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An Agile Mindset in Education

By Paul Magnuson | Published: February 6, 2018

I work at a Swiss boarding school with just over 300 students, grades 7 to 12, from some 50 countries. Classes average about 11 students each, the curriculum gives us a lot of freedom to play with new ideas, and it is not difficult to get ahold of the right resources. Enviable conditions for most any teacher, made even more enviable by a department on campus that supports teacher action research.

For the past several years we’ve been experimenting with innovative approaches to support self-regulated learning—one of those big life skills we need to address if we’re serious about lifelong learning. We’ve had a few flops and a good number of successes. Lately we’ve immersed ourselves in a set of principles from the worlds of manufacturing and software that seem very promising. They are ways of working called kaizen, lean, scrum, and agile.

Kaizen is a mysterious sounding word to those of us who don’t speak Japanese, but it simply means “improvement” and has grown by connotation to mean continuous and incremental improvement. It embodies the notion that an organization should be run in a manner that allows everyone to take responsibility for small improvements in every facet of their work. It also rests on the notion that leaders manage as if they have little power.

When we want to make our students’ learning experience better, we empower everyone to make small improvements to the work they do. Management is, then, about culture and relationships. The small improvements, taken together, add up. In an environment of continuous improvement, they really add up.

Lean is a related concept, focused on getting better by eliminating waste. Key things that we might often waste are time and effort. We waste time and effort through performing tasks poorly, like when one person has to wait for another to continue working, or when we spend time on tasks that aren’t worth completing, or are less worth completing than others.

As an example, we’ve drastically reduced the requirement to have big curriculum plans. While it is worthwhile to have a plan to serve as a guide, plans that are too big are not followed closely by a competent teacher, because the big plan doesn’t account for the evolving nature of learning, for differences in teacher expertise, and for difference in student interest. Big plans are made before the actual work begins—when we know the least about the work.

A burn down chart, showing the progress of a project.

Students keep track of their own progress using
a burn down chart as used in Scrum. The class
weeks are on the horizontal axis, the tasks on the
vertical axis. Anywhere in the green is an acceptable
pace for their project.

Scrum is a manner of organizing work in teams, made popular by software engineers. Key notions include following simple practices consistently, making tasks highly visible to everyone, working in small chunks, getting constant feedback on the product, and reviewing the work. One of the co-founders famously claims that scrum allows you to get twice the work done in half the time.

While we haven’t found a 400% boost in productivity, we have found that the simplicity of the process translates very well to the classroom. We’ve learned a lot from our Dutch colleague, Willy Wijnands, who created eduScrum in his chemistry class and now consults internationally. We visited a school in the Netherlands that was using a similar methodology—and watched students self-regulate the entire lesson. There is lots of potential with scrum practices.

A student presents to peers and school administrators

A student presents to peers and school administrators.
An agile approach to education helps students regulate
their own learning, gaining confidence because they
have significant say and control. 

Agile is the umbrella term for of the practices above, as well as a few others. Agile is a mindset, a notion that we are more productive, and our product is better, when we focus on people over processes, finished products that deliver value over lots of documentation (think back to our curriculum reduction efforts mentioned above), collaboration over contracts, and responding to change over the big plan.

We are creating lessons, classes, whole school events, and teacher professional development based on these principles. We are also following with interest the work of John Miller, Agile Classrooms, the Agora school outside of Utrecht in the Netherlands, and others.

If you are interested in self-regulation in education, check out the work at some of these schools. And if you work in an agile environment outside of education, you might be interested to see how teachers and students are adapting your processes. We feel that the potential is huge.

About the Author

Paul Magnuson is the director for curriculum & research and the director of the middle school at Leysin American School in the Swiss Alps. He worked at Concordia Language Villages for 15 years and regards his experience in the Villages as the best education for life that he’s gotten so far.

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