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Don't try to predict the future, hack it

Joe Haig, Director of ICT / ICT Integrator Belmont Christian College, Founder

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Maybe we need to rethink the 'predict and position' future-proofing model.

Educators have always sought to set students up for success by teaching them the skills we think they’ll need. The problem is, none of us know how all the shifts we’re witnessing will settle or what further shifts they’ll trigger. Predicting the future is a hit and miss business. As Dan Gregory and Keiren Flanaghan point out in their book Forever Skills, "There's a reason futurists, social demographers and economists don't offer money back guarantees."

In the fast-moving digital age, teachers who rely on the predict and position model risk becoming blindfolded coaches shouting irrelevant instructions from the sidelines. We’re not sure how to play the game because it hasn’t been invented yet.

Have you noticed that the strategies we're using to prepare children for the future tend to be conceived from a reactive mindset? There's a feeling that someone or something (Big Tech? Government? Elon Musk?) is going to shape our future – pitch it at us – and we need to scramble into position so we're in the right place when it lands. 

There's a fundamental problem with this way of thinking: when we teach children that the future is something that's going to happen to them, we’re teaching them that they have little power or control over their destiny. There’s an underlying assumption that they're at the mercy of change and progress which will be inflicted on them by others. We're programming them to be passive.

A wiser, braver strategy would be to teach children to decide what’s going to happen and to try to help them learn how to make it happen. As Abraham Lincoln said, “The best way to predict the future is to design it.”

We should be looking to a more innovative, agile industry for a better model. Technologists are the people shaping our future. What sets them apart, and how have they acquired such influence?

Hacker mindsets
If we want to inspire students to create their own futures, we need to help them develop hacker mindsets. Hacking is about understanding systems and leveraging them to assume power and gain control. That's why there's a landslide of power and control shifting towards technologists – they understand this principle.

Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook, said the platform is “exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” The hacker mindset helps technologists find back doors and vulnerabilities in digital and non-digital systems to create their preferred reality.

The future is hackable. The access point, the backdoor to your students' optimum future state, is your classroom. Our children have an amazing future ahead of them – we just need to help them learn how to make it happen.

How do you impart a hacker mindset to students?
Tasks that allows students to explore systems support the development of a hacker mindset because they give students a sense of empowerment and accomplishment. A practical classroom implementation would be experimentally tweaking values in a robotics algorithm to create a desired outcome.

These kinds of projects involve trial and error, so students experience frustration but in the end they feel the joy of success. This triggers intrinsic motivation as they learn that if they persist with probing and meddling with a system they can get a breakthrough. It’s a feeling of mastery and it’s an affirming and energizing experience.

Assessing hackers
It’s hard to quantify a mindset shift but you start to notice indications that students are thinking differently. My class was watching a robotic vacuum navigate obstacles on YouTube. A Year 4 girl got excited and said, “We know how they do that!” She had joined the dots and begun to transition from muggle to wizard.

The experience of the win is critical to the development of this mindset. We tend to congratulate students on their ideas but it’s more important that they understand the value of persistence, resilience and the actual implementation of the idea. As Yoda says, “There is no try.” There’s always a level of inertia and resistance but hackers keep pushing until they succeed. A project isn’t done until it is delivered. This is why we have a 3D printer in our school library where it has high visibility. It’s exciting for children to complete the design and ideation journey. An idea you can hold in your hand is far more valuable and interesting than one that’s stuck inside your head.

Codewise’s apps and incursions
I recently took a year off teaching to work in an innovation hub creating an app called Twang and an accompanying book. This experience gave me invaluable insight into the entrepreneurial / innovation mindset and has greatly influenced the way I now teach and think about teaching. The app is based on a robot we’d built that played songs by twanging a steel ruler, sliding it in and out to vary the pitch. A ruler played in this way is a simple, intuitive musical instrument so we digitised it to allow people to play music.

I worked with an ex student, Kenrick Everett, who was studying software design. We were the Walter White and Jesse Pinkman of game development. I hadn’t made a game before so it was an almost vertical learning curve. I had a desk in a co-working space, supported by the University of Newcastle’s Integrated Innovation Network. It was like time travelling to the near future and I realised I was working the way many of our students will work when they leave school.

Listening to the entrepreneurs who were based there, watching their failures and successes, I learned a lot about risk and reward and the founder mentality. It’s a hard, lonely journey so it was wonderful the way people caught our vision and supported us. Staedtler provided mandala art for the book and Swedish electronic artist Familijen let us use a track for a demo version of the app. I learned so much from smart, generous people like Colin Seeger, a music industry veteran who has represented clients like The Wiggles and Warner, and Dan Gregory, a panelist on ABC TV’s Gruen and co-founder of the Impossible Institute, who is now our brand and strategy advisor.

Creativity and technology work so well together. People think tech types and creative people have very different skill sets but the line between hacker and hipster is blurring. I was responsible for music, animation and a lot of the 'creative' elements but my job definitely required a degree of technical skill. On the other hand, Kenrick needed to think very creatively to find solutions to the technical problems we encountered.

We’ve tried to capture this synergy in the game and the book, which is why we’ve called the platform Codewise Creator. The Twang narrative also touches on themes like our relationship to technology, the fact that creating a preferred future involves risk and that creativity requires courage and is often subversive.

Codewise will soon be launching school incursions called 'Hack Your Futur' which will focus on teaching children innovation strategies. I’m looking forward to these visits because we want to help students understand how technology and creativity work so well together – it will be an author / music / robotics / game dev mash up.

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