Responding to Change

"Responding to change over following a plan."

Here Agile and education meet in perfect harmony. Agile was developed to deal with the problem of planning in a world of changing requirements. In school, we like to plan, too, but our plans are almost never executed because so many aspects of our work are so difficult to predict.

In chaotic environments, the ability to respond to change is worth more than the ability to create a plan. And that's why agility has more value in Agile than planning.

This doesn't mean we don't plan in Agile. Many Agile teams plan more than traditional teams. Why? Because they plan more often, in short cycles, with a customer focus, based on frequent empirical measurements. Planning more closely to development, and in direct response to empirical measurement and customer feedback, makes plans more valuable because they're more likely to be executed.

Many teachers have units planned out weeks in advance. But they also realize that it's hard to know what to do on Tuesday until they've seen what happens on Monday. When planning increments are small and frequent, they're more accurate. And when teachers have a large repertoire of instructional patterns at their disposal, this kind of highly responsive planning is as manageable as it is effective.

When it comes to planning, the trick isn't to do a lot; it's to do a lot that gets done. If we plan for hours, away from or kids, and then find out that on our very first day of a unit our timing is off, that we missed a step in a sequence, or that we need different materials, we simply have to plan for those things again—in small and frequent increments. Hours spent planning earlier may be wasted.

It's reasonable to have a broad overall plan. In Agile, these are called sprints and, like traditional school units, they typically represent two-to-four weeks of work. But during the sprint, there is a daily stand-up meeting to assess progress, synchronize activities, remove impediments, or do small amounts of re-planning in order to stay on course.

This is a big change from the traditional "set it and forget it" approach in education. I don't know anyone, myself included, who has ever been able to follow a pre-defined unit of programmed instruction perfectly (and still respond well to the kids).

Most teachers don't even follow their own detailed plans; they're always making adjustments. So why not enter into planning with what we already know in mind? Given the challenges of planning in education, I would wager that a teacher's ability to make adjustments, as opposed to making plans, is what separates the more successful from the less successful.

The value of upfront planning is inversely proportional to the degree of uncertainty. And few things are less certain than the predicted behaviors of a classroom full of students.


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Steve Peha

Something many of us found in the first few years we were working together was how the place of formal planning shifted in our work as we began to work with patterns of practice. Once we developed enough patterns, we didn't have to plan very much anymore. With a large repertoire of patterns, it was easier and more effective to bring them out in response to student needs.

The one thing that needed to stay constant was the goal. So kids might all be reading different books, and we might be working toward the goal of writing book reviews, and we might want to accomplish this over a 2-week period, but day-to-day instruction was planned in relation to student needs, not days or weeks ahead, specifically for the purpose of optimizing our progress and getting good book reviews done on time.

It was impossible to predict exactly how each day would go. So being responsive was they key to success. And the key to being responsive was having a large repertoire of patterns to draw from. Applying different patterns to different kids was they key to differentiating instruction, something that couldn't be planned for at all because it simply wasn't possible to accurately predict the individual problems different kids might have at different times.

The closer I plan to the problems I encounter, the more likely the plan is to be executed and to address the issue. But even if the issue isn't addressed, I can always choose to plan again, this time with even more information about what may work and what may not.

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