver, Afrika Afeni Mills and Lisa Zimble will lead “a facilitated session that uses segments from the [series] to identify structural inequities in our schools.” (Read more about the session and panelists; will begin at 2:30 p.m. Monday in Salon F at the Hilton Austin Downtown)

4 p.m. — Books 2.0: Why Reading Needs to Go Digital: This 20-minute “Future20” session features Elliott Hedman, who uses eye tracking and sensors to study why children disengage from reading and how to help them fall in love with it. The key, he’s found, is to make reading more like math by including questions and challenges that encourage kids to read deeply. Hedman is working on tech to make that happen and will have prototypes available to try. (Read more about the session and speaker; will begin at 4 p.m. Monday in Room 11AB at the Austin Convention Center)

Tuesday, March 10

11 a.m. — Reimagining Civic Education for the 21st Century: As our social and political discourse increasingly moves online, how should civics education evolve? During this session, speakers from various backgrounds will “explore the opportunities for educators and civic organizers to meet youth and adults alike where they are already interacting.” Panelists Brianna Carmen of Voto Latino, Shaniqua McClendon of Crooked Media, documentary producer Jyoti Sarda and Scott Warren of Generation Citizen will discuss how civics education can be “reimagined for the 21st century electorate.” (Read more about the session and panelists; will begin at 11 a.m. Tuesday in Salon H at the Hilton Austin Downtown)

● Related — Action Civics in School: How Generation Citizen Uses Action Civics to Empower Students, Grow Lifelong Citizens and Combat Inequality

12:30 p.m. — No Textbooks, No Tests: The Hardest Class: Students around the country are getting interested in the “wicked” problems of the world, from climate change to the opioid epidemic to income inequality, issues that don’t fit neatly into any academic subject. In this workshop, Patrice Ludwig, Seán McCarthy and Nick Swayne, all of James Madison University, will share insights into “curating problems, building transdisciplinary courses around those problems, creating faculty teams, problem sponsors, and opportunities for students.” (Read more about the session and panelists; will begin at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday in Room 8ABC at the Austin Convention Center)

12:30 p.m. — Building Social Capital at Scale Through Internships: Soft skills, social capital and career readiness are just a few of the things high school students gain from internships, which are growing in popularity around the country. During this session, Andrew Frishman and Andrea Purcell — who both work for Big Picture Learning, a school network that prioritizes work experience — will join Abja Midha and Tony Monfiletto, who work for nonprofits with similar goals, to discuss their experience coordinating teen internships. (Read more about the session and panelists; begins at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday in Salon J at the Hilton Austin Downtown)

1 p.m. — Putting Science Into Practice: Birth to Graduation: The importance of early childhood development for later outcomes in education and beyond is well documented. In this panel, Education Trust CEO and former U.S. secretary of education John B. King and policy expert Cynthia Osborne will discuss why intervening and investing early — in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life — works and “how the science and evidence can and should inform early childhood and K-12 policies to improve outcomes and equity for all children.” (Read more about the session and panelists; will begin at 1 p.m. Tuesday in Ballroom G at the Austin Convention Center)

2 p.m. — Masters of Practice: An “all-star, teacher-only panel of some of the biggest minds in classroom practice” looks at the future of the profession. The conversation will include Esther Wojcicki, an award-winning teacher and mother whose children are successful themselves — one of her daughters is CEO of YouTube, one is CEO of 23andMe, and one is a Stanford professor. Educators Christopher Emdin, Michael Kleba and Jessica Lahey will also be on the panel. (Read more about the session and panelists; will begin at 2 p.m. Tuesday in Ballroom EF at the Austin Convention Center)

2 p.m. — The 8 Black Hands Podcast Recording: During this live recording of the 8 Black Hands podcast, hosts Raymond Ankrum, Charles Cole III, Sharif El-Mekki and Chris Stewart will discuss the challenges facing America’s more than 17 million black and brown students with an eye toward the effects of negative mindsets and low expectations. The four African-American educators will share “insights and experiences that can address some of these entrenched and pervasive mindsets that lead to negative outcomes.” (Read more about the session, recording and panelists; will begin at 2 p.m. Tuesday in Room 406 at the Hilton Austin Downtown)

● Background reading: Stewart: Excuse Me, What Did You Call My Child? When the ‘Belief Gap’ Cuts a Little Too Close to Home

Nettie Hunt and her daughter Nickie sit on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court following the high court’s ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case. (Getty Images)

5 p.m. — Making Good on the Promise of Brown v. Board: Although Brown v. Board of Education legally ended “separate but equal” education in the United States, schools are still segregated and unequal today, more than six decades later. Even in racially integrated classrooms, inequity persists. During this panel, advocates Anurima Bhargava and Phyllis Lockett will join Education Week editor Christina Samuels to explore “how teachers and schools can counter bias and injustice to build pathways to opportunity for all students in the modern classroom.” (Read more about the session and panelists; will begin at 5 p.m. Tuesday in Room 18CD at the Austin Convention Center)

Wednesday, March 11 

9:30 a.m. — Uncovering Racial Bias: In this keynote session, Stanford University professor and researcher Jennifer Eberhardt will use science and stories to explain how racial bias can pervade schools, neighborhoods and other parts of our lives. Best known for her work on implicit racial bias, Eberhardt will also discuss ways to address prejudice. (Read more about the session and speaker; will begin at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday in Ballroom D at the Austin Convention Center)

11 a.m. — Igniting Classroom Practices With Learning Science: Educators are increasingly looking to brain science to inform their lesson plans and teaching strategies, but connecting the research to practice can be difficult. During this panel, neuroscience professor Melina Uncapher, advocate Benjamin Riley and Edutopia editor Youki Terada will talk about the most important brain science principles for teaching and recommend free resources for educators to learn more. (Read more about the session and panelists; will begin at 11 a.m. Wednesday in Salon J at the Hilton Austin Downtown)

11 a.m. — Failing Forward: Learning From ‘Turnarounds’: In this 20-minute session, Cristina de Jesus, CEO of Green Dot Public Schools California charter network, will discuss her experience as a principal and organization leader, including the mistakes she’s made and what she learned from them. Green Dot is known for its success in transforming district schools with its turnaround model. (Read more about the session and panelists; will begin at 11 a.m. Wednesday in Room 11AB at the Austin Convention Center)

12:30 p.m. — Devastating Impact of a 2020 Census Undercount: Advocates have been sounding the alarm about a possible census undercount for months, and children are especially difficult to count. Accurate data is crucial, though, as it’s used to dole out $700 billion in federal funds for programs including free school lunch and support for high-poverty Title I schools. During this session, Lauren Camera, Mohammad Choudhury, Nora Gordon and Beth Lynk will discuss why children are so hard to tally and what the implications of an undercount would be. (Read more about the session and panelists; will begin at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday in Room 12AB at the Austin Convention Center)

2 p.m. — The Educator Vote: Why It Matters: School funding issues dominated Texas state politics in 2019, and a majority of seats on the state board of education are up for grabs this year. During this policy forum, panelists Laura Yeager, who founded an organization focused on creating a “culture of voting” among Texas educators, Texas Tribune editor Matthew Watkins, and lobbyists Monty Exter and Bill Miller will discuss the role of teachers and school finance in politics and and answer questions such as “How did educator turnout in the November 2018 elections impact legislators’ thinking?” and “What did the March 2020 primaries tell us, and what’s in store for the November 2020 elections and beyond?” (Read more about the session and panelists; will begin at 2 p.m. Wednesday in Room 12AB at the Austin Convention Center)

● School Finance Reform in Texas: More Student Funding, Full-Day Pre-K, Teacher Raises & a Longer School Year — Inside Texas’s $11.6 Billion School Finance Reform Law

Thursday, March 12 

12:30 p.m. — Education & Paths to Employment: Educators, business leaders and politicians want students to be prepared for the workforce. In this session, panelists with experience in education, government and research will explore questions including: “Is higher education changing fast enough to keep up with the needs of this generation? Will it prepare students to be lifelong learners? Should four-year schools be more like two-year schools?” The speakers will be Danette Howard, Jane Oates, Eloy Ortiz Oakley and Louis Soares. (Read more about the session and panelists; will begin at 12:30 p.m. Thursday in Room 18CD at the Austin Convention Center)

Disclosure: The Launch Startup Competition is funded in part by the Walton Family Foundation, which also provides support to The 74.