The Agile Classroom, Pt. 1—What Is It?

“Imagine if our classrooms mimicked everyday life. What might that do to the atmosphere for students? There’s a new philosophy that in many ways enshrines this intuitive notion that failing fast and often is actually quite helpful. It’s called Agile.”

The Agile Classroom, Pt. 1—What Is It?

“Fail Fast and Fail Often” is a common guiding principle for developers in the engineering world. While it might sound counter-intuitive, it has actually proven quite useful both in the engineering world and beyond. But, that shouldn’t be at all surprising. Think about it. Some of the most important thinkers in history failed numerous times. Most successful entrepreneurs fail before they are successful. Even Einstein failed! Failure, no doubt, is built into the scientific method (hypothesis test theory). We fail more often than we succeed. Get used to it. That’s life.

Imagine if our classrooms mimicked everyday life. What might that do to the atmosphere for students? There’s a new philosophy that in many ways enshrines this intuitive notion that failing fast and often is actually quite helpful. It’s called Agile. You may have heard of it. Born from the minds of IT software developers back in the 90′s, agile became prominent in the IT world in the late 90′s and early 2000′s. Soon thereafter, it was adopted as a guide for other businesses. Recently, it has been used in other contexts as well, including in the world of education. But, what is it exactly?

Imagine if our classrooms mimicked everyday life. What might that do to the atmosphere for students?

Let’s start with what it isn’t. It isn’t a method, though it does provide guiding principles for methods in a variety of contexts. It isn’t a procedure, though it can be adapted and used with many different procedures. It isn’t timeless or universally applicable, though it does presume the persistence of certain timeless principles.

So what is Agile Learning?

It is a philosophy. But, it isn’t a philosophy that seeks greater understanding of unchanging forms as did Plato. Instead, consider Agile Learning a set of values and principles that emerge out of what is most important to humans. We care about value. The best way to provide the greatest value is to use methods and procedures that permit change amidst dynamic contexts and against varying constraints.

...consider Agile Learning a set of values and principles that emerge out of what is most important to humans.

To elaborate, Agile Learning is an empirical philosophy. In fact, Agile is built on three pillars of empiricism–transparency, inspection, and adaptation. Again, this philosophy was originally applied to software development. Accordingly, Agile begins with the assumption that the whole process is open, honest and allows for ongoing inspection and analysis of all the parts, which permits ongoing change from beginning to middle to end.

It’s like the checks-and-balance process in the government. Rather than wait until the end of the process to consider the value of a product, corrections take place often and immediately upon recognition of defects. Moreover, both software and business experts are constantly checking for impediments.

Imagine that! Agile philosophy prizes the best practices that allow for the best products, efficiency, and openness, without sacrificing quality.

Want to learn more about Agile Learning? Check out Real World Agility: Practical Guidance for Agile Practitioners.

Now imagine infusing formal education with this philosophy.

Though the phenomenon is relatively new, a small set of educators have begun applying Agile philosophy in classroom environments. Even more recently, there have been some developments in what are called Agile Schools.

The core values that emerged from the field of software development have been modified slightly to apply more directly to the world of education. These values prioritize:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools;
  • Meaningful learning over the measurement of learning;
  • Stakeholder collaboration over constant negotiation;
  • Response to change over dependency on plan.
...in real life, we learn constantly by failing and re-assessing how it is that we failed. This reality underscores exactly why Agile Learning could be so valuable if implemented in the classroom.

If you’re an educator, stop and think for a moment. What might this approach do for your classroom? Often educators are consumed with grading and standardized testing. These instruments of measurement likely determine how educators set up their classrooms. Unfortunately, this approach stifles real learning. Real learning should mimic real life. And, in real life, we learn constantly by failing and re-assessing how it is that we failed. This reality underscores exactly why Agile Learning could be so valuable if implemented in the classroom.

  1. Agile conditions you to think about what is valuable rather than what is expedient—You may have heard it said before that aiming at learning for its own sake will lead to good test results. By contrast, aiming at good test results will not result in actual learning. Expedience and results are insufficient goals in the process of education. So, why would we merely teach to the test? Surely, there is a better approach. Agile helps us recalibrate our thinking.
  2. Agile encourages failing—It may sound a little provocative to say that Agile encourages failing. That’s only partly true. Agile encourages success really, but the process of acquiring success is a series of attempts that often fail. Like the scientist in the lab who is constantly testing her own hypothesis, she will fail more often than she will succeed. But, what is important is that she learns from those failures so that she can succeed—or at least get better in the process.
  3. Agile highlights change as the norm—Failure is built in to the process. Like life, education that can adapt to the material, contexts, and needs of students is superior to those methods that are predetermined, static, and impersonal. Classrooms that move through the material in a way that permits and even encourages change will not only condition students to learn through observation, practice, and application, but will encourage them to change with it. This change equals growth.
  4. Agile permits built-in tests and corrective measures—We learn best when we see a subject in action and we are able to test, use, and assess the material ourselves. This is true in life. Just recall how you learned to ride a bike or how you learned to tie your shoelaces. In both of these practices, you saw it done, then you tried it out yourself. So, built-in tests were the norm in both of these practices and that is how you learned. During the process of failing, your parents would step in and provide some correction.
  5. Agile aids in learning, re-learning, and un-learning—Learning is not a static process. Learning is dynamic in life, and should be dynamic in school as well. Through repetitive practice, we see what works and we continue in the process of confirming what it is we already know. This is a good thing. A process that has built-in tests and allows us to fail yet adapt is simultaneously a process which allows us to unlearn habits that are not conducive to personal or intellectual growth.
Agile—as the name suggests--is dynamic and conducive to all learning styles...

So, to the teacher that has grown comfortable with meticulous lesson planning, you might need to rethink how you approach the classroom. Agile—as the name suggests–is dynamic and conducive to all learning styles, to interaction between students, to varied contexts that change from day to day, and, yes, even to failure.

Click here for Part 2 of our series on Agile Learning, where we offer concrete tips on how you can implement Agile Learning and Scrum study strategies in your classroom!