Day 19 Question: What does it mean to hack students’ learning experiences?
I want to take on this idea of “hacking” a little bit. It’s easy to say “I want to hack student learning experiences.” It’s also easy to say “I want students to analyze this essay.” These statements are vague. Not that the words are meaningless, it’s that they are so contextually dependent that most definitions of the concepts are quite broad and often of little help, which means assessment is a major challenge. This was a point I made in an early post about cultivating an intellectual language: “Say what you mean and mean what you say” is a fitting mantra. So what does it mean to hack students’ learning beyond that of a fun rhetorical statement? Where’s the meat of it?
Searching the term ‘hacker’ brought up a lot of different definitions. In a general sense, a hacker is one who works within a given system (set of rules) in fairly creative and oblique ways to achieve a particular goal. In this broad sense, one can call Martin Luther King Jr. a social-justice hacker; Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) a mindfulness hacker; Aldo Leopold a land management hacker; Noam Chomsky a political rhetoric hacker; or Maya Angelou a poetry hacker and so on. These “hackers” are movers and motivators. Still quite broad, but getting there.
There is the type of hacker that seeks incremental improvements within a purchased box, or says my colleague Tom Woodward. Kind of depressing because we live in a world of boxes; some predefined and some of our own creation. Nonetheless, this book fits this conception. I think of lifehacker and prohacker falling into this category as well: providing little tips or tricks we can use to “hack” our normal way of doing things. I’m not saying that this isn’t valuable; many people see it as very valuable. I would question the extent to which such approaches are sufficient for my intellectual development, freedom and general personal happiness. They’re nice, but I want amazing.
(As a side note, I like the particular lifehacker article I linked to above. It captures the essence of a hacker as one who works within a system to get what one wants.)
We have to work within systems. I’d argue that humans are system creators. We have to; we must; we need to. Systems make my life much easier to manage, but not all systems fit every situation, so I diversify. All’s well, until I want something that doesn’t fit neatly within an existing system.
Systems are what they are. The quality can vary, but there is the problem of trying to put new information or goals into established and stagnant systems. This captures one of the key premises in Laurence Gonzales’ book Deep Survival: Who lives, Who dies and Why. It’s one of my favorites!
Gonzales argues that forcing new information into outdated mental maps is one of the reasons people die in the wilderness. Here’s a quick scenario. Someone’s out on a hike with the goal to reach summit X. He wants to be back to the car one hour before sunset. The trail is not well marked and he finds himself with this feeling of being lost. Not to worry, he consults his map. Nothing seems to fit, so the map must be wrong! He carries on thinking that he’s seen this tree or that rock before….but he hasn’t. He becomes frantic racing against the clock and even though he’s turned back, he doesn’t know exactly where he is. Now he’s out of water; has poor clothing (blue jeans and a cotton t-shirt), is hungry, and decides to take a rest. Body cramps set in due to dehydration. Bummer. He presses on even though it’s now dark. He is found dead days later. It’s determined that he died of hypothermia. There are so many layers here: intellectual rigidity, fear, poor planning, bias confirmation, and flat out denial of reality.
So, what does it mean to hack our students’ educational experiences? After my above reflections, I have to say that any time we challenge student preconceptions, misconceptions, unexamined assumptions, or any time we challenge them to formulate hypotheses or substantively defend a position we are hacking away at their expectations of what the teacher or the educational system can or should do for them. Cognitive dissonance is an educational term for ‘hacking the intellect.’ For all those who fall into step with unexamined pedagogy, then seek people out to hack your intellect. Otherwise, how boring would life be?
Select Resources Cited