Training hackers in schools

Last Updated on December 3, 2018 by Dave Farquhar

I found this piece advocating teaching kids to be hackers. That’s hackers in a probing, discovering sense, rather than the trouble-causing, nefarious sense.

I found myself agreeing and disagreeing with this article at the same time. Not every hacker is a bad guy. And hacking is a mindset. But not everyone has the right mindset.I certainly was a teenaged hacker. My teachers recognized this and when they saw I was responsible enough to not abuse the skills I was learning, they gave me a great deal of leeway. One day, the computer science teacher came into the lab, fired up a computer, and saw that the name of its hard drive was “I love Dean E.’s [backside].” There were two suspects: Dean E.’s best friend Ryan, and me. Everyone assumed I knew how to change the names of hard drives, and, well, Ryan never passed up an opportunity to call attention to Dean because then he could get away with still more stuff.

She took me at my word that I hadn’t done it. I actually confided in her that I didn’t know how to change the name of a hard drive. She told me how, which was a bit of a mistake–for the rest of the year, you could trace my movements around the lab by finding the computers whose hard drives were named “Amiga Wanna-be.”

The school got some equipment as part of a government grant, but nobody could figure out how to install it. In desperation, a few days before an audit, they turned to me. It took me a couple of hours, and the completely-disassembled machines in the back room scared some people, but I got the equipment installed and working–and, speaking of backsides, probably saved the school’s backside in the process.

The hacker approach was definitely the right approach to take with me. It limited the amount of trouble I caused, and the school saw some benefit. Not all of my projects were successful–I failed to upgrade one of the school’s PC/XTs to a 286 because the motherboard didn’t fit right–but I reversed that mistake, and, at the time, the value of those PC/XTs was low enough that it was worth the risk.

But I had classmates that this approach wouldn’t have worked well with. A very good or outstanding teacher identifies which kids need the conventional style and which kids need to push the boundaries. Fortunately I had a number of those during my educational career. My boss, who’s a couple of years older than me and grew up half a continent away in British Columbia, tells very similar stories of how his teachers handled him in his high school days.

For those teachers, this notion of “hacker learning” is just a different name for what they were doing long before “hacker” was a household word. But some schools just can’t get past that word.

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2 thoughts on “Training hackers in schools

  • April 4, 2014 at 9:51 pm

    Let’s all remember that ‘hacker’ started it’s life as a term of recognition among what we now call coders. I consider myself a hacker ( as Dave well knows ) but consider my primary hacking language solder. And never mind the fun I had at at&t working in a department that violated the prim directive:
    ‘ thou shall never be on both sides of the firewall at once’
    We HAD to, we needed firewalled netside access to deal with the modems and their network AND still had to dial up modems to test the pops ( yeah THAT was the days ( thru about 2002))

  • April 6, 2014 at 8:58 am

    Ah, the dialup modem days. We had some good times before the days when modem meant “Internet” in most people’s minds, too.

    A thought that just occurred to me: The people who build hot rods in their garages are hackers, by our definition. They mix up parts from different makes that were never intended to work together to get the car they want. Sometimes people are harmed by their actions, but usually not, so society accepts them.

    Use a computer funny, though, and you’re a threat to civilization as we know it. That attitude is holding us back.

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