The Agile Classroom, Pt. 2—How To Do It

In Pt. 1 of our two-part series on Agile Learning, we discussed the value of this nimble approach to classroom instruction. In this installment, we get into the nuts and bolts of actually using it in your classroom, from preparation to implementation, with a focus on practical experience, continuous testing, and group study using the Scrum methodology.

The Agile Classroom, Pt. 2—How To Do It

If you missed Part One of this series, you can read The Agile Classroom—What Is It? here.

As you prepare your classroom for an Agile Learning framework, there are a few concepts you’ll want to keep in mind. First, think Lean. Lean is the principle that gave rise to Agile philosophy. It’s a lot like the principle of simplicity in science. Our goal is to cut away any of the extraneous fat (hence the word lean). In practical terms, this means eliminating those variables or processes that distract from value production.

Lean thinking originated in the Japanese auto industry in the 1950′s. It was adapted in software development, which gave rise to Lean principles and Agile philosophy. Eric Reis is frequently recognized as the originator of Lean principles, particularly through his oft-cited book, The Lean Startup.

Putting aside this background, the basic idea is that you learn, measure, and build; or build, measure, and learn. This simple cycle drives value-based product development. Throughout the process, you are continuously verifying what you’ve already learned. Nothing is left to assumption.

...thinking Lean means placing less emphasis on lesson planning and more on the actual learning process.

Now, let’s return to your classroom preparation. At its heart, thinking Lean means placing less emphasis on lesson planning and more on the actual learning process.

Sounds simple, right? It really is. At least, it’s simpler than traditional methods of instruction and evaluation.

But, how is Lean thinking done in the classroom?

  1. Involve your students in the details more often and sooner—Teachers often approach their teaching as ‘professionals’ who must polish every detail before presentation. The problem is that most of life doesn’t really work that way. People do not learn primarily from an actor giving his or her best performance. Instead, they learn by doing and redoing. We learn and improve by rehearsing and practicing the same things over and over again.
  2. Prepare simple, repetitive tasks that reinforce transferable skills—Some learning tasks are universal, regardless of subject. One of those tasks is simply hearing the teacher recite the essential concepts of a subject. Another task is regular recitation of these essential concepts as learned from the teacher. Yet another task requires students to write about these essential concepts. With Agile Learning, there are a few ways to facilitate improved performance in these tasks. For instance, journaling is an effective way to reinforce what one has already learned, while also allowing some fresh brainstorming around the concept. Taken together, these experiences can help build on one’s knowledge of a given subject. Another way to facilitate improved performance of learning tasks is through in-class discussion. Discussion aids not only in reinforcing what students already know to be true, but it oils the gears of cognition by allowing students to interactively consider new perspectives on concepts they have already learned.
  3. Test throughout the learning process by doing—An interactive classroom is far likelier to keep a student’s attention on a single subject than might a traditional classroom. Interaction permits constant and ongoing testing in a variety of forms. Students serve as checkers for one another by clarifying, reciting, and correcting one another. Interactive classrooms create space for the teacher to respond to student learning when needed. Teachers have the opportunity to observe learning as it occurs, and help it along the way either by offering additional guidance, providing expert instruction, or by intervening when the discussion veers into less productive territory.
  4. Set up time-focused sessions to practice learned concepts—Establish timed sessions to learn, re-learn, and dive deeper into concepts. This is actually a common method used by software developers looking for ways to excise extraneous waste. The same applies in the classroom. Setting time constraints around different segments of a learning session can train students to focus on actual learning and critical material without being derailed by tangential concerns.
  5. Review and build on what you have learned—The final step in the Agile Learning process occurs when students have gone through review, and can demonstrate able use of the concepts they’ve learned. This is something that often cannot be assessed simply by taking objective multiple choice exams on a subject. Instead, it happens when students are able to take the concepts learned and bring them into conversation with others, as well as place these ideas in interaction with other concepts that they have learned in the past. When a teacher can see students building on and marrying these concepts, they can appreciate the fact that real learning is taking place.

Breaking Out Into Scrums

One of the features that makes Agile Learning so valuable is the set of practical tools it provides teachers and students not just for collaborating across the classroom, but for breaking out into yet more nimble and dynamic study groups. This is where Scrum comes into play.

But what is Scrum?

Scrum is an analogy drawn from Rugby. Like Agile, Scrum originated in the field of software development. And, like Agile, it has shown itself to be extremely effective in other contexts as well. This is why the business world has adopted it. The oil, automotive, journalism, and gaming industries—among many others—use Scrum strategies with regularity.

Scrum’s Rugby-inspired name is fitting. In a rugby scrum, the team huddles together and uses its combined strength to gain possession of the ball. On a symbolic level, this strategy signifies that the work of succeeding at the game takes the pooled strengths, roles, and talents of collaborating individuals in order to achieve some specified goal. This idea has proven effective when applied to project development. And the Agile Learning philosophy gives us insight into how Scrum might help in our approach to studying.

Scrum is a way of approaching development in an Agile classroom.

Scrum is an extension of Lean principles and Agile philosophy—a framework for applying these philosophical principles, one that allows for the type of flexibility required to maximize learning. Scrum does not adhere to a step-by-step approach. If it did, it would not permit the dynamic needs called for by different contexts, subjects, and students.

Instead, Scrum is a way of approaching development in an Agile classroom.

How to apply Scrum

Studying is in many ways a project. There are developmental and managerial aspects to studying. Like all projects with their varied characteristics, studying too has its varied characteristics: what needs to be learned; whose assessment needs satisfying; and what skills need to be applied.

A basic outline of Scrum is to plan, track, and collaborate.

  1. Plan: Planning occurs at the beginning, naturally. You’ve heard it said: “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” You may have also heard it said: “Life is what happens to us when we are making other plans.” Both of these pithy statements contain a kernel of truth. Some degree of planning is necessary in order to identify and achieve one’s goals. But it is also true that life always brings with it unforeseen challenges, changes, and wrinkles in our plans. So, the key is to make plans that have an in-built mechanism for change. In other words, our plans must allow for ongoing contingencies.
  2. Track: Tracking is the process of continuous checking, confirmation, and testing. Agile teaches us to include and implement ongoing tests not only for the purposes of constantly checking our knowledge, but also for learning to adapt to those contingencies that arise in real life.
  3. Collaborate: Collaboration is the interactive work we do with others so that our ideas can be tested and challenged by multiple perspectives. Scrum is intrinsically interested in interaction with others who are able to help us see different perspectives and applications on the subject in question.

Building your SCRUM Team

A Scrum Team is composed of three basic positions—the developers, the product owner, and the Scrum master.

The developers are those who do the work of putting together a plan and building the project in question—think of students primarily as the developers. It is the students’ shared responsibility to begin a project with a plan; track the progress of that plan; and work together, using their varying strengths, to ensure the success of the whole team.

The product owner is the one who represents key stakeholders. This person is at once the initiator of the project, and simultaneously represents the general desires and expectations of key stakeholders. Stakeholders are those who have an investment in the outcome and will therefore set the requirements for the product. Consider the teacher the product owner. The teacher oversees the product, while keeping the desires of administrators, principals, parents, department heads, and the broader community in mind. Certain results are necessary to bring about the final product.

The Scrum master is the servant-leader—the individual who motivates, educates on Agile philosophy, helps keep the developers on track, aids with assessment, and oversees reviews. In the broader classroom setting, the Scrum master may be a teacher, but in a study group, a student-developer may assume this leadership role.

The move toward Lean Classrooms, Agile Learning and Scrum Studying would represent a long overdue shift in educational values, prioritizing human interaction, dynamic change, and meaningful learning experiences over planning, procedure, technology, and tools. While it is true that students can benefit from thoughtful planning, helpful procedures, and emergent technologies, these should be secondary in the process of learning. The focus must be on actual learning experience and less on control, entertainment, and presentation.

Lean classrooms and Agile Learning have the potential to transform the classroom. These strategies are fluid, adaptive, and energizing. You, the teacher, will find that your prep time is less about evaluation and more about growth. And, most importantly, you’ll see evidence right before your eyes that your students are learning.