Practical inquiry, learning and the DisruptHR Chicago Hackathon

Nicole Dessain is a colleague who, among other roles, is founder of DistruptHR Chicago. This past week the organization held its second hackathon event, where a group of 50 people sign up to spend 2.5 hours brainstorming potential ideas to address an organizational challenge.  The most recent hackathon focused on how to increase diversity in recruiting for Chicago startups, a challenged offered up by Shayna Harris, COO of Farmer’s Fridge.

Nicole and her team have designed an energizing, collaborative experience based around a few “design thinking” practices. The highlights:

  • A few background details on the challenge issue are made available to participants at the beginning of the session (a two-pager, very high level).
  • Additional insights are provided by a panel of experts to open the session.
  • The room is divided into teams of 4-5 (most teams consist of professionals from the area who have never met).
  • Teams brainstorm ideas to address the challenge.
  • Each team then clusters their ideas into common themes.
  • Each team quickly votes on one idea that inspires them.
  • They then create a poster of their idea – consisting of a headline, one sentence and a visual.
  • Ideas are then shared out rapidly to the entire group, team by team.
  • After sharing ideas, participants are given time to reflect on their own personal takeaways.

Keep in mind that each of these activities is chunked into very tight timeframes – as short as 5 mins. The longest activity is 15-20 mins (the panel discussion and initial team brainstorm).

Is there value in this type of experience? Obviously we were never going to solve this problem by coming up with one slap-your-forehead-oh-my-goodness-that’s-it! genius answer. So what might the value be?

One of the participants very enthusiastically shared with me after the session that “it was great to be able to take time out from work and really think about a problem.”

Wow. I guess “really thinking” is a lost part of our workplace lives.

I am surprised, but not. I hear similar comments from graduate students about what they value in class sessions. I even hear this from guests who join a class to work with us on projects or to share their experiences with specific organizational challenges.

But I interpret this to mean more than just “thinking” about a problem. It is more accurately learning, through a problem.

Complex challenges framed as “how might we…?” questions – the approach used in the hackathon – create compelling problems. It dares you to explore and see what you might create.

Listening in on table conversations in the early brainstorming stages of the hackathon I heard a lot of exploration of ideas. No one was advocating for a solution. 50 diverse minds working actively in teams on a single challenge, listening to each other, considering options, connecting dots among ideas.

The design of the hackathon then forces teams to converge. You commit to an idea. Then you build it out. Then you share it. The result: 10 teams, 10 interesting potential ways to approach the challenge.

This is practical inquiry. And I have seen it at work, now, in a number of different formal and informal learning contexts.

Practical inquiry as defined in the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework is a way of understanding the process of learning as including a triggering event, exploration, integration (combining ideas and converging) and resolution.

CoI includes other critical elements as part of the full framework but I find the labels of the four practical inquiry phases as a meaningful and clear way of defining learning, through a problem.

You can draw a line from practical inquiry and connect back to the work of John Dewey (where it all starts), to problem-based learning, and to design thinking. In each of these the thing that makes it all hang together is a real, complex, ambiguous problem.

And time to really think.


Photo via @mamashayna