There’s a popular narrative in education at the moment about robots taking our children’s jobs. They’ll do what humans can do – only better, faster, and more effectively, so the story goes.
While we hear tales of high precision robots assisting surgeons and speed reading through legal precedent, they are also being given time to simply play. Play is crucial. In fact, robots who were given time to play before being assigned a task were able to complete the given task even in the face of nefarious setbacks – picking up a cloth having lost a limb for example. I heard about these playful robots in a podcast I listened to recently where child psychologist Alison Gopnik was interviewed. Gopnik’s book ‘The Gardener and the Carpenter’ examines the contemporary parenting tension between play and success. In theory we know play is important but we also want our children to be successful, and success – at least in traditional educational models – is often about preparing for a singular task. Acing a test usually involves a very specific set of skills applied in a very specific circumstance. In contrast, when we talk about preparing children for an uncertain future, we’re talking about the resilience to continually make sense of a changing world, to apply what you’ve learnt over here, in new and novel ways over there.
What better way to prepare students for an uncertain future full of complex problems than by putting them to work for a day at Australia’s entrepreneurial darling, Atlassian. Founded in 2002 by two 22 year olds, Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar, Atlassian’s market value is now more than Australia’s other iconic darling, Qantas. Atlassian’s core business is helping teams work better and their suite of software products are being used by some of the most effective teams in the world – NASA, Space X, Toyota, Netflix, Twitter and Facebook. Given their clientele, I suspected that a day’s work at Atlassian might look a little different to the old work experience programmes and I was proved right from the moment we stepped out of the lift and saw the company’s values emblazoned on the wall inviting us to ‘play, as a team’.
Creativity and play
Innovative start-ups know the value of play and Atlassian, despite its success, hasn’t lost sight of that. Ben Crothers, Lead Principal Designer and facilitator extraordinaire started the day by unlocking our students’ creativity around a tin of Spam. The lesson was about the importance of ideation, freeing ourselves to come up with as many possible uses for the tin as possible. While it might feel silly at first and sometimes difficult to think on the spot, the more you do it the easier it gets. Accepting that this is the time for quantity over quality and that there are no bad ideas kept it playful. In this simple exercise every student was contributing, more than that, they were riffing off one another’s ideas, changing the form of the Spam can and multiplying it in order to create new scenarios.
Peter Scobie, a Program Manager at Atlassian, spoke to us about one of the key ways Atlassian innovates. Like other successful tech companies, Atlassian gives their employees 20% or one day a week to work on personal interest projects. The crown jewel in this model is ‘ShipIt’: quarterly ‘hack-a-thons’ where employees gather a coalition of the willing to road test ideas. There are pizzas, peer reviews and of course prizes. Some key Atlassian product features were the result of ‘ShipIt’ hack-a-thons but of course that’s not the point. Any truly innovative company knows you learn just as much, if not more, from a mistake than from delivering a successful product. Setbacks are not only normalised, they are sung from the rooftops in order to share the knowledge and learn from the mistake. In a world that is hyper-obsessed with success, what a great message for our students to hear; don’t hide your failures, conduct a post-mortem where the missteps are plain for all to see.
Not everyone tests their ideas. Consider for a moment the number of ‘workarounds’ we live with daily. Our systems are broken; from the miniature of office life to government, we accept mediocrity on a daily basis. Half the time it’s difficult to even know something isn’t working because no one raises the alarm to start with. Under the tutelage of Senior Designer, Simi Shaheed, our students began to analyse the world around them. They used a persona to map the experience of grocery shopping, jumping back and forth between making the simple complex and the complex simple. The layers of the things that happen for their given shopper began to reveal a nuanced picture of the status quo which they were then able to use to focus in on pain points in order to ameliorate or innovate.
The idea of simply being observant of the world around was a pervasive theme, most apparently in the throwbacks to Year 10 that each Atlassian team member started their session by speaking about their career trajectories. The paths traversed pro football, world travel and movie making but the commonality was a desire to solve problems and test ideas. This attitude is what landed each person their position at Atlassian. Precisely the mindsets we are looking to encourage in our students so that they might ‘be the change’ in our world. Be the kind of person who walks past a problem and thinks: “I can improve upon that”. As our Year 10 students embark upon subject selection and their future career pathways these messages are crucial. Just as the high performing robot must learn to play in order to deal with setbacks so too must we value optimism, flexibility and humility in the face of complex situations.
Senior Designer, Becc Roach, and Design Team Lead, Patrick Thompson, opened up the Atlassian Playbook by giving our students some constraints to work within when ideating possible solutions to the difficulties their shoppers faced. At the end of the day each team shared the solutions they’d come up with. The ideas were realistic, they were solutions that could be easily tested and developed upon. If we asked a group of adults with considerably more life experience to undertake the same activity I’d bet that they would come up with some of the same ideas. What an advantage to have the creative confidence to tackle complex problems at 15 years old, to have a mindset that values playing, in a team, and a bias towards action and experimentation.
Our trip to Atlassian fits into a larger programme we’re experimenting with at school where a group of Year 10 students are using Design Thinking Methodology to solve a problem in the local community. Thanks to the graciousness of our hosts our students were able to see the real and tangible use of Design Thinking in the business world. If we return to child psychologist Alison Gopnik’s analogy of the gardener and the carpenter, our students were exposed to the idea that workplaces are not only looking for carpenters, those with a specific skill set, but also for gardeners, those who are open to the richness of the unexpected happening and who can cope with factors beyond their control.
I cannot say whether robots will eventually take over. I suspect that they will take a good proportion of jobs that are predictable, repetitive and maybe, just maybe, we might one day be working for them. What I can definitively say is that play and creativity are essential to the jobs our young people want. In reflecting on their experience at Atlassian our students said that “values are so important to a company” and that you need to “make time for innovation” because “you never know where you will end up”. Not bad for a day’s work.
Ms Elizabeth Green
Knowledge and Learning Strategist