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June 1, 2017
Vol. 74
No. 9

How the Hack Mindset Can Foster Innovation in Schools

Schools leaders can cultivate deeper learning by making small, experimental shifts.

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Professional Learning
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One of our favorite design experiences is the marshmallow tower challenge. You may have seen Tom Wujec's TED Talk on the topic, "Build a Tower, Build a Team." The idea is relatively simple: Teams of four have 18 minutes to build a free-standing tower using only 20 sticks of spaghetti, one marshmallow, one yard of tape, and one yard of string. Over the years, Wujec has conducted this challenge with very different groups: kindergartners, corporate executives, engineers, lawyers, and educators. He's found that kindergartners are particularly successful at the task, in part because they don't overplan; they just jump in and start prototyping and building as they go. On the flipside, adults tend to spend too much of the allotted time thinking through approaches and ideas rather than acting on them. Consequently, they often don't have time to complete the challenge.
So, how does the marshmallow challenge relate to leading change in schools? Educational thought leaders from Sir Ken Robinson to Tony Wagner, among many others, argue that we need to reimagine education to emphasize the creative problem-solving skills required to address complex challenges in our world today and in the future. Deeper learning is one new model that aims to help students develop such skills. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (2013), which funds initiatives to support deeper learning, has identified a set of six interconnected competencies that go into the framework: mastery of core academic content, critical thinking and complex problem solving, effective communication, collaboration, an understanding of how to learn, and academic mindsets. Early research on schools implementing deeper learning has found that focusing on these areas can improve student learning and performance outcomes (Zeiser, et al., 2014).
Few would argue that our students don't need to master these types of competencies to be successful in life. But redesigning a whole school or district on the basis of deeper learning requires significant changes in school structures and classroom practices. For many principals, it can be difficult even to know where to start, especially since large-scale redesign initiatives often run aground under their own weight and can result in initiative fatigue among staff members.
How then can we support school leaders to take advantage of the opportunities for innovation today in a doable, sustainable way? Enter the hack mindset.

Developing the Hack Mindset

Over the past year, under a grant from the Hewlett Foundation, we've been observing a group of school leaders who participated in School Retool, a professional development fellowship program for middle and high school principals designed by the d.school at Stanford University and the global design firm IDEO and funded by the foundation. Over three months, these principals attended four full-day, interactive workshops. During the workshops, they worked through a series of design challenges to build empathy for their students, identify aspirations to promote deeper learning in their schools, and develop small hacks, or low-risk action steps, that could lead toward realizing the aspirations they identify. Two experienced coaches from Stanford led the program, facilitating the face-to-face sessions and supporting the participants through two coaching calls in between the sessions. Charged with doing an exploratory study of the program, we attended all of the sessions and followed the participants throughout the fellowship and beyond. (We plan to publish a comprehensive research study later this year on the program's outcomes.)
We found that, overall, School Retool is a unique learning experience for school leaders. One source of its power is that it encourages principals to develop a hack mindset, which consists of three core elements that are threaded through the fellowship experience: developing a bias toward action, starting small, and failing forward. As we explore each of these elements, we share examples and stories from what we've observed.

Adopt a Bias toward Action

For many, being a school leader means having all the answers. Just as for corporate CEOs, there is considerable pressure on principals to have everything figured out before launching any new initiative. Several of the principals in the School Retool cohort mentioned that a significant obstacle for leading change in schools was the expectation to create a detailed plan before beginning to act. For many open-ended or truly innovative projects, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to have everything in place prior to starting.
For that reason, School Retool emphasizes operating with a bias toward action. The program encourages principals not to overplan. Participants are essentially given permission to get started without having all the answers. This doesn't mean they shouldn't think ideas through or prepare. It simply means that they should challenge themselves, on selected projects, to get started as quickly as possible.
For example, one principal, Jake, wanted to have his school host an exhibition of students' projects for parents and the community. Initially he and his leadership team began to develop a detailed logistical plan, attempting to identify all the things that could go wrong with the event and then develop contingency plans. But during a coaching call with one of the School Retool facilitators, Jake was challenged to take a bias toward action and turn over the planning to the students. He met with a group of student leaders, shared his vision and goal for the exhibition, and empowered the students to plan the event. Energized by the opportunity and unconstrained by adults' problems-first mindset, the students proceeded to do just that—and in stellar fashion.
Later, Jake reflected on the experience: "We spend so much time planning because we feel like we have to. Having some room for improvising and having students flesh things out is really valuable." By taking a bias toward action through empowering his students, Jake was able to move from vision to reality. Two weeks after the coaching call, he had successfully hosted his first exhibition. He proudly shared photos of the event in the "Hack Artifact Gallery" at the next workshop.

Start Small

One of the most surprising elements of the fellowship experience for the participants was School Retool's continual focus on starting small. The idea behind starting small is that when we commit to taking just a small action or making a minor change, we are less afraid of failure. This approach doesn't require as much mental overhead or resource commitment to get started. If things don't work out quite as planned, it is much easier to learn from the experience and take things in a new direction.
To illustrate this strategy, the coaches gave the participants a set of "Quick Win" cards during the first workshop. Each card included one small strategy related to a deeper learning principle that could easily be implemented. For example, one card encouraged principals to gain a different, more student-centered perspective on their schools by moving their own desks into the hallway for a day. Another encouraged them to conduct a live poll (see fig. 1) in which they ask for student feedback on a school topic. Another prompted them to invite a student to a faculty meeting. The participants were then challenged to implement three quick wins before the next session and then report back to the group on what they learned.

Figure 1. Live Poll

Why: Get the pulse of your community on an important topic and make yourself accessible for feedback.

How:

  • Choose a question that you'd love to learn more about.

  • Write this question on a small signboard, and literally stand in the hallway with the question in your hands.

  • Invite people to answer the question—writing their response on a sticky note and posting it to the wall, or telling you directly.

  • Compile the answers and share them with your community.

 


Significantly, this focus on starting small supports the bias toward action. When the first step is incremental, it is much more difficult to rationalize putting it off. Instead, we have a great deal of incentive to just do the next thing. This helps build confidence and momentum toward the realization of our aspirations.
One story that illustrates this concept of starting small comes from David, a principal from a rural high school. For years, David had wanted to develop a working farm at his school—particularly to raise livestock. He commented,
I learned how difficult it is to get a big idea moving. There are so many people who want to think it through more. The bias toward action is hard. I had approved ahead. I thought I planned ahead. I presented the strategic plan. There are so many people who want to put a roadblock in front of you. Even people who wanted it to happen.
So what was David's first step after learning the hack mindset? He bought some rabbits. From there, students learned how to build coops, and they figured out how to feed the rabbits and use their pellets for fertilizer. With one small step, the school farm was underway.

Fail Forward

Another concept that resonated with the principals was failing forward. This idea posits that it's OK to fail or to make mistakes, as long as you learn from them (Maxwell, 2007). As the principals tried small hacks at their schools, the coaches encouraged them to celebrate their successes, but also to reflect on what went wrong to inform their next steps. As Henry Ford famously said, "Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently."
A poignant example of failing forward occurred when one participant, Jamie, came up with the idea of creating an advisory program for 9th graders in his school. When he and his team of teacher collaborators began to sketch out a system to support all 100 9th graders in a new pilot program, they quickly became mired in all the things that could go wrong, the additional staffing required, the scheduling changes needed, and so on. Jamie quickly realized that his planned initiative was faltering. So, drawing on his hack mindset and his ability to fail forward, he re-started the conversation with a simple question that focused the effort on the small number of students who needed immediate support: "What can we do, starting tomorrow, to hack advisory to help these students?" he asked.
Starting the next day, teachers sat down individually with the students who were experiencing difficulty and helped them to set goals or develop other action steps to improve their learning experience. Jamie's shift in perspective, informed by reflecting on past setbacks, led to a breakthrough. It also laid the groundwork for designing a more comprehensive program: This small hack was the first step in the design of a program that will eventually serve all 100 students.
This idea of failing forward proved to be liberating for the participants. When paired with the bias toward action, this notion reinforced the idea that it's better to move forward, even if things do not work out exactly as planned. As one participant noted, "A hack might work and it might not, and that's okay. You learn from it and adjust your plan."

Hacking Change in Your Own School

School Retool encourages educators to dream big, take the first small step, fail, and learn from the experience. This simple mindset opens up tremendous possibilities for innovation—particularly when educators take these risks within a supportive learning community.
We've found that using the hack mindset in any professional development experience not only increases engagement, but also lowers stress and encourages creative and innovative thinking. Although it focuses on quick wins, the hack mindset can also help create a more creative school culture and facilitate the initial steps toward more long-term or comprehensive initiatives identified through formal strategic-planning processes or statewide or districtwide objectives.
Although not everyone has the opportunity to participate in School Retool, there are lessons we learned from observing the program that can help any school leader begin building a culture of deeper learning and innovation. Here are three small steps for you to consider.
1. To create a safe space for innovation and failing forward, leaders must adopt and model the hack mindset. It's important to start with yourself when adopting a hack mindset. Think about something you'd like to see happen in your school. What's the smallest step you could take to make that happen? Maybe you'd like to try a live poll to get a read on the needs of your school community. Or maybe you'd like to invite a student to a staff meeting or to a teacher PLC meeting. Be open to learning from the experience and failing forward. Once you've experienced the power of the hack mindset yourself, then you'll be ready to spread it to others in your school.
2. Innovation should solve a problem or capitalize on an opportunity. Innovation shouldn't be undertaken for its own sake. Your hacking should be focused on a specific goal or aspiration for your students, teachers, or the school community. Encouraging creativity and play, supporting teachers in learning from one another, providing time and space for everyone in the school to reflect, or giving students more choice and voice in the curriculum are examples of viable goals.
3. Begin with empathy—for students and teachers. We can develop our own goals and aspirations for the school community, but if we don't consider what they mean to and for the members of that community, it may lead to more harm than good. If we begin with understanding the needs of our students and teachers, we can better address their aspirations for learning and growing. As one School Retool participant noted, "New ideas might be good stuff, but are they the right stuff for students and teachers?"
Like the kindergartners in the marshmallow tower challenge, if we start small, have a bias to action, and fail forward, our innovation efforts will be much more likely to succeed. Further, we've found that this mindset creates a positive culture among stakeholders. At the final workshop, a participant named Amber shared,
I'm excited. The job of a principal is not as overwhelming when you're around others who are excited and committed to a lot of the same things. I appreciated greatly getting to talk with others, clarifying ideas, and getting different perspectives.
There is significant power in being surrounded by positive and inspired people in a setting that encourages everyone to take risks in a safe space. In an era in which educators and leaders are under enormous stress and pressure, it's crucial that they are given opportunities to reconnect with the real purpose of education: to inspire and empower others to learn and grow.
Note: All videos linked to in this article were created by School Retool.
References

Maxwell, J. C. (2007). Failing forward: Turning mistakes into stepping stones for success. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. (2013). Deeper learning competencies.

Zeiser, K. L., Taylor, J., Rickles, J., Garet, M. S., & Segeritz, M. (2014). Evidence of deeper learning outcomes. Findings from the study of deeper learning opportunities and outcomes: Report 3. American Institutes for Research.

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