I remember the first time I heard the premise of the show Shark Tank. A bunch of out-of-touch billionaires discussing finances and crushing the dreams of entrepreneurs? Hard pass. But, sure enough, I happened to catch half an episode at a friend’s house, and I was instantly hooked. The combination of brief but captivating pitches, innovative new business ventures, an authentic audience with constructive feedback, and unique competition spoke to me as both a viewer and, more importantly, an educator. My first thought after seeing the episode: how could I leverage this format in the classroom?
With that goal in mind, I set about establishing various ways to apply the core aspects of the show into student-created assessments, professional development wrap-ups, and much more. After running a number of Shark Tank sessions in a number of formats, below are my five keys for a successful implementation.
Develop an Engaging Prompt to Focus the Competition
The biggest strength of the Shark Tank format is its malleability for a variety of situations. Running a workshop or professional development session? Wrap up the session with a Shark Tank competition to have staff pitch implementation of the new concepts. Developing a culminating assessment for the end of the unit? Challenge students to capture the most significant theme of the unit in the form of a product or service. Looking to add design thinking, project-based learning, or genius hour to the classroom? All are great fits for a Shark Tank competition as an endcap to the process.
When developing your prompt, consider how you frame the scenario. What is the most important aspect to you: process, product, or both? If you want a feasible “product” to come out of it, have you given your audience ample time to go through the design process to ideate, iterate, and prototype? Are you more concerned about them demonstrating understanding through the process, with the final presentation more of a celebration than a true “pitch?” In that case, make sure you give both your participants AND your evaluators the “look fors” in a successful Shark Tank pitch so everyone is on the same page for what wins the competition and what will receive plenty of constructive feedback.
For the course I teach for preservice librarians, both the process and product were key: how do we use the design thinking process to solve a challenge for today’s library media specialist? Using this prompt, students knew they needed to connect with librarians to discover their challenges, brainstorm ideas, and then pitch a potential, actionable solution that their user group could implement down the road.
Workshop How to Give a Succinct Yet Effective Pitch
What I absolutely adore about Shark Tank is the creativity through constraint: the entrepreneurs get oh-so-little time to sell their idea that every second of the pitch counts. One of my first steps to model how to give an effective pitch is to literally have students watch a few example Shark Tank pitches to get a sense of how people approached the limited timeframe and what they emphasized in their “elevator speech” about their idea, product, or service. After that, we usually get students used to the “pitch” format by playing a fun, improv game that challenges players to do their best on-the-spot pitch. My favorite games to use for this activity are Silicon Valley Startups and Snake Oil, two engaging card games that work in a small-group format.
Creating effective visuals to go along with the pitch is often a pain point for presenters. I emphasize using only a short, key word or phrase (if any text) on slides and encourage the presenter to let their voice do the heavy lifting for information. Instead, the visuals should focus on focused graphics, data, or metaphorical imagery that reinforces or enhances what they say.
My big rule for visuals in one-day workshops? Participant teams get ONE slide to use with their pitch. Getting them to think strategically about how to use their limited space to sell their idea, lesson, or solution is always a fun mental hurdle.
Find an Authentic Expert Panel
What makes the Shark Tank so fascinating is the real-world stakes associated with actual investors considering the business ideas. Although our students may not be ready to get funded by investors, there are plenty of avenues to provide an authentic “expert panel” on the subject of your choosing. For my class of preservice librarians, I brought in a K-12 librarian, a higher education librarian, an instructor who teaches in a library media program, and a tech-savvy educator. Since my students knew that they were going to be assessed by industry professionals and future colleagues in the field, they knew they had to “bring it” on presentation day.
For your potential Shark Tank, consider who might be a logical choice within your school, community, state, or even nationally. For younger students explaining the big takeaways from a concept or how to make change in the schools, enlist older students who could give them feedback on their ideas, pitch, and understanding of the concepts. For staff members pitching new ideas to implement, bring on district administrators, colleagues, students, and more. If you want your students to design a new product, process, or service, tap local business owners, government officials, or other key figures. If you don’t have them in your backyard, bring them in via video conferencing platform.
Engage the audience by making them investors
One of the biggest issues with student or staff presentations is that the viewers often take on a very passive role. Sure, we have them fill out feedback forms and encourage them to provide constructive comments that help each other grow, but there does not seem to be as much of a concrete way observers impact the presenter’s success beyond such feedback.
In the Shark Tank activity, viewers are given a set “budget” that they get to distribute however they like (I usually give them $1,000 hypothetical funds to invest overall). After viewing all of the presentations, the observers can then dole out their hypothetical however they would like, choosing to split it among multiple presenters or giving it all to the best idea they witness. For easy collection and tabulation, I typically pre-populate the groups into a Google Form and have them submit the group they are supporting with how much they are giving that team, allowing for multiple submissions if they support more than one group.
With the audience-as-investor format, you have now created more paths to victory for your students. Not only is there an expert “Shark Panel” who gets to crown some winners, but the audience investment allows for a sort of “People’s Choice” award for the team who garners the most favor from the crowd. If you are at all worried that students or colleagues might intentionally vote for the least promising pitch to up their chances of winning, simply split the groups in half and have two separate competitions. Teams only submit their investments for the other half of the groups or individuals they are not up against, taking an incentives away from funding an unworthy recipient. Problem solved!
Share the Final Products with the World
Sure, you’ve had your students pitch their ideas to an expert panel and their classmates or colleagues, but why stop there? Record the pitches and push them out on YouTube. Make a copy of their slide decks and share them on social media. Have each participant or group record their elevator pitch on a public Flipgrid and get feedback from the world!
If you try out this activity, share it on Twitter with the #SharkTankEDU hashtag – it would be great to see what you, your students, and your staff create!
Jon Spike, a graduate of UW-Madison, started his career as a high school English teacher. Since then, he has served as a K-12 Technology Integrator, helping students and staff use technology to engage, inspire, and create. He currently works as a Coordinator of Instructional Technology and Integration Services at UW-Whitewater, collaborating with preservice teachers and College of Education instructors to leverage technology. He also teaches a course on Video Games and Learning.
Jon has presented across the U.S. to educators and administrators as both a consultant and Google Certified Trainer, sharing his expertise at the ISTE, WEMTA, and ICE conferences, as well as the Midwest Google Summit. He currently serves as Director of Higher Education on the Wisconsin Educational Media and Technology Association Executive Board. You can follow Jon on Twitter at @Mr_JSpike.