Enlist Your Kids in the Cyber Army

If you don’t read the publication called The Hill,1 you probably missed a recent opinion piece pushing a new topic for our already overloaded K12 curriculum: hacking.

According to a professor from Carnagie Mellon University, there is a “critical national shortage of” computer security experts and the first thing we need to do to correct this is “promote hacking at the K-12 level”. “[W]e need a national push to build effective cybersecurity education programs.”

No. Just no!

He’s very right that privacy education is essential for kids. Most adults as well. I agree completely with his positive definition of the term “hacking” and that “we need to recognize that hackers are valuable”.

However, we do not need yet another program designed to solve perceived corporate personnel shortages. Too many schools have already bought into the STEM crisis myth.

Or one to feed students to build his college program, which seems to be an underlying goal of his proposal.

And I’m extremely skeptical of his conclusion that “we need to embrace hacking as an essential skill for kids to learn in order to keep this country safe in the future”.

Instead, how about going back to the original concept of K12 education? The one where students received a broad liberal education and had the opportunity to explore a variety of subjects, especially leading up to high school where they would have the option to take some vocation-specific electives.

Maybe “hacking” should be a part of that experience. Building a child cyber army to fight off the bad guys should not.

What if: School as Hackathon

The mission of Hacking Arts at MIT is to “ignite entrepreneurship and innovation within the creative arts”. On one Saturday night (and way into the following Sunday), a large group of students came together to work in small groups on something that challenged their imagination. To create something new.

Spend five minutes to watch this film.


Now take that idea and expand it beyond one weekend and the creative arts.

This is a wonderful model for what K12 education could and should be. Instead of preparing for tests that don’t matter, what if students spent most of their time in school working on issues that really matter and about which they were passionate?

What if school was like a multi-year hackathon as described by the young woman at the end of the film: “That’s what hackathons are about, solving problems with your resources and the people around you.”?

Not What You Would Call “Hacking”

How would you define “hacking”? Probably not like this:

A 14-year-old eighth grader in Florida, Domanik Green, has been charged with a felony for “hacking” his teacher’s computer. The “hacking” in this instance was using a widely known password to change the desktop background of his teacher’s computer with an image of two men kissing. The outrage of being charged with a felony for what essentially amounts to a misguided prank should be familiar to those who follow how computer crimes are handled by our justice system.

The modern use of the term “hacker” originated in the 1960’s and started life as a compliment, used described someone who worked on a tech problem in a “different, presumably more creative way than what’s outlined in an instruction manual.”

But even if you accept the current malicious application, this teenager is no hacker.

Instead blame the boy only for taking advantage of the irresponsible and careless adults working at his school. And a legal system more interested in making a high profile example of a kid’s “misguided prank” than fixing the stupidity of his teachers.

A Hacker By Any Other Name

Last month, a segment of the NPR podcast On The Media discussed the origins of the word “hacker” and it got me to thinking: why aren’t we teaching our students to be hackers?

Ok, I know the term has something of a bad connotation, largely due to it’s use by the media as a “lazy shorthand” for anyone who uses a computer to commit a crime (even though, in most cases, the “hack” involves little more than finding or guessing someone’s password).

However, ignore that for the moment and look at the more original meaning, which was a term of praise and admiration applied to someone who understands the foundations of a particular technology and works to learn more about the details by playing, manipulating, using, and altering it in ways the designers never thought of.

So then what is hacking? Let’s trace the term back about five decades to a student club at MIT called the Tech Model Railroad Club.

STEVEN LEVY:  The people who were working underneath the table, where on top of the table there was a very elaborate train layout, called themselves “hackers” ’cause they hacked away this very complicated system that ran the trains in a very sophisticated manner.

Hacking meant fiddling around with technology in sort of an irreverent and makeshift way.

I first learned about of the concept from Levy’s influential book “Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution” and it was an early inspiration for digging deeper into computers and networks. Which means my interpretation of the concept is likely way off from that of most people. But that’s ok, because there are many synonyms for the same idea.

If you think about it, most scientists understand hacking; they call it experimentation. They with some basic knowledge and observe what happens when they try something different. Or musicians call it improvisation, where the artist takes the notes on the page and twists them around in imaginative ways.

The whole idea of hacking is also directly reflected in this cycle of how young children learn by experimenting with their surroundings. It comes from the writings of Mitch Resnick, director of the MIT Media Lab‘s magical Lifelong Kindergarten Group, the people who created Scratch and Mindstorms, two great hacking systems for kids.

Then there’s the rapidly expanding maker movement in which people learn to use (or reuse for some of us) physical tools to alter and improve elements of their environment.

All of which is tied together by research showing that kids (and many adults for that matter) “conceptualize ideas and understand issues in greater depth” when they get their hands-on and tinker with science and technology, instead of just reading about it.

In the end, I suppose it doesn’t matter what you call the process. We just need to get away from the idea that learning is primarily an academic process, that everything worth knowing can be evaluated using standardized tests.

And help kids learn how to hack their world.