After a packed first day, SXSW EDU rolled into its second day Tuesday with an opening keynote from Patrick Awuah Jr., the founder and president of the private, nonprofit Ashesi University in Ghana, West Africa.
A former Microsoft program manager, he said his liberal arts education from Swarthmore College was a big part of his success. And while he was initially hesitant about returning to Ghana after the birth of his first child, he realized that the future of Africa would be important to children like his own.
Awuah determined that a lack leadership was a fundamental problem in the country across all areas. Accepting the status quo of corruption was not an option, he said, but to change the reservoir of leadership — for the country and the continent — education would be critical.
He returned to Ghana in 1997 and founded Ashesi University in 2002. What happened in the classroom would influence what happened in leadership when those 20-year-olds were in their 50s and in charge, he said. Curriculum was designed around this mission, with a core of liberal arts focused on humanities and social sciences, and with design thinking and seminars — ranging from what constitutes good leadership and good governance to the role of servant leadership — added to the mix to meet newly recognized needs as the institution grew.
The lessons learned are applicable not just to Western education institutions, but across K-12 as well as higher education. Among them:
- Students must be encouraged to own the mission, and when given this expectation, they will rise to the occasion. “It’s really important to recognize problems, to own up to them, to be transparent,” he said, noting that he publicly told donors about a cheating problem early on. It motivated the campus to act on the problem, and students adopted an honor system.
Example of students taking responsibility. The students at this school formally pledged to an honor code. It didn’t take the school admin to put it into the handbook. Students did it themselves. @PatrickAwuahJr #SXSWEDU pic.twitter.com/5BE5vWWUN5— Sam Harris (@csamgo87) March 5, 2019
- Experimentation and exploration of ideas require a penalty-free environment, within reason. "I tell my students when you see a problem, don’t just be an agitator. Be a problem-solver," he said. "We don’t have a shortage of agitators in Africa. We need problem-solvers."
- Multidisciplinary curriculum is key to inspiring and encouraging students to tackle problems that aren't necessarily covered in the curriculum, feeding that goal of experimentation and exploration.
- Being the first to push through to a new horizon will set the standard for others to follow, and this has held true for Ashesi, from the development of the aforementioned honor system to the election of the nation's first female student government leader.
- The formation of an education collaborative at Ashesi invites other institutions from around the continent to the campus to share ideas and learn from each other. Each institution leads specific areas, and each can help the others expand and deepen their impact. Collaborating with institutions beyond Africa is also key to overcoming the hurdles they face and achieving their mission.
Chicago's summer melt strategy
In another session, officials from Chicago Public Schools and nonprofit Thrive Chicago detailed how the district is working to put — and keep — summer melt on ice. The phenomenon is one that impacts students nationally, Eugene Robinson, the district's director of postsecondary support and strategy told the crowd, describing the rates at which college-intending students don't end up enrolling at a higher ed institution the fall after graduating high school.
The Harvard University Center for Education Policy Research places the spread of that rate nationally between 10% to 40%. In Chicago, the rate averaged around 31% until 2017. Among the highest impacted groups were African-American and Latino males and students with GPAs between 2.0 and 2.9.
Working with Thrive, the district worked to connect stakeholders across sectors, activate data and research, co-design testable and scalable solutions, and link those solutions to seed and sustainable funding. This was done in collaboration with higher education partners and a network of college access and success organizations. The former in particular, as one attendee noted, has a key role to play in doing a better job of helping many of these students with the transition to higher ed, alleviating their anxiety and assuring them that college is indeed an option for them.
Chicago's strategy also involved allocating $300,000 in philanthropic funding received for the effort to pay for schools to hire transition coordinators, counselors who were tasked with providing ongoing support to those students over the summer. In the class of 2017, the district saw college enrollment increase to 64.6%, up from 59.8% the previous year. While progress so far is promising, the panelists — which also included Imah Effiong, CPS data strategist and project anager for Learn.Plan.Succeed., and Thrive Chicago Special Projects Associate Leslie Glotzer — agreed there's still work to be done.
An ed tech lip sync battle?
Finding some time for a little fun during a conference is key, and this year, one place Education Dive found a lighthearted but still educational reprieve was a mid-afternoon "Ed Tech Lip Sync Battle" between Coordinator for Innovative and Digital Learning at Austin's Eanes Innovative School District Brianna Hodges and Director of Innovation & Digital Learning Carl Hooker.
The rules: Each had four minutes to demo a tool to use with a subject area and age level selected at random, with the "loser" of the demo having to lip sync a song chosen at random — and in a costume. The idea was to spark thought in attendees of tools they could take back to their schools or districts and put to use in their own ways with their students.
SEL should be to curriculum as fluoride is to drinking water
In another crowded afternoon session, Open Up Resources CEO Jessica Reid Sliwerski, Sunnyside Unified School District (Arizona) Chief Academic Officer Pam Betten, EL Education Director of Curriculum Design Christina Riley, and Moving Forward Institute Founding Director Lacy Asbill discussed how many districts want more social-emotional learning opportunities, but struggle to add one more thing to the packed day.
SEL-based conversation, collaboration, debate and reasoning, they argued, should instead be treated like fluoride in drinking water — embedded into high-quality core curriculum, not separate from it.
Keep an eye out in the coming days for a full recap of their discussion.