Can “A Hacker’s Mind” Help Educators Teach Problem-Solving?

Jody Britten
5 min readJun 7, 2023

I need to start by saying this, Bruce (the author of A Hacker’s Mind) is what I would call a “security dude.” He’s a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School and is smart beyond words regarding privacy and computer security. To say he knows his stuff is an understatement. That said, sometimes I learn the most from people far removed from my focus field, education. So when I saw this book when passing through an airport recently, I took the opportunity to give it a read. At first glance, my educator friends will probably think a book about hacking has no place in education. But I have to tell you, this book made me think differently about a few things I work on frequently. Mainly key skills like critical thinking, collaboration, and problem-solving.

“To solve a problem, you must understand it and think creatively.” — Bruce Schneier

As technology advances and becomes more integrated into the daily lives of our students at increasingly early ages, it’s important for educators to understand the role of hacking and what we can learn. A Hacker’s Mind, provides insight into the world of hacking and sheds some light on how we might use this new way of looking at problems to help our students learn to solve problems.

Problem-solving is an essential skill for success in both personal and professional contexts. By developing strong problem-solving skills, students are better equipped to navigate challenges, overcome obstacles, and achieve their goals.

Hacking is often viewed as a negative activity associated with cybercrime and malicious intent. However, at its core, hacking is about finding creative solutions to problems. Hackers are skilled at identifying vulnerabilities and developing innovative ways to exploit them. In doing so, they challenge the status quo and push the boundaries of what is possible.

“Once you learn how to notice hacks, you’ll start seeing them everywhere — and you’ll never look at the world the same way again. Almost all systems have loopholes, and this is by design.” — Bruce Schneier

The rise of “life-hacking” has undoubtedly changed how students view hacking. In general, life-hacking is using creative and unconventional methods to improve productivity, solve problems, and achieve personal goals. While life-hacking is not necessarily related to computer hacking or cybercrime, it shares some of the same principles and values as the hacker mindset, such as creativity, experimentation, and problem-solving.

Life hacking presents a more positive and constructive view of hacking. Kids may see hacking as a means of finding innovative solutions to everyday problems rather than a means of breaking into computer systems or stealing information.

Schneier’s book has zero to do with life hacks (the hacking our kids see on YouTube daily), but it does provide a roadmap for understanding and applying the hacker mindset to problem-solving. By examining the techniques and strategies used by hackers, educators have a new lens by which to think creatively and approach challenges with a different perspective.

One of the key takeaways from the book is the importance of experimentation. Hackers constantly experiment with new ideas and techniques and are unafraid to fail. This willingness to take risks and learn from mistakes is a valuable skill that can be applied to problem-solving in any field.

And our kids need more time to take safe risks, make mistakes, and consider new ideas to solve everyday problems.

Another highlight is the value of collaboration. Hackers often work in groups, sharing knowledge and expertise to achieve their goals. The tone of collaboration set by Schneier solidifies in a new light how working together enables us all to achieve more than we could alone. We must remember that having students work together on meaningful tasks is about more than “group work.” Instead, it is about diving into a core skill all our students will need.

It’s time to drill down on how we enable our students to share ideas and learn from one another.

I am a big proponent of asking tough questions, and to be honest, it brings me a bit of joy to see our kids challenge the status quo. Not shocking that I really appreciated how Schneier emphasizes the importance of questioning authority and challenging the status quo. For me, this shouts authentic learning, problem-solving, and, most of all, critical thinking.

Hackers are not content with how things are and are constantly looking for ways to change them, and we need to see the good in that when thinking about hacking and positioning this mindset in a positive light that lends itself well to mastering problem-solving.

As educators, it is crucial that we help kids understand the difference between ethical and unethical hacking and to emphasize the importance of using their skills for positive and constructive purposes. Educators can help shape their perceptions of hacking to encourage creativity, innovation, and problem-solving while instilling important values and ethics by teaching kids about the principles of responsible hacking and promoting ethical behavior.

To be honest, when I think of all that educators do in a day, I see a whole lot of hacking.

Need to get that app to work and bypass the security restrictions on your school’s WiFi? You hack your way to a solution. Need to figure out how to tie a broken shoelace on a field trip? There is no better hacker to solve that problem than a teacher. Need to figure out how to get 25 kids to sit on a 12x15 rug and pay attention for ten straight minutes? I can’t even list all the ways I have seen brilliant educators hack their way through this situation.

A Hacker’s Mind provides valuable insights into the world of hacking and how a hacker mindset can be used to solve problems. Educators can use the principles in the book to teach their students valuable problem-solving skills, such as experimentation, collaboration, and critical thinking. By embracing the hacker mindset, educators can help prepare their students for future challenges.

Give it a read, and let me know what you think. You might find you are a hacker at heart.

Jody is a long-time advocate and thought leader in learning and technology. She supports educators, private sector leaders, nonprofit professionals, and other stakeholders working to support innovation for social good. Keep up with her work at jodybritten.com or sign up for updates to learn more.

--

--

Jody Britten

fierce mom, constant learner, writer, speaker, researcher, thinker, designer, gadget queen, advocate for learning that matters & public ed, lead with my actions