Low Stakes and Let’s Go: Navigating Tension to Innovate in Education

Education Pioneers’ National Conference Speaker Q&A with Hassan Hassan, Director of Investments, 4.0 Schools

Hassan Hassan believes that luck has played a huge role in his success as a college graduate, private-sector engineer, and now director of investments for 4.0 Schools, a nonprofit incubator for education entrepreneurs. He also believes he can help make success for all students less about luck and more about design.

To help early stage entrepreneurs who have ideas on how to improve schools, Hassan will run two interactive workshops at the #EP2016 National Conference titled “What Is Design Thinking and How Can We Use It to Solve Problems In Education” and “Time to Get Hands-On: Using Design Thinking to Solve Your Organization’s Challenges.”

1 | Tell us about your story. What in your life or career led you to advocate on behalf of others?

I am originally from the Sudan. Both of my parents are from there. I was born in the Sultanate of Oman and lived most of my life in the Middle East. I came to the States in 2004. I feel like I am a very lucky person in general. I ended up winning the immigration lottery that allowed me the chance to come to the U.S. and study at a university, which has had a huge influence on my trajectory.

The funny part is that my father had a similar story. He was born in the 40s and got his own version of the lottery. A friend of his father had asked him if he would want one of his sons to not work on the farm and go to school instead. My dad just didn’t like manual labor and he jumped at the opportunity. That changed his trajectory—making him the first in his family to go to school and then go to college—and made opportunities available for us, his children.

Therefore, I reflect on luck and how luck has provided my dad and me opportunities to grow professionally and afforded mobility. I think one of the interesting things that I’ve learned in my career in education is that luck is still the case for a lot of folks and communities here in the U.S.

You still have to do a lottery to go to many excellent schools here in this country. Being in New Orleans, it is even more pronounced in a decentralized system. There are both literal lotteries and metaphorical lotteries. To go to some excellent public schools, you have to enter a lottery to be fair because they have a limited number of seats. And there’s often a metaphorical lottery based on whether you get an excellent teacher this year and will they stay, etc. My mission is to make those odds a lot better.

2 | Tell us about your work. How do you work to serve underserved students?

I work at an organization called 4.0 Schools that is a nonprofit incubator for early-stage entrepreneurs who want to start new school programs and companies to make quality education accessible to more and more families.

A lot of the work that we do in our organization stems from a couple of beliefs. One is that we need new innovations and bold solutions for students and families, but the process for innovation in education is very hard. Because education is a public good, sacred, and layered, the same rules don’t apply when trying to innovate in the public sector that exist in the private sector. We respect that and we want that to be the case.

So, there is a tension that we are trying to keep in our heads. How do we innovate and bring new ideas that will make education better for all students and improve the odds, while being respectful to the community? How do we do this work ideally with the community, and even better, by them, not to them? And how do we do it responsibly by not betting the house from the beginning like opening a school and then shutting it down because it was built on shaky ground? My work is about navigating this tension.

How 4.0 Schools works is finding, coaching, and training a generation of entrepreneurs who are literate in navigating the tension. We work with them to design small-scale tests that let them work directly with communities to innovate respectively, to move incrementally from no space, to low space, to limited space in terms of the risk taking with families, which allows them to innovate responsibly. Most importantly, we want this way of thinking to allow them to start in a focused, piloting approach that lets them think bolder. You are basically doing applied research and development. It’s allowing the space to think a little bit more creatively. By running small tests, it allows you to be more creative about serving real problems ten times better than current alternatives available in the market.

A big part is accessibility, by that I mean that in the same way innovation is hard, entrepreneurship is also inaccessible. That’s true in the private sector as well. The stereotypical image of an entrepreneur is someone who is probably white and male, who can afford to quit his jobs for a few months, move into his parents’ garage and pilot an idea for a while until something sticks. We just don’t think that this has to be the case.

The best ideas are going to come from many people who have diverse talents and experiences. What we need to do as an incubator is reach out to a wide enough pool and break down the structural barriers that prevent people from accessing the tools to launch their ventures. That means investing in them before they quit their jobs, providing programming virtually, making our services available in an un-bundled way, so that a parent who has two kids and only has ten hours a week on nights and weekend to hack at an idea can access the coaching, capital, and the community in a way that is responsive to their schedule, just like a recent college grad who has 60 hours a week. Each will have a different combination of experiences with us, but it works for both of them given their life constraints.

3 | Your conference workshops will focus on: What Is Design Thinking and How Can We Use It to Solve Problems In Education and Time to Get Hands-On: Using Design Thinking to Solve Your Organization’s Challenges. Why are these topics critical for understanding how to better serve students?

I’m putting people to work during these sessions because one of the key things we believe in at 4.0 Schools is that there is a lot of talk that happens in education, but we want to be experts in moving people from talking (which is important and there is value and a time for it) to action, and how to do it responsibly in a more effective way.

We are going to help people first understand the process of how to start. You have an idea. Maybe you have a user. You have a special population of students, parents, or educators who you feel are really being underserved in your community. You have an idea of what you think the problem is and potentially how to solve it. Our first workshop is going to be about really narrowing in on who is the user, what is the problem, and specifically what is the root, unbundled problem strand that is the real pain point for your users, and one potential way to solve it that is different from the current solution. This is part of the coaching that we offer at 4.0 Schools.

These workshops are mini-coaching sessions where people basically get twenty minutes to describe the problem and the idea that they have, and they will leave being able to talk about it in one minute. We are trying to get across the point that you are not going to solve every problem. Your solution is not a silver bullet. This is a special population that you are going to serve. You are not going to serve all kids. You are not going to do it by yourself. You need a lot of people. Pick a problem. One problem. One way. And then, you have to be okay with the fact that your way is not the only way. It’s just one way to solve that problem. That’s the basics of the first session.

The second session is after you know your user, your problem, and your solution, what are the first steps—the cheapest, fastest vehicle that you can use that can move you from the intellectual state to actually talking to families and then, into actions.

Educators need to be part of these conversations because I think currently, this way of thinking is not often the dominant way of thinking in education. We are used to thinking in high stakes. I am going to tell you to design something that is intentionally low stakes. Educators think in terms of all children. I’m intentionally going to tell you to not think all children. It’s actually counterintuitive at times. It’s uncomfortable. We are all here in education because we care. And 4.0 Schools is going to tell you that you are not going to solve every problem for every child and that’s hard to hear.

4 | Describe yourself in three words.

That’s a tough one. Optimistic. Realistic. Thankful.

5 | Describe your vision for K-12 education in three words.

Unbundled. Equitable. Responsive.

6 | Finally, you are forced to make a choice, what do you choose: coffee or tea; baseball or basketball; the beach or the mountains; Game of Thrones or House of Cards; Twitter, Facebook or Snapchat; Kindle or the real thing; Pokémon, Go or No?


Neither, I pick soccer.


Yes please, to both.

Facebook. I am not even going to try Snapchat.

Real thing, for sure.

Go. Why not? I don’t know anything about it, but it sounds fun. So, go!


Read more from Hassan Hassan: Research and Development 4.0 Schools Would Like to Fund.

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