The following is the speech I delivered at the Delivery for Citizens conference on 6th November, 2019. It was a privilege to be invited to speak as the representative of public education on the Digital Disruption panel. Thank you to my ex-students who inspired the content of this speech.
One decade ago, public schools experienced the biggest digital disruption to date – the Digital Education Revolution. I can honestly say that I am a better educator because of it, however, many teachers did not respond the way I did, and I think that shows today in the somewhat polarised nature of public schooling. So what characterises this dichotomy? Allow me to indulge in an analogy inspired by the MCU, as a way of explanation. You’re all familiar with Bruce Banner and his alter-ego, the Incredible Hulk, right? The classic split-personality archetype. I see school today in this way.
On one hand, you have a culture of compliance and anxiety, where students and teachers see schooling as essentially a series of PPT presentations and assessment tasks all leading to the grand finale – the HSC. Much like physicist Banner when he first meets the Avengers, many teachers are confident in their role as content experts and are eager to impart their knowledge to ensure their students have what it takes to pass the tests.
On the other hand, there are increasing numbers of teachers who have more Hulk-like tendencies. Their frustration with an outdated system of education sees them entering Hulk Smash Mode – tearing down literal classroom walls and metaphorical barriers between subjects. These educators can be seen as disruptive and dangerous because they challenge the very purpose of schooling through their refusal to be cowed before the HSC and NAPLAN.
So, what do our students today make of this professional and ideological conflict taking place within their schools? Well, my experience is that they are finding it pretty difficult. They are essentially receiving two messages – make sure you get top marks in all exams otherwise you’ll fail to get into university, but also be ready for an uncertain future where university degrees won’t guarantee you a job.
At my school, we have resisted the urge to fully unleash the Hulk. I’ll admit that this has been hard for me because – as you can see from my choice of outfit today – I tend more towards the big green guy than his bespectacled brother. Despite our restraint, we have not shied away from much needed pedagogical shifts. For over a decade our year 10 students have completed an Independent Learning Project, devoting three terms of intense focus on a passion project which allow them to think and work as designers, entrepreneurs, researchers, artists, or subject experts. In 2016 I introduced another course – this time for year 7. We call it Praxis. As a philosophy major, praxis is one of my favourite words. For us, praxis means to put theory into practice. Nothing could be more important for our young people. They design games to meet the needs of community users, such as the elderly or new migrants. They work together as journalists to source and write stories for a school newspaper. Finally, they plan and run a conference for local year 5 students. This course, like ILP develops those very human and very transferable skills – critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving, and collaboration. Much of the work in Praxis requires students to collaborate digitally using a range of devices, but they also spend time ideating with pen and paper, and coordinating timelines using whiteboards and markers. We remind them of the value of a blended approach – humans driving the devices, not the other way around.
If students are experiencing this conflict in school between the anxious conservatism of Bruce Banner and the unrestrained disruption of Hulk, how does this affect their expectations about the world of work? Well, I think this calls for a third layer to my analogy – Hipster Hulk. Well, if you’ve seen Marvel’s End Game, you’ll know what I mean. If not, I pity your lack of culture! Hipster Hulk is the centre of the Hulk/Banner gyre. He is the Byzantium mid-point which sees a perfect balance of Banner’s brains and Hulk’s brawn. He is the best analogy for what our young people are looking for in their future workplaces, and, quite unexpectedly, I think, that the public sector might actually be Hipster Hulk. Confused? OK, let me elaborate.
When I ask my current students what they hope for in a workplace, they describe somewhere like Google, or, to be more patriotic, somewhere like Atlassian. They imagine open office spaces, unlimited technology, free food and massages, flexible working hours and overseas travel. They dream of creative freedom, a collaborative and fun work environment where they can be their best and make a difference. They also don’t want to wear suits! Using my analogy, this is a Hulk image of future work – smashing down the traditional expectations of work and the workplace. However, when I speak to my ex-students now in their 20s, their requests are much more restrained. They’d love all those things listed by my younger students, but they are primarily concerned about job security, about wage theft, about salary transparency, paternity leave, the casualisation of the workforce, and most worryingly, about being respected by their older colleagues. Most of them are university graduates yet all are finding it hard to get a full-time job in the industry of their preference.
They are learning the hard truth about work in the 21st century – that it doesn’t seem to pay very well, and that your mental and physical wellbeing can be comprised by the unrealistic expectations of employers. They want to be taken care of by their employers, not taken advantage of. To labour my analogy this is NOT the workplace of Hulk. But it’s not the workplace of Banner, either, even though there are hints of traditional employee concerns. This vision of the ideal contemporary workplace is a balance of both – it is Hipster Hulk.
If the public sector wants to attract the best talent to its workforce, those intelligent, creative and passionate young people who really can transform the world for the better, then you need to genuinely shape a workplace that caters for their needs and expectations. You need to become Hipster Hulk. Listening to Stephanie talk about the Transport Accelerator – a process that embraces creative problem-solving using strategies very much like those which we use in year 7 Praxis and year 10 ILP – I’m feeling pretty amped about going back to school and promoting the public sector as a workplace. But I guess it’s up to you guys now to make sure that I’m not leading my students astray.