Some Context

I wrote this paper as an assignment to explore my philosophy of education. It was also where I started calling myself an education hacker. I had explored the idea that perhaps our education system needed to be hacked, but this was the paper where I decided that I was an education hacker. Many of the slightly excessive citations have been removed, and instead relevant documents have been linked.

Education Hacker

I am an education hacker. Computer Hacker culture was one of the earliest and deepest influences on my thoughts concerning education. As a teen I was fascinated with computers and hackers, and tried to learn as much as I could about them. The writings of “The Mentor”, ESR, and RMS, were my introduction to that world. Their ideas about knowledge and skill shaped my own. By the time I eventually learned that hacking wasn’t, and has never been, about criminal acts. Hacking instead refers to finding a particularly clever, unique, or elegant solution to a problem. So many of their ideas seemed obvious to me; “Boredom is Evil,” “If it makes a mistake, it’s because I screwed it up,” “It’s good to Share!” “Release Early, Release Often,” and “Information wants to be Free,” These ideas, internalized while I was young, have informed my educational experiences. I believe that products, “the code,” matter more than any particular doctrine of how to achieve those products. It is better to move on to a new problem than repeat solving hundreds of similar ones; constant feedback, both positive and critical, helps us achieve our best possible results. As I have studied the theories of education, a few of them have stuck out to me as relating to the ideas I already possess.

Social Constructivism teaches us that sharing is, in fact, good, and goes further to teach what kinds of sharing do the most good. As a teacher, I play the role of a More Knowledgeable Other (MKO), sharing my knowledge and providing scaffolding to help students achieve more than they could alone. This idea places learning as a process of sharing, something that is best done in groups, and enables us to explore learning and get from ideas and facts to a useful knowledge.

Despite its utility and support for the idea that sharing is good, this theory falls short of my expectations for a unifying theory of education in one major way. It rejects my basically positivist philosophy of truth. In my experience, facts are true in a binary sense; either the fact is true, or it is not. A fact is also essentially useless. That “Columbus engaged in a voyage of exploration in 1492” is true. So is the statement of “two plus two equals four.” The meaning and utility of a fact is what is important. This contrasts with constructivist thought, where the meaning of a thing is what matters. This learning makes it too easy to counterfeit understanding. Students can begin by exploring the meaning of a text before they understand any facts about it, and then provide an illusion of learning without ever needing to explore the objective facts of a subject. The need for students to master the facts of a subject in order to be able to later use those facts makes the ideas of constructivism useful only after the groundwork is laid.

“Release Early, Release Often” is a mantra among hackers. It is better to show people your rough draft early in order to get errors seen and corrected than to invest effort in a task that will fail. Instructional Conversations and Cognitive Apprenticeship are the educational equivalents of this mantra. Both tools rely on the creation of a space where error tolerance is high and it is okay to be wrong. Within such a space, students are able to release “Beta” ideas about their learning and receive feedback to understand them better. Instructional conversations draw on the idea of sharing. The goal is to give students an opportunity to see not only their own process of learning, but that of their peers. Such conversations are rarely boring and enable students to contribute to one another’s learning. Cognitive apprenticeship and Discovery Learning place the responsibility of sharing on the teacher but share the same goal: getting students to try things and receive feedback, rather than simply absorb facts. These early releases of their newly gained knowledge and skills help students obtain confidence in their ability to apply what they have learned: working solutions are better than “perfect” ones, and mistakes are okay as long as we try to solve them and move forward.

A critical observation of hacker culture is that boredom is evil. Hackers spend a lot of time sorting out the “boring details” of compliers and machine code, so they don’t have to solve the same problem more than once. This idea has two equally important implications: first, that people don’t fully engage in tasks that they find mundane; second, tasks like this can, and should be, automated. These observations explain why our system fails so often. We expect kids to do the same boring things we had to. Do problems 21 – 51 odds, list all the events leading up to the Civil War, and name all the parts of the cell. These patterns of memorize and regurgitate, the same methods used on us when we were young, are boring. They do not promote the higher level knowledge we claim to be aiming for, and are mostly good because assessing them is difficult.

Bored people try to entertain themselves. I wonder how many “classroom problems” are caused by really bored students that are finding ways to entertain themselves. How many students are bored in math class because they’re not learning math, but mathematical algorithms instead; how many history students because they’re not learning history, just names and dates without meaning or context? Without something to engage in, we become bored, and we apply this cognitive surplus to problems that interest us such as making a paper airplane that can stick in the ceiling, drawing snakes or getting a date.

This whole mess suggests a simple solution: “Stop doing boring things in the classroom.” Conveniently, most of the items on the traditional list of “boring things” (i.e. copying paragraphs, summarizing texts, doing repetitive problems, and reciting names and dates), happen to be things that correspond with very low levels of cognition. They almost invariably are on the bottom two levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, meaning that students rarely connect to the material. Instead it is possible to memorize just enough to get though the test and then forget while memorizing the next batch of content. Students have hacked the system to avoid doing work they can see is useless.

The hack that teachers need then is how to get kids to a higher level on that taxonomy. Students need not be assigned to repeat the same task over and over without any significant variation. We can step away from the role of gatekeeper to knowledge and take on the role of an excited tour guide, pointing out exciting landmarks and dangerous pitfalls along the way. It means avoiding asking the student to solve the same basic problem more than absolutely necessary, and instead asking them to show you why the answer is the answer. At the end of the day, it is those “why” questions which are interesting. Facts, that is, the formulas, ideas, names, dates, and models that we teach, are useless without context, without that “why” question and its answers.

Sometimes though, our emphasis on answers may be preventing higher level thinking about complex subjects where there is no answer. Stallman identified several things that are essential to software freedom, and a healthy community of practice; one of the most important of these: is the right to study how something works, and read the source code of a program, and make changes. Within that code are comments by the authors, explanations about how the program works, and why they choose to do make it do so in a particular way. When we examine ideas deeply, particularly the kind of complex ideas where answers are difficult to find, it is important that we give students the metaphorical “code” of the issue.To enable students to explore an issue deeply, for example the advantages and disadvantages of a particular system of government, it is necessary to allow students access to the code. In this example the code is primary documents describing various systems of government, and life under these systems. As students examine these documents, and see how decisions about systems of government were made in different times and places, they can come to an understanding of those why questions. This type of “how and why” understanding enables them to comprehend the reasons for so many different answers to the same question. This kind of understanding corresponds with the high level kinds of thinking we claim to want students to be capable of.

“Information wants to be Free.” This idea, more than any other was the one that inspired me way back when I first discovered the world of hackers. I internalized this idea, far more than any other I learned of. Freeing information why I choose to become a teacher. We as a species rely so heavily on the ability to share on information that it has become the foundation of our greatest institutions, culture, art and science, everything we school our children in, depends on our ability to share information. The source of the quote is unknown, and anthropomorphizes a characteristic of information that is unique: I can give it away without losing it. That observation is at the foundation of hacker culture, and is the essence of education. I can give without losing. This fact more than anything else is the core connection that guides us to share what we know, and invest so heavily in our children’s future, we multiply knowledge by sharing it.

Hacking however is primarily about finding solutions, solutions that can be shared and used by the entire community. We can and should look for these hacks in our practice; sharing them when we find them useful. The sharing of skills and deep learning is a difficult task that requires all the ingenuity and clever solutions we can direct at it.

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