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On hacking public education

Written by Chad Sansing
June 01, 2011

On Sunday, June 26th, the National Writing Project is hosting a Hackasurus-inspired Hack Jam at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA. The Hack-Jam is meant to complement ISTE’s 2011 conference theme, “unlocking potential.”

“Hacking” is generally understood to be a computing term describing digital breaking and entry. Within the past few weeks, high profile hacking attacks have hit Sony, Lockheed Martin, and PBS. Be aware that as you read up on these attacks, you might find NSFW screen shots of hacked pages.

Of course, “good guys” hack, too. Remember Stuxnet, Matthew Broderick’s roles inWar Games and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or Richard Pryor in Superman III? Sometimes we are afraid of hackers; sometimes we are inconvenienced by them; sometimes we root for them.

And, of course, sometimes we are the hackers. Have you jailbroken your phone? Did you go to college during those early, heady days of Napster and T1 lines in dorms? Have you parked in a spot with time left on the meter? Have you cut class? Taken a sick day when you weren’t sick? Added more salt to a copyrighted recipe?

“Hacking” is a word that we’re stretching across boundaries. It’s owned as much by our King Johns as by our Robin Hoods as by our serfs struggling to get the most out of their limited resources. What hacking is, who hackers are, and what constitutes a hack increasingly defy strictly digital or illegal definitions. Hacking is a spectrum of activities ranging from warfare and espionage to modding personal property for personal use, and so hackers must come from all walks of life, including our own.

For instance, this week in class we’re hacking Monopoly and Settlers of Catan so that their game boards and materials represent the geography and resources of the North African kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai, which are part of our state’s US HIstory to 1865 standards. We’re hacking games to reflect rote content that we’ve hacked into game-based-learning.

In thinking further about hacking public education, I like these bits from the definition of “hacker” in The New Hacker’s Dictionary:

1. A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary.
6. An expert or enthusiast of any kind.
7. One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations.

We should help kids enjoy school by seeing how they can re-program it to stretch their capabilities. We should stop teaching for the minimum necessary, which is what standards consign us to do to the students’ least likely to enjoy school as it is.

We should help kids feel like experts in their chosen areas of interest. We should help them feel like learning enthusiasts. We should stop making kids feel like they’re failures for resisting the very narrow definition of learning schools push on them. We should stop killing kids’ enthusiasm for learning with the inutíl limitations of time and access we place around them.

We should help kids enjoy school and make school a place where kids can approach personally meaningful, worthwhile problems with creativity. We should help them circumvent the limitations at school that have more to do with adult convenience than kids’ safety. We should stop insisting that kids spend an equal amount of time across wildly varying classrooms and rule sets for the sake of scheduling and staffing.

We should take some time to hack, or otherwise transform or re-make, what we do. Part of hacking our work should be helping kids hack theirs under whatever terms and definitions are most productive to use in each of our communities.

I’m excited for this Hack Jam. It will be a great, vital challenge for participating educators to work together to unlock their classrooms to better reach the potential of student learning.

How far can we go in helping students dare something worthy of themselves and our time together? How can we help students overcome their assigned roles as content consumers in order to become citizen-hackers bent on learning, making, and acting out in support of their own educations and in support of causes more compelling than passing test scores? How do we help kids learn the system and recognize opportunities for hacking it for good?

We don’t need to call it any one thing or take any single action. One-size hacking fits, at best, one type of kid. However, we must aspire to a system of public education that is built to transfer control to our kids, rather than keep them from it.

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