Using the Term Hack when Teaching Coding


I have a term question that came up when I was lessoning planning with another teacher. I wanted my students to go back and change the code of a couple of assignments I created. I used the term “Hack” and the other teacher thought that we shouldn’t be using that work because it has negative connotations. I said that I felt like we need to take the word “back” and steer away from it’s negative meaning and use the word “hack” to discuss changing something already created.

I’m curious if anyone else has had this come up and what are the general thoughts.


I grew up “hacking” before the term developed its current, negative, connotation and I totally agree with you – I’d like to reclaim the original meaning of the term.

At this point, I think we need to acknowledge that the term has two meanings and that we’re choosing the prior, positive, meaning because we want to emphasize a connection to the old hacker culture that sought to understand things deeply so that we could reshape them in ways that made them even better – I think it is a great opportunity to talk about knowledge and power with our students and the responsibility that goes with having them.

I’m not sure that we can “win” this one, but I think part of the value of the conversation with our students is in the ambiguity and understanding the history of hacking – it could be a good thing, but we can’t ignore the dark side and our responsibility as teacher to instill ethics and integrity in our students.

Great thoughts! What grade level do you teach? What grade level do you think we can start the conversation? My class has 4th and 5th graders.

I teach high school (in the US, so grades 9-12). I also have a 14-year old who is passionately interested in programming so I’ve been having these conversations with younger children for years. I don’t think there is a “too early” for starting important conversations about how we classify and stereotype people – and about the possible confusion in language, though obviously the discussion need to be developmentally appropriate for the students.

It seems to me that anyone who watches Star Wars or Spiderman could confront the idea of power (knowledge) used for good vs. power used for “not good.” I think we can and should start broaching the subject of multiple meanings and different groups seeing different meanings as early as we can – those ideas are so useful for developing empathy and “hack” seems like a term where it would be relatively safe to discuss words having multiple meanings and different users of a word being attached to a particular way of interpreting it.