Agile Education

As the Agile movement reaches its 10th anniversary this year, much progress has been made. Four types of progress are particularly relevant to education:

  • Agile practices are now used in industries outside of software development. Agile is recognized more generally now as simply a great way of getting things done in rapidly changing and highly unpredictable situations.
  • People have recognized the value of Agile as a learning methodology. As “personal agility” as become more valued in the workplace, and “learning agility” has been identified as a core competency of effective leaders, businesses want to know how to develop these skills in their people.
  • Technologists have recently begun speaking about Agile’s potential in education. Agile coach, and former tech specialist for Alameda County Office of Education, Bob Allen created a unit for middle schoolers using Agile practices. Michael de la Maza, with support from the Scrum Alliance, offered certified ScrumMaster training to teachers at the 2010 Agile Boston conference.
  • Agile is regarded now as creating improvement in both organizational process and cul-ture. Many experienced Agile practitioners have noted that long-term use of the methodology changes the culture of an organization in positive ways. Where traditions of education culture are significant barriers to change, this aspect of Agile’s influence may be the most salient.

The idea of applying a software development methodology to schooling may at first seem inappropriate. But the world is changing rapidly and the future is hard to predict. Our Industrial Age factory model system is inherently inefficient.

When we consider ideal form of Information Age education, we find a fit between many of the problems we are dealing with today and the opportunity to solve them that Agile affords.

The Agile-to-Education Connection

Agile is fundamentally about learning, people, and change—three things we struggle with in education and handle poorly at the present time.

Amr Elssamadisy, co-founder of Gemba Systems, a consultancy that specializes in guiding large companies through the adoption of Agile practices, expresses the learning angle well in his book, Agile Adoption Patterns: A Roadmap to Organizational Success:

“The learning that occurs… [is] the main reason that Agile processes work so well—they are all about recognizing and responding to change. All Agile practices,…, consist of cycles that help the team learn fast. By cycling in every possible practice, Agile teams accelerate learning,….”—Amr Elssamadisy, Agile Adoption Patterns: A Roadmap to Organizational Success

Jim Highsmith, one of the original 17 members of the Agile Alliance, and an executive consultant with Thoughtworks, Inc., an organization whose purpose is to revolutionize software creation and delivery while advocating for positive social change in the world, captures the people part perfectly here:

“At the core, I believe Agile Methodologists are really about… delivering good products to customers by operating in an environment that does more than talk about “people as our most important asset” but actually “acts” as if people were the most important—and lose[s] the word “asset”. …[T]he meteoric rise in, and sometimes tremendous criticism of, Agile Methodologies is about… values and culture.”—Jim Highsmith, member of the Agile Alliance, History: The Agile Manifesto

And Don Wells, celebrated author and Agile methodology consultant, schools us up on change, noting that the later change comes, the more leverage we have to produce quality results:

“The changes we get late in a project are usually the most valuable because that is when we know the most about our problem domain and solution. Consider every dollar spent on development as also being spent on learning about a better solution. The last change request is always the one you paid the most for, so use it to your advantage.”—Don Wells, Agile Software Development, A Gentle Introduction: Iterative Planning

We talk a lot in education about creating a culture of learning in our schools. But we don’t have reliable ways of creating this culture. Agile does.

A Man(ifesto) for All Seasons

Increasingly, people in education today are noting that the current set of reforms we have implemented have not been as successful as we had hoped. Here’s what Chester Finn, former Assistant Secretary of Education under President Reagan, wrote in the Winter 2010 edition of National Affairs:

“The education reform debate as we have known it for a generation is creaking to a halt. No new way of thinking has emerged to displace those that have preoccupied reformers for a quarter-century, but the defining ideas of our current wave of reform (standards, testing, and choice), and the conceptual framework built around them, are clearly outliving their usefulness.”—Chester Finn, The End of the Education Debate. From National Affairs, Issue #2, Winter 2010.

Most of our current reforms attempt to change the structure of school. But rarely do they succeed in changing the process or culture of school. This is probably why so many of our best ideas to date are “outliving their usefulness” as Mr. Finn declares.

In software terms, education needs a “refactoring”. Rather than seeking structural change, we must look for ways to create change in the internal culture of our system.

To begin our own refactoring of education, we should start at the beginning with The Agile Manifesto.

The Agile Manifesto

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools;
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation;
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation;
  • Responding to change over following a plan.

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

Clearly, this is about software product development. But it has a compelling universality about it that makes translating it to education easy:

The Agile Schools Manifesto

We are uncovering better ways of educating children by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools;
  • Meaningful learning over the measurement of learning;
  • Stakeholder collaboration over complex negotiation;
  • Responding to change over following a plan.

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

All educators confront competing priorities. Assessment directors are deluged with data and reporting requirements. Curriculum directors have so many duties they rarely have time to direct curricular change. Principals may have as many as 50 direct reports and a dozen different job functions. Teachers have more kids with more needs than they have time to serve.

“Agile is something that really needs to be implemented in schools,” says Glenn Kessinger, a middle school teacher and instructional coach. “A big problem we have in most of public education is a lack of focus; we have so many competing priorities. Agile could clear that up.”

Almost everyone in schools feels like a boxed-in middle manager trapped by pressures from above and below. The Agile (Schools) Manifesto sets clear priorities that would help educators make better choices.
“I love the Agile Schools Manifesto,” says Tim Boyd, Language Arts Specialist at Bio-Science High School, a one-to-one laptop school in Phoenix, AZ. “Even if a school could embrace just one of the statements, it would help tremendously. Eventually, people would see how inter-related the Manifesto concepts are. Thinking about school through these ideas could bring about big change.”


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Steve Peha

The question many people would have regarding the Agile Manifesto would probably be, "How can it be operationalized?" That is, "How can the philosophy the Manifesto represents be turned into things people can actually do?"

This is another nice thing about Agile: that question has already been answered in the "patterns of practice" that exist in the Agile world. All kinds of activities have been well-documented.

If we want to change the way a school works, we have to give the people who work in it something new and better to do. This is where Agile patterns come in. These are the specific activities people can do to create change.

The best part is, many of the same things adults do can also be taught to kids. Using Agile patterns in the classroom would prepare kids, regardless of the academic paths they choose, with the core skills of the Information Age.

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