Hack your school
A framework for sparking innovation
Schools are generally tooled for efficiency, management and control. A hackathon can be a fantastic way to spark innovation, harness internal capacities, dampen administrative structures and boost community agency.
What is a hackathon?
A hackathon is an event where groups collaboratively develop new ideas, products or solutions through a rapid creative process. In the past it has typically applied to software development but it is in fact also a fantastic way for schools to leverage internal capacities and lead change.
It’s also assists in building community, collaboration, and restores agency to individuals who’s voice may otherwise not be heard. Hackathons are widely used in companies like FaceBook, Hasbro and Chevrolet and are now starting to emerge in educational institutions like Shekou International School and Nexus International School.
What does it look like?
Hackathons are typically multi-day events where participants form groups around common areas of interest and then develop ideas or solutions to address them. Participants finish the day by pitching their idea to a panel or ‘Shark Tank’, who approves or rejects the concept. In schools, proposals could range from retro-fitting classrooms to reimagining meeting structures, from recycling programs to the introduction of 20% time.
How do you organize it?
1. Convince your administrators
The hardest part of running a hackathon will be convincing your administrators it’s a worthwhile endeavour. From their point of view it could appear threatening, chaotic and even judgemental of the school.
You’ll need a solid elevator pitch that explains exactly ‘why’ the school would benefit from a hackathon. This becomes your mantra when speaking about the event and allows others to easily do the same. Typically 1–3 sentences long it could look something like this:
“A hackathon will empower our community, boost collaboration between departments and tap into the collective talents of our staff and students”.
But most importantly, invite your head of school to be involved in endorsing hacks as part of the panel (see success conditions later). This will assist in alleviating concerns around misaligned or uninformed ideas being approved.
2. Garner interest
The key to a successful Hackathon is engaging all members of your community. To ensure you get good representation, try strategies that garner involvement in different ways.
This could involve the non-confronting method of an online form asking for input, or the slightly more obtrusive measure of directly filming staff and students in regards to ‘what they would like to hack.’ This can then be used as a catalyst for new ideas and discussion.
3. Identify a design framework
While Hackathons may appear wild and chaotic from the outside, they generally stick to a design framework that guides the creative process. While there are many frameworks to choose from (Like Agile Development, Waterfall model and Spiral Model), Design Thinking is a fantastic platform as it puts user empathy at the forefront and has clearly defined strategies for each stage of the process.
4. Identify your core ‘hacks’
Prior to the event it could be worthwhile identifying and grouping the main ‘hacks’ so you can highlight these to all involved. This way participants can quickly align with a particular hack or propose a new one on the day. The Design Thinking process will also assist participants in identifying whether their idea has merit or if it needs to be transformed.
5. Choose a venue
This is critical. You need a large open venue where all the groups can come together to work. Lots of tables, chairs, chart paper, post-its, wifi, candy and coffee. The energy for the hackathon will be generated and spurned along by the collective activity in the room. Harness it!
6. Create your success conditions
At the end of the hackathon each team will need to pitch their idea to the panel or ‘Shark Tank’ for approval. This group should be representative of the wider community and could include the head of school, students, parents, teachers, administrators and local industry representatives. You’ll often find the most poignant and relevant questions come from students so if you need additional members, double down on them.
7. Create an online presence for your event
This will provide teams with a reference point for all key information and also give external parties insight into the creative work that is occurring. You could use a free platform like strikingly to host materials and even generate a Twitter hashtag like #hackSIS to use as a backchannel for progress updates and inspiration throughout the day.
8. Facilitating the big day
Once you’ve completed the above steps you can focus on organizing the actual day. The main question to consider is how much time you are going to spend ‘training participants’ versus ‘hacking’.
You’ll need to dedicate time at the beginning of the day to organize teams, review the design framework and share requirements for the pitch. Any work that can be done to front load these components prior to the hackathon would be beneficial (think pre-workshop on design thinking).
It can also be a good idea to give each team a ‘hackers toolbox’ full of brainstorming materials, design strategies, candy and cash to aid their project. Any spending should be tracked and accompanied with receipts.
Most importantly, don’t provide any judgement during the process. You may stifle an idea or approach that’s only in it’s nascent stages of development. Stay out of the way and let the teams weave their magic.
What’s the end result?
Shekou International School (SIS) saw 40% of their hacks approved which was higher than anticipated. Others were knocked back only to be approved later. You can see a full overview here but they included blending street art and classroom furniture, student run recycling programs and implementation of a micro financing initiative. Anecdotally SIS also saw an increase in staff agency and a greater sense of community.
Nexus International School ran a hackathon with their students, allowing them to pitch ideas for whole school change. Their hacks demonstrated an amazing amount of empathy for peers and focused on student wellbeing, customised timetables, personal learning plans and more. But most importantly, the inherent authenticity of the hackathon spurned a high level of student engagement in developing project plans, negotiation, vertical collaboration, problem solving and critical literacy skills.
Whether you choose to run a hackathon with your students, teachers, parents or a mix you’ll see benefits in both the immediate innovations and longer term community growth. There’s huge opportunity ahead for schools to reimagine learning experiences, spaces and programs and a hackathon is just one way to spark that change.
John Burns is the Director of Creativity & Innovation at International Schools Services. He currently heads up Level 5, a new space for creativity, design and learning based in Shenzhen and blogs at www.j0hn.org.
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