I noticed someone on Twitter asking recently for recommendations for speakers for INSET days. There are some great speakers out there and some brilliant examples of good quality and impactful CPD that schools use their INSET days for. However, too often, people feel either drained from passive listening or massively inspired but unable to really do anything life changing or practical with what they have heard.
This made me remember the times I have been involved in hackathons as a brilliant way to energise, harmonise and galvanise a staff team into being trusted to identify, name and sort some innovative solutions that can have an immediate, positive and lasting impact on the school.
So what the heck is a “hackathon”?
You might have heard of these from tales of start-ups and tech companies as time set aside for engineers and innovators to build something new by the end of the day. Legend has it that during a Facebook hackathon, the ‘Like’ button was conceived by a couple of lowly employees. Can you even remember what Facebook was, without being able to ‘Like’ things?
A hackathon is an event usually over two days where different people get together to work collaboratively on a project or an idea. It is creative and experimental. People develop projects without any constraints except time and their collective skill. It’s fun, satisfyingly solutions-oriented and valuable learning rolled into one.
Why should we even care about hackathons?
Most of the answers in organisations like schools, can actually be found within the four walls of the school and the people working there but only if there is enough time and trust given to people. A hackathon is a great way to give a 48 hour push within clear and safe boundaries for some brilliant thinking and a bit of real action.
Hackathons afford your team members time to focus on things they might otherwise never get to. It also gives them license to work on projects or ideas that don’t even seem to need to get done. Think pet projects, pet peeves and issues that would help your organisation move forward, but that there hasn’t been time to develop. Think marginal gains and small blockers, once removed, allowing the good stuff to flow forth. Imagine that small boy with his finger in the dike and what might have happened if he had removed it….
Hackathons are a great opportunity for staff members who don’t usually get to work together to get to know each other’s professional strengths and interests better. People are encouraged to work in pairs or teams if they think multiple skills sets will help their projects along.
Hackathons encourage creative thinking, something that can be considered important for your organisation, but that doesn’t really see the light of day in the usual grind of routine.
How do you run one as an INSET?
It’s pretty easy to run one as long as you are really clear on the aim, framework, expectations and structure of the two days. Make sure that people have understood well in advance and have the time blocked out in their diaries.
It’s good to prompt people with the parameters when you block out the time. In general, projects don’t have to be connected to their subjects, or be necessary for the team’s day-to-day operational activity, but they should probably relate to the school’s ethos, values and mission in some way. Whatever they choose to do, it needs to be feasibly completed in one to two days (however long your hackathon is). It’s best to think about a problem they want to solve or a skill they want to sharpen or develop. It is also good to think about how they might work with others and think creatively about who those others might be. Between the time you have announced that you are going to do a hack day and the start date itself, people should be finding time to discuss ideas and even potentially settle on a project and a group structure for each.
Before you start, each team member could have found themselves a manageable and exciting project and a group of people to work with (or at least one other person). There could be a list up in the staff room of the projects and who is part of each.
To make it easier, you may wish to allocate a theme to the hack day. For example you could be really specific with ‘Using tech for good’ or broader with ‘Connect, Collaborate, Create’.
What sort of things would a staff team do as their projects?
The ideas are many, and can be as simple and seemingly uninspiring as tidying the science cupboard and re-labelling the treasure found there in such a way that it gets used effectively across the school year and against objectives identified in the curriculum. Ideas I have seen have also been connected to curriculum design but have involved a cross curricular team nailing an exciting programme of study that interweaves everyone’s disciplines. More ideas can be around solving irritating and pervasive problems that might manifest themselves in bureaucratic pen-pushing or workload issues. Don’t automatically dismiss what seem like run of the mill tasks as projects – I have seen people roll up their sleeves and reorganise the staff room or an induction schedule for new staff, and in so doing they have set out a new statement of collaboration clearly linked to the organisation’s culture and values through doing so. Nice ideas have also been about sharing knowledge, such as setting up a study group with a curriculum and menu of guest speakers across the year, and creating a podcast and blogsite to support this.
A common starting place can be “what hacks me off about the way we do things?” and taking a solutions-focussed approach to finding a way forward. I guess they aren’t called hackathons for nothing after all!
Keeping it fun
Sometimes a change of scene, somewhere beautiful, even outdoors in the wild, can be a great way to make sure there is no science cupboard cleaning or hiding in familiar spaces and with the usual clique.
Everyone will be working hard and you might want to incentivise them by making sure there’s music blaring, food organised and plenty of hydration options. One of the ones I did, we also organised a little sub team who was in charge of making sure there was healthy and fun food available for lunch and snacking.
I have been involved in two hackathons when I worked at The Key for School Leaders, and each time we brought a relevant and inspirational speaker to open the day and to set the tone. Someone who spoke for 20 minutes about their organisation and how they draw out creativity and innovation from their people.
Have an itinerary
Hackathons need structure. Things to think about are group dynamics, energy levels, food and travel times. Leave plenty of contingency in the schedule and make sure people are aware that they don’t have to take part in everything if they don’t want to.
You might be able to do an overnight residential, or staff may prefer working across two days with people being local enough to the venue to go home in the middle. Either way, consider building in a social and fun afternoon/evening activity.
The first part of day one should be given to brainstorming ideas and getting to know the people in the team, setting ground rules, expectations and discussing fears, hopes, non-negotiables, favoured ways of working and so on.
Have a clear sense of closure
The hackathon should always end with groups presenting their projects back to the whole team in an upbeat, creative and interactive way. No death by PowerPoint should be going on here! Every project should be completed within the 48 hour period, and should be ideally ready to implement as soon as you get back to school.
In some cases, people present their projects as ideas and the others in the group critique or even do a Dragon’s Den type appraisal on whether they think it is going to work, whether they want to invest time in it and so on. You will need to decide carefully whether these more competitive ideas will make or break the team dynamic, add or detract from the energy that has been built up over the course of the hackathons.
Okay, but I need some help!
If you are interested in running a hackathon but are unsure where to begin, I am happy to help. Just get in touch, and maybe I can support you to organise your thoughts and move to a place where you feel the right ownership and excitement about it to be able to pull it off in your own school. Just drop me a line.