Fast Times at Digital Harbor High: Catching the spirit of Education Hack Day

November 22, 2011


What sounded like a rad concert, the weekend and the majority of the “best time of your life” ahead of them, two college girls at the back of the downtown shuttle were wrapped up in that morning’s psychology test.

“The first part was so hard!” the duo’s navigator said, ticking off the cross streets as the bus lumbered south.

Her companion concurred.

“That’s why I did the first part last,” she said.

It turns out she completed the exam all out of order, jumping among and within sections, pouncing on questions she knew she knew and “half-answering” — tracing the answer bubble but not shading it yet — ones she was less confident about.

Non-linear learning

We all don’t take tests that way. Maybe we should. If question order can affect the outcome of a survey, certainly it can change the result of a test. But we all learn that way. In our minds, the shortest distance between information and knowledge is rarely a straight line, especially one someone else drew.

Unfortunately, our education system, developed for the industrial age, from grouping students by age to all-or-nothing accountability systems, still favors linear, assembly-line-like approaches.

In our minds, the shortest distance between information and knowledge is rarely a straight line, especially one someone else drew. 

Over a whirlwind weekend of brainstorming, researching, coding and building at Baltimore’s first Education Hack Day, 70 developers, designers and teachers demonstrated the non-linear path of discovery and, it’s hoped, through the 10 products they built, helped enable it for some of the city’s 83,800 students.

No matter what becomes of the products created at the Nov. 12-13 event — detailed in the sidebar below — schools, or any institution for that matter, can benefit by channeling its spirit.

Who’s got spirit?

Hack day organizers — hundreds of similar events have been held across the county, including a government data hack day in Baltimore last February — are taking quite a gamble, if you think about it. They spend no small amount of their and others’ time, money and resources rounding up space, equipment, participants, sponsors and online and IRL audiences without much assurance of the result.

They trust that folks they’ve never necessarily met and who’ve never necessarily met each other will have useful products to show the final night. Almost always, they do. They certainly did two weekends ago (see sidebar video). And along the way they learn not only about technology but also about problem-solving, about each other and about themselves.

It’s so backward it seems surprising that it works. But that’s precisely why it does. Baltimore developer Mike Subelsky, in announcing his own radical project, summed it up well: “You can only get good ideas by working on real problems.”

A to B learning:
Efficient, but limited

We’re used to, and, let’s face it, bored by, the A to B approach. Someone who’s been to B directs you how to get there from A. It’s efficient, but limited. Because you don’t have agency in where you’re going or in how you get there, you put less into it.

Before we “know enough to be dangerous,” this is generally how we learn the fundamentals of a trade, process or craft. If you’re training to drive the downtown shuttle, one of your first steps will be to ride along with an experienced driver. Even if you’re bored, you, the girls dissecting their psych test in the back and their fellow downtown commuters are safer for it.

B from A learning:
Inefficient, but limitless

We’re not used to, and energized by the B from A approach. Someone places you at A and says, “Here is everything you need to get to B. I can’t wait to see what B is!” It’s inefficient, but limitless. Because you have agency in where you’re going and in how you get there, you put your all into it.

Once we’ve mastered the fundamentals, or, yes, “know enough to be dangerous,” this is how we grow, often through failure. If you’re asked to improve buses’ gas mileage, the new stop locations or times, maintenance procedures or bike rack design you come up with might teach you something unexpected or generate other benefits.

Hack the classroom

There’s a reason they have hack days, and not hack weeks, of course. (Do they have hack weeks?) Ask a grad student: Going full bore for days on end is not sustainable. (There is no coffee strong enough, not even from New Orleans or Panama.) That there is light at the end of the tunnel is part of the draw. “Suck it up. One way or another, we’re all presenting this time tomorrow. It’ll all be over soon!”

My grading’s unfair? Design your own system. My reviews are boring? Help each other prepare for the test (and share a grade).

All the more reason for educators of all disciplines to hold their own “hack days” from time to time. My grading’s unfair? Design your own system. My reviews are boring? Help each other prepare for the test (and share a grade). We just got new iPads for the class. Give me five ways we could use them.

If students, or parents or colleagues or the principal don’t like the break the from the book, they’ll be back to regular programming soon enough. I think before they are, though, they’ll catch the spirit, too. They’ll be itching for the next hack.

Original Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Parker Michael Knight

ALSO SEE: Hack Day wish list a window into educators’ world — and our shared future


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