Remembering Who Our Work Serves: Reflections from AERA and SXSW EDU

Remembering Who Our Work Serves: Reflections from AERA and SXSW EDU

Remembering Who Our Work Serves: Reflections from AERA and SXSW EDU

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Two of the largest and most important meetings in the education field are held in spring, the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting (AERA) and SXSW EDU. Attending both gave me the opportunity to think about the educational perspectives each meeting promotes and how their different goals may influence attendees. I am returning to my research with a renewed sense of purpose and a reminder that our work serves students, teachers, and other education stakeholders.


AERA ( was founded in 1916 and “is concerned with improving the educational process by encouraging scholarly inquiry related to education and evaluation and by promoting the dissemination and practical application of research results,” according to the AERA website. It has more than 25,000 members and 12 divisions and is the central organization in the education research world. Education researchers may belong to additional groups or associations in their specific content areas, but most belong to AERA.

When I started my career as an academic researcher, the AERA meeting, with its extensive schedule of presenters, was the pantheon to which we all aspired. AERA represents the traditional, academic side of education; the vast majority of members and presenters are current or former university professors or graduate students, and the papers presented there are written in the style and language typical of academic research journals.


SXSW EDU (, rather than focusing specifically on research studies, “fosters innovation in learning by hosting a community of optimistic, forward-thinking, purpose-driven stakeholders with a shared goal of impacting the future of teaching and learning.” Research is an important topic there, but presentations also focus on policy discussions, innovative ideas or developments, emerging products and technologies, and relevant films.

SXSW EDU attracts education innovators and developers, although attendees also include academic researchers, policymakers, administrators, and practitioners.

Impressions From The Conferences

SXSW EDU was held in early March in Austin, Texas. People had told me to expect to be overwhelmed, and the conference is indeed impressive in both its physical and contextual scope. There was simply too much going on for me to possibly attend everything I wanted. After making some tough choices, I attended several thought-provoking sessions across rather different topics. A session on media literacy emphasized that this type of literacy is not what we should be teaching but how we should be teaching. A session on higher education revealed that two-year colleges can end up ultimately costing students more than four-year colleges. A brilliant session called “Storytelling for Impact” made me think deeply about how I can better communicate ideas to students and colleagues.

AERA took me to Toronto in early April. Like SXSW EDU, it is annually overwhelming, but narrowing my focus via my own divisions and special interest groups helps significantly. I spent the week focused on early childhood policy, child poverty, and social-emotional learning, and was excited to see personal heroes in education research.

What most affected me was the presidential address by Amy Stuart Wells, “An Inconvenient Truth about the New Jim Crow of Education,” in which Wells discussed the devastating effects standardized testing has had on low-income students and students of color. Beyond this, she asserted, an overemphasis on testing has hurt American education overall: “Scores on standardized tests are what it now means to be educated.”

Takeaways From the Conferences

As I’ve explained above, SXSW EDU and AERA are drastically different events. They have different goals, different modes of presentation, different topics, and to a large degree, different attendees. I thought I would come out of the two conferences thinking about disparate things, all of which would be useful but not necessarily related. Yet, as I collected my thoughts upon returning home, the same thought kept pulsing through me: We have to keep pushing. Every session I attended reminded me that education work is critical. I thought about how all of the little things each of us do each day add up, and how the smallest decision or craziest idea might be what changes a student’s life for the better.

Researchers have an incredible ability to be absorbed by a study, spending months or years tracking that one theory or idea because it interests them and keeps them (sometimes myopically) focused. Similarly, education innovators can become so intent on “advancing the future” that the concept of newness can overshadow effectiveness and sustainability.

I was energized by the research studies and creative ideas I heard and discussed at AERA and SXSW EDU. Upon reflection, I kept returning to the question that should drive us all: Who is this all for? Sharing ideas and encouraging one another to think deeper and better are critical to progress in education, but we should always stay focused on how our work affects those we serve: the students, the teachers, and other stakeholders.

People attend conferences for a variety of reasons: to present their work, to learn about discoveries in their field, or to make connections with others, for example. For me, conferences often serve as inspiration for new research questions and project ideas. Coming together with our peers can also remind us what brought us to this work in the first place. Remembering who our work serves reminds us why we have to keep pushing.

Bridget Thomas

Bridget Thomas (@DrBridgeQIP) is Senior Education Researcher at QIP and Adjunct Professor at George Mason University. Her work focuses on early childhood policy and translating research for multiple audiences.

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