Why We Want to Cultivate a Generation of Life & Learning Hackers

There is a wonderfully engaging conversation taking place in the ISTE LinkedIn group about whether student “hacking” of the Ipads in the L.A. 1:1 debacle was “awesome or awful.” This is not the first discussion about the topic, as there are many thought-provoking blog posts and articles that take creative approaches the the question. I am, for example, especially fond of the one by Katherine Mangu-Ward. She argues that, Kids Should Hack Their School-Provided Ipads.

I posted a shorter reply to the recent discussion in the LinkedIn group, but I’ve posted a slightly extended version here for a broader readership. Of course, my response does not take into account many of the real and practical issues related to running a major school district like what we have in L.A. Rather, I chose to use it as a chance to reflect on the broader issue…what types of students we want to cultivate in schools of the 21st century.

Student hacking is awesome. What is our goal for graduates of our schools? Is it for them to become complacent, compliant, controlled, conventional, consumers and conformists? Or do we want them to grow into creative, collaborative, cooperative, competent, confident, compassionate citizens? I do not have adequate context to speak intelligently about the wisdom or folly in specific decisions with the L.A. schools’s iPad program.  However, the question posed is whether student hacking is awesome or awful.  To answer this question, we need to define hacking, and there are certainly several working definitions. Some hear the word “hacker” and think of illegal or forbidden activities on a computer or network? From that perspective, there are  moral and legal factors that I am not condoning or dismissing. That is not the only use of the word. Others think of a hacker as one who engages in creative, playful experimentation and exploration, taking one or more items with intended uses and repurposing them for often unexpected and wonderfully creative alternate uses.

Which definition best fits what happened in L.A.? I’m not sure, but I am quite certain that playful repurposing what a part of it. I recognize that there were also probably forbidden activities, touching upon the first definition. Whatever the case, we ultimately want to see our students cultivate competence and confidence with such playful repurposing. Unfortunately, rigid policies and procedures, conventional and increasingly outdated schooling models, and factory-like approaches to teaching and learning thrive upon large doses of uniformity and control.

I welcome this recent event in L.A. as a challenge for us to reconsider how we think about teaching and learning in the 21st century.  Some look at the event at L.A. and critique it as a poorly planned and flawed implementation of a 1:1 program. I look at it and wonder if we can reconsider how we approach 1:1 learning? 1:1 is an educational technology conspiracy that invites us re-imagining schools as creative, student-centered communities; places where students hack their educations, developing wonderfully playful and high-impact strategies for ethical and purposeful hacking of life and learning. There was a recent news story about scientists used a virus that originally came from HIV to hack T cells, thus treat a girl who was dying of cancer. Imagine the possibilities if we could cultivate a generation of learners who hacked the greatest challenges and issues of their times!

We need a world of creative and courageous hackers.

  • Scientists hacking their way to remedies and cures for health crises around the world.
  • Educators hacking educational systems to increase access and opportunity to high-impact learning.
  • Government leaders hacking tired and outdated policies and regulations to meet the needs of a changing world.
  • Architects, artists, and designers hacking conventual thought to create beautiful and inspirational spaces and artifacts.
  • Hackers of the musical world creating things like Jazz.
  • Life hackers applying the spirit of MacGyver to pretty much everything in daily life.
  • Athletes hacking the laws of physics and human physiology to reach levels of performance of excellence thought impossible in just a generation ago.
  • Social entrepreneurs and for-benefit businesses hacking the principles of capitalism to address social needs in the world.
  • Healthcare workers hacking the current system to improve patient outcomes.
  • Psychologists hacking conventional psychology to set up completely new and promising approaches to human well-being like positive psychology.
  • Countless people hacking the digital world to discover new ways to volunteer, stay connected with friends and family, feed their families, collaborate across networks, and even address crises in different parts of the world.

This is just the beginning of the life and learning hacker list. If we think of hacking in this way, as playful, intentional and experimental repurposing, then I contend that we need an education system that no only allows hacking but cultivates it.