Youth Hackathon Playbook Hits the Web for Free

Originally posted on the MaRS blog here


While hackathons have long been a favourite way for tech companies to quickly prototype new ideas, the model is not well known to educators. It’s a shame, because hackathons are an ideal way to model the elusive holy grail of inquiry-based learning or connected learning, where student interests drive the learning process.

As we think about how to best prepare our students for a rapidly changing economy, events like EdAppHack must be given space to flourish inside classrooms. Student concerns, desires and interests (rather than textbooks) should be used as fuel to drive the learning process forward.

The Youth Hackathon Playbook is a step-by-step guide for educators who are interested in hosting a two-day inquiry-based idea jam or hackathon. The format allows students to solve problems quickly by creating and testing prototypes of apps or non-technical products. Activities include:


Untrust Us

One of my favorite songs of the last 10 years is “Untrust Us” by the Crystal Castles. It sounds like the vocal line was written for a whale. No guitars.

This cover by 150 children singing for the Capital Children’s Choir in London is inspiring. Recorded at Abbey Road Studios earlier this year there are no instruments, no lyrics, just earnest kids making music with their voices.

It’s beautifully ironic that the last time I watched this (Oct 17) the ad before it was for Kahn Academy, touting their mission statement to “provide free world class education to anyone, anywhere.” The experience these kids went through in recording at Abbey Road was surely richly educational: being mentored by a visionary choir director, working long days and through multiple takes, communicating with their choir-mates and practicing to be good enough for the final cut, are all things that cannot be learning in a prepackaged white-board lesson.

World class education indeed. Go choir!

Game structure

My 2 year old daughter just invented an awesome new game called 1-2-3 Papaya! You take a chunk of papaya, yell “1-2-3 Papaya!” and then throw it as far as you can. This game is awesome for three reasons:

1. Papaya chunks are actually not very good. They are not just chunks of papaya. The kind I got from No Frills were crystalized and tasted like sugared fruit from a fruit cake.

2. It follows all of Jane McGonigal’s rules for what constitutes a game: a) it has clearly defined rules (i.e. you can only throw the papaya after you say “1-2-3 papaya”); b) you get immediate feedback (i.e. did your papaya chunk make it further than the last time?) and c. you know when you’re doing better (your papaya goes further each time. Or, if you’re Sophie, it hits you in the head).

Also, it’s a good way for my daughter to learn about turn-taking,  Caveat: it is NOT good for teaching her not to play with her food.

Flow (30 Years Later)

In all the books I’ve ever read on gaming, and its power to change education, the author invariably references Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I finally had a chance to read the original book to see what it says and I was surprised.

First of all, instead of being a state that is hard to reach, available only to those who are deeply immersed in complex tasks, Csikszentmihalyi says that flow is achievable in almost any task, however mundane, and the happiest people in the world “flow” through all their days. His concept of flow is much more akin to that of ‘mindfulness’ in the Buddhist tradition.

He also wrote this book before our explosion of knowledge in brain science over the last 15 years. It seems odd to read about states of flow in every day tasks without the obligatory references to fMRI studies.  As as result, his attempt to draw together his research into cohesive advice on how to live a happy life seems dated. Here he is on the “complexity of modern culture” and why it’s difficult for us to be happy:

“Just a few decades ago a woman felt perfectly justified in placing the welfare of her family as her ultimate goal…. Today, now that she can be a businessperson , a scholar, an artist, or even a soldier, it is no longer “obvious” that being a wife and mother should be a woman’s first priority.” p. 224

Hasn’t he seen the Stepford Wives? Observations about the banality of modern life are dull, and Flow doesn’t add much weight to the conversation.

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