SXSWedu — Forever Learning

Tomorrow, I return to the Land of A-Ha’s where curiosity and learning intersect in an explosion of learning possibilities: SXSWedu.

Sure, you may know all about South by Southwest (SXSW), whether it’s the music, film or interactive festival. What far fewer folks know about is this one, the youngest of the spring batch of festivals, focused on learning and education. It’s only been around a few years, but it grows every year.

I used to attend the Interactive Fest nearly every year, but it eventually outgrew me and became quite a behemoth of an event, almost unnavigable in terms of getting to some of the sessions and gargantuan in size for others, such as the keynotes. Given that President Obama will help kick off this year’s interactive fest and First Lady Michelle Obama will kick off the music fest, those promise to be even more monumental in size and impact.

But as an instructional designer involved in education and training, I leapt at the chance when the folks behind SXSW announced this educational component some time back. It’s still manageable in terms of size but they also manage to pull in some terrifies speakers and programming.

Me & LeVar Burton @ SXSWedu

Me & LeVar Burton @ SXSWedu

In years past, speakers included LeVar Burton on the re-launch of Reading Rainbow as an interactive app, and one of my favorites I’ve written about at length here, Jane McGonigal.

Jane’s returning this year and I am excited to hear her speak and play the game she’s promised to lead us in about forecasting the future of education.

Another keynote speaker this year is someone whose name I had heard but had not really paid much attention to: Temple Grandin, author of The Autistic Brain.

In preparation for her talk tomorrow, I searched youtube for something to give me a quick overview and was rewarded with a pair of short videos.

The first video about Temple Grandin that I watched was this one with great animation illustrating her talking about her “visual search engine” thought process.

That intrigued me quite a bit, given my background working in both learning and mental health. So I watched another one and this one, while not as visually entertaining, proved even more enlightening about her viewpoints on autism and thinking differently.

See, these concepts made perfect sense to me. Though we worked with individuals whose conditions were more extreme than most (thus requiring institutionalization for their own safety), I quickly learned two key insights: 1) the human brain and mind manifests a wide diversity of thinking, feeling and experiencing that cannot be adequately described; and 2) every individual has something to teach me.

I also learned about autism, at the time (late 70s) a not very well known condition: we simply did not understand what was going on with these individuals. The fact that we had to use a checklist of behaviors to “diagnose” an individual as autistic demonstrated our lack of understanding.

Temple Grandin’s comments about sensory impacts of autistic perception and thinking also hit home as I listened to her talk. We had one autistic boy of about 15, little Ricky, who spent hours on end spinning to music like a whirling dervish — when he wasn’t searching for light bulbs to smash. Yes, that was his number one maladaptive behavior: breaking light bulbs. He had developed a keen sense of where to find unprotected bulbs (closets and bathrooms generally offer great targets) and had developed deadly aim in throwing things at bulbs far overhead. Once, when he was running away from staff in a McDonald’s hallway, he ripped off a shoe without slowing down and tossed it up and back over his shoulder, still running — and broke the big bulb near the bathrooms.

We began to believe Ricky perceived lights differently than us. “That light bulb hurt Ricky,” he would say after attacking it. “That light bulb bite Ricky.” Now I understand more than ever how true that felt to Ricky and why fighting back made sense to him.

Again, we were treating extreme cases, similar to some of those Temple alludes to in her talk. But Ricky and several other individuals we tried to help simply represented the extreme of what was already referred to as the autistic spectrum. What Temple Grandin wants us to understand is how many other people experience thinking and thought and sensory processes in some slightly different ways — that do not incapacitate them.

In fact, many people, such as herself, learn to channel these types of thought processes into highly productive activities. And as she points out — we could help even more to do so if we open our minds to the possibility of thinking differently.

About the time I was watching these videos from Temple, I also ran across this poignant testimonial from a loving father of a son with Down’s Syndrome. Back at the Ranch, I’d likewise learned two simple lessons from our Down’s Syndrome kids: 1) every human being is valuable‚ equally valuable, regardless of mental capacity; and 2) many people who experience a lesser capability in mental faculties possess a far greater capability for emotional understanding at a root level we “thinkers” almost cannot fathom.

So, I will leave you with this video to consider:


“And a well-educated man does not have more to teach than my son. He has different things to teach but he does not have more to teach.”

I find I can learn something from every person I am ever lucky enough to meet. And I intend to keep on learning from everyone who will teach me — forever.

About bullersbackporch

I am a native Austinite, a high-tech Luddite, lover of music, movies and stories and a born trainer-explainer.
This entry was posted in behavior, brain, creativity, education, health, Instructional design, Learning, SXSW, visual thinking and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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