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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.

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1 Comment

  1. MarjeeC

    Oddly enough, we have a “hacking for good” club starting at our school. It is meeting a little bit of resistance due to fear of the unknown and the unsavory connotations, but I’m optimistic that this will catch on. And I’m not an optimistic person ^.^

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