Teachers as Hackers – the promise of school revolution

By Maya Wizel

Teachers as Hackers? Isn’t hacking a negative thing?  Isn’t hacking all about computers? Two recent conferences used the word “Hackathon” to describe a creative session or an activity taking place in the program. Hacking is becoming a part of the educational jargon.

In the following paragraphs I explore and justify the use of the expression “hacking” to describe the behavior of educators that behave innovatively in the 21st–century education system. Several terms are used to describe teachers who take initiative and change their teaching practices; “leaders” or “change agents.” When leadership is used, it mostly refers to teachers who have accepted formal roles in schools, such as mentoring new teachers or leading team meetings. The term change-agents is often used to describe those who influence others in the organization.

The word “hacker” traditionally describes someone who seeks and exploits weaknesses in a computer system or network. In past decades, the term has had both negative meanings, denoting criminal activity, and positive meanings, using creativity to achieve a goal. Bolstering this positive meaning is the expression “Hacker culture,” which combines excellence, playfulness, cleverness, and exploration in performed activities.

The first time I came across the term hacking outside of the computer world was the Swedish furniture company IKEA, which sells mass production furniture and home goods worldwide. What started as the blog of one creative person who made modifications and repurposed of Ikea products became a dynamic website and a community of IKEA hackers.  The hacks (adaptations and adjustments) help users to personalize mass production items and to fit them to their needs in a creative, do-it-yourself way.

The first time I came across the term “hacking” in education was in April 2015 while reading the article The Techies Who Are Hacking Education by Homeschooling Their Kids. Jason Tanz describes California parents who homeschool their children using online resources and innovative teaching methods.  It was about the same time that I inquired about issues of teacher leadership and the role of teachers as change agents.  It occurred to me that what I perceive as teachers’ innovative behavior (that has the power to reform public education) is actually hacking of schools.

Hackers are expected to find weaknesses, develop creative solutions, and to collaborate with others.  Hackers are described as professionals who are passionate and enjoy what they do. Teachers in 21st century schools – at least the successful ones – should act exactly like that.  Good teachers are constantly looking for ways to reach their pedagogical goals and act accordingly. They take risks, reflect and explore new practices. The innovation or the hacking should not be the goal itself; it should serve as a platform for educators to succeed and to boost school reforms. Most importantly, hacking is an approach that can help produce the most important outcome of all:  enhanced student learning and performance.

We need change, and there are many “right” ways to educate the 21st century youth. It is critical that teachers will lead the way, from the bottom up. Hence, I embrace the term “hacking,” and all it suggests.  Hacking should be used to describe the actions of teachers who change their pedagogy and teach in new ways while acting as entrepreneurs. Hacking starts as an individual’s slight action and can grow larger to influence the teaching of others and to create a disruptive change in schools.

Perceiving educators as hackers can help all stakeholders change their perspectives and actions. We should trust teachers and to encourage them to take risks, explore and look for better ways to teach. We need to reform the ways we prepare teachers; to introduce innovative models of hacking and provide them with a relevant skill set. We need to support hacking behaviors by teachers for the future of our education system and for the future of our society.

Education should be an ongoing hackathon.

Maya Wizel is pursuing her PhD in education at Lesley University, and prides herself as being an education hacker.  Follow her @MWizel.

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