SXSWedu 2015: Key Themes and Takeaways attended this year’s SXSWedu conference (March 9-12, 2015) in Austin, Texas. Our goal? To shine a light on the conference’s teacher voice, an aspect of SXSWedu that past years have noted has been missing. While a lot of factors come into play as to why there are less teachers at the year’s “biggest education conference” — funding, time off from school, spring break schedules — what’s important to know is that the teacher voice at SXSWedu is alive and well.

From hip hop in the classroom, to professional development, to digital leadership, the sessions at this year’s SXSWedu highlighted the diversity of the education community. As noted in the conferences closing keynote, “Regardless of your vocation, education is at the heart of each of us.”

Here is a look at a variety of SXSWedu themes that caught our attention:

SXSWedu 2015 Themes


When speaking with Marketplace reporter Adrienne Hill, Harvard professor Hunter Gelbach noted that a major trend at this year’s SXSWedu was “human skills [because] at our core, we are fundamentally social creatures.” Mindfulness, mattering, and holistic learning were at the heart of this year’s SXSWedu, seen in talks such as "Creating Meaningful Human Connection Online" (featuring Dana Grossman Leeman, SocialWork@Simmons) and "Brain-Focused Strategies for Living Learning" (featuring Goldie Hawn, founder of The Hawn Foundation).

Leeman’s Future15 session spoke of the importance of breaking the fourth wall — think Ferris Bueller’s Day Off — in online education, and how synchronous content not only helps student academically, both also helps them to develop a strong sense of identity and self. Her talk focused on the importance of mattering, which is defined as “the perception that, to some degree and in any of a variety of ways, we are a significant part of the world around us” (Elliot, Grant, Kao 2004). While her talk was about the importance of social and emotional learning in online education, the theme of her talk can be translated into not only the brick and mortar classroom, but how we approach all individuals.

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” Aristotle

Goldie Hawn’s closing keynote speech spoke to the overall importance of social and emotional learning where she emphasized the value of teaching our students holistically. She noted that mindfulness is an important tool for the social, emotional, and mental health of all children — but what we call mindfulness, she calls “brain breaks," noting, "We don't think children have the same kind of stressors we have, but we're wrong." These brain breaks, which can be used both at home and in the classroom, and are appropriate for all ages, are when we take a moment to acknowledge and embrace our emotions in times of stress. Learn more about mindfulness and brain breaks at The Hawn Foundation.


When data becomes the sole focus of instruction, you lose that heart, and start asking “Why am I doing this?” This debate of passion vs. data in the classroom was a hot topic in a number of talks at this year’s SXSWedu, including "Stuck: When Teachers and Students Need Inspiration" (featuring Hudson Baird, Reagan Pugh), "The Test: Beyond Standardized Testing" (featuring Anya Kamenetz, Michelle Riconscente) and "The Science of Learning" (featuring folks from Scientific American and MacMillan Higher Education).

While all three talks were proponents of the use of data to enhance student learning, they all took a different approach at where we've come from — and where we're going — in today's data revolution. Anya Kamenetz and Michelle Riconscente's talk looked at the history of psychometrics and how we can use it's history to inform how we use data towards our students moving forward.

"History matters" noted Anya. She explained how the idea of testing every kid every year was the brainchild of a Texas lawyer, not a teacher. These policies on data aggregation and standardization were informed by people who are outside the classroom. While both Anya and Michelle see the necessity of good assessment, they note an important distinction. The assessment debate is between two parties: people with passion and people with statistics. It is only when we have a happy medium of the two that real reform will happen. To read more about how the history of psychometrics is impacting today’s classroom, check out Anya’s new book The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing — But You Don’t Have to Be.


When asked if computers will be replacing teachers, Brian Lewis (ISTE) responded "No. But tech-savvy teachers will replace those who aren’t.” Those who work in education are no strangers to the image of the tech-savvy teacher -- the teachers who demonstrate the difference between implementing and simply using technology in their classroom. (Find out if you're a tech-savvy teacher here.) This idea of tech-savvy teachers and leaders was the focus of "Sending Teachers to the Head of the Tech Class" (featuring Brian Lewis, Terry Grier, Todd Wirt, Dwight Jones).

The contemporary classroom has changed tremendously. How can we support teachers and leaders to help make that change? We already know how students and children learn. They're learning through digital platforms, through social media, through technology, through each other. It's no secret that children are teaching themselves through technology, so it is the responsibility of teachers, leaders, and schools to use technology in the classroom. That is why Brian Lewis noted that tech-savvy teachers are going to replace those who aren't -- the teachers who are staying are the ones who are constantly evolving their practice to meet the needs of the constantly evolving classrooms.

How do we continue to meet these evolving needs? By "creating a culture of tech confidence," argues Bob Wirt. "[It is a] heavier, but more important, lift than simply teaching educators how to tweet."


What do Nas, Jay-Z, and William Shakespeare have in common? If your answer is “not much,” think again. They're all being used to teach literature. Words Liive made the connection between hip hop and classical literature in their presentation "Literacy Through Music, Social Media and Coding". Words Liive, started by Sage Salvo and Brian Mosely, is an education start up company that has developed Contemporary Language Integration (CLI). According to their site, CLI is a an approach to literacy that evaluates the following “contemporary” languages:

  • Urban music
  • Coding and computer programming
  • Social media
  • Text messages

According to Salvo, "Texting is becoming our dominant form of communication, so why should [English Language Arts] be stuck in a stack of books?” Words Liive argues that these contemporary languages are just as important as the classical literature of today’s classrooms. Words Liive is addressing today’s illiteracy crisis by bringing hip hop into the classroom.

SXSWedu 2015

Words Liive

Executive Director of The GRAMMY Museum Bob Santelli echoed this sentiment in his closing keynote, "The Importance of Music in the Classroom:" "I want kids in all subjects — history, literature — to understand our greatest cultural treasure is music." Addressing not only the importance of music education teachers, but the teachers who are using music in the classrooms every day. The Jane Ortner Education Award recognizes non-music educators who are bringing music into their instructional practice.


Though that may come as no secret, a huge focus of this year's SXSWedu was bringing fun into the classroom -- but not into just elementary school classrooms. This focus of fun is applicable in all K-12 education, as well as postsecondary and adult learning courses. SXSWedu was heavily influenced by doing. We noticed this theme in "Insights of Great Teachers" (featuring NPR Education) and the SXSWedu Playground.


NPR Education's summit "Insights of Great Teachers" was where we felt the strongest representation of the teacher's voice at this year's conference. An overwhelming majority of the audience members raised their hand — and cheered — when asked how many teachers were in the room. Stemming from their "50 Great Teachers" series, the mission of the two-hour summit was to get an authentic read on the issues that today's teachers are facing. The first section of the talk focused solely on audience comments, questions, and concerns, as well as praise for the great work NPR Education has been doing on reporting about the real lives of teachers.

It was at this summit that we met Sarah Hagan, 25-year-old high school math teacher from Drumright, Oklahoma. A self-proclaimed "proud math nerd," Hagan was at NPR's summit wearing a pi-shaped pendant and infinity earrings, and admits to reading math teacher blogs while she was in high school. (We too are familiar with the power of teacher blogs!)

So, what makes Sarah Hagan worthy of being one of NPR Ed's "50 Great Teachers"? Her philosophy: Math equals love. (She also runs a blog of the same name.) Sarah does not use textbooks. She noted that the ones her students were given are the same ones she used when she was a student, and did not like them then, so she doesn't use them now. Instead, she uses composition notebooks that she makes herself.

These interactive, student-made notebooks are the secret to Sarah's success in the classroom. That, coupled with her unbridled enthusiasm and passion for learning. She said that her math class looks and feels more like an art class, and that her students take better care of their notebooks (rather than textbooks) because it is something that they've created. She noted that even students who have dropped out of high school have come back for their note books. "They wouldn't do that for math textbooks," she explained. To learn more about the great work Sarah is doing in math education, read NPR Education's article "The Teacher Who Believes Math Equals Love"

The SXSWedu Playground is another place that was alive with the potential of maker education at this year's SXSWedu. The event page explains, "This casual learning space fuels innovation through discovery by highlighting pursuits in maker, STEM, gaming, virtual learning, accessibility, arts integration and more." The Playground Display featured hands-on organizations such as:

The organizations listed above, along with countless others on display at SXSWedu, are focused on the importance of making, doing, and creating in the classroom. Maker Education is a huge buzzword, and movement, right now in the education community. But what is maker education? The Maker Education Initiative notes it's mission is to "create more opportunities for all young people to develop confidence, creativity, and interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, Arts and Learning as a whole through making."