Agile Based Learning: What Is It and How Can It Change Education?

Post by Open Colleges on February 22nd, 2014

In 2013 there was a lot of talk about “coding the curriculum.” English instructors were considering using code to teach poetry, Global History departments were planning to have students design code-based interactive graphs to correlate with their research papers, drama instructors were interested in experimenting with live-coding performances, where students would use software to compose and perform music with scripts they wrote.

But the discussion around programming as an instructional method was quiet, even nonexisent.

Was it ever lively? you may ask. Yes, as a matter of fact, it was.

In 2001, Kent Beck, Martin Fowler, Dave Thomas, and 14 other leading software practitioners published the “Agile Manifesto,” which was a brief statement of some of the tenets of lightweight software development methods.

The four key values of Agile were outlined as follows:

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  2. Working software over comprehensive documentation
  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  4. Responding to change over following a plan

Ten years later, instructional coaches like Steve Peha were giving talks on how Agile practices could be adapted to education. In 2012 a group in India ran a case study involving 500 ICT schools, with teachers trained in Agile practices, and found that it was feasible to integrate Agile systems into existing programs and in nearly all cases led to higher student achievement. Just last year a research team in Brazil found that Agile principles can be used to manage distance learning courses within the context of the Open University of Brazil, specifically to organize the flow of activities in the construction of a distance learning course.

Teachers in middle schools, high schools, and universities around the world are beginning to use Agile to create a culture of learning. But most proponents agree the discussion needs rekindling, especially in light of the current educational climate.

“Agile is something that really needs to be implemented in schools,” says Glenn Kessinger, a middle school teacher and instructional coach in Washington. “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.”

Tim Boyd, Language Arts Specialist at Bio-Science High School, a one-to-one laptop school in Phoenix, Arizona, says that 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.”

So what is an Agile school, exactly, and how can you find out for yourself if it works for you?

The Agile Schools Manifesto

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

“Agile is fundamentally about learning, people, and change – three things we struggle with in education and handle poorly at the present time,” says Peha, founder of Teaching That Makes Sense and a learning strategist with 25 years of experience in K-12 education, software development, and instructional science. “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.”

This attitude is what has led education leaders, including Peha, to develop the Agile Schools Manifesto, an adaptation of the Agile Manifesto that can be followed by teachers and administrators for greater educational achievement.

The values of the Agile Schools Manifesto are as follows:

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  2. Meaningful learning over the measurement of learning
  3. Stakeholder collaboration over complex negotiation
  4. Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, proponents of the Agile Movement value the items on the left more.

First, face-to-face interaction is recognized as the most efficient and effective method of communication within a team. While technology serves an undeniably important purpose, the old fashioned method of direct exchange reins supreme when it comes to effecting real change.

Next, meaningful learning is the primary measure of progress in an Agile School. Although a big part of Agile involves routine standardized testing, it isn’t the kind of testing that measures content knowledge–it’s the kind that measures thinking. Meaningful learning means learning that can be reused in other contexts.

At regular intervals, teachers and administrators reflect on how to become more effective, then tune and adjust their behavior accordingly. School and family team members work together daily to create learning opportunities for all participants. Agile proponents believe that the best ideas and initiatives emerge from self-organizing teams.

Finally, the Agile methodology encourages continual change–the idea that the imagination will develop with the approach and therefore the project needs to be adaptive to flow with the imagination of the creator. Failure is a normal part of the process. The faster we fail, the more solutions we try, and the smarter we fail, the more knowledge we bring to the next iteration. Instead of looking back at problems, Agile schools look forward to solving them.

The Twelve Principles of Agile Schools

After speaking to various educational institutions around the U.S. about Agile, and serving as Product Owner on the Gates Foundation’s Shared Learning Infrastructure, an enterprise Agile implementation of a reference platform for Student Longitudinal Data Systems, Peha took it upon himself to flesh out the essential characteristics of Agile schools, inspired by principles from the original Manifesto.

The characteristics of these schools are as follows:

  1. Their highest priority is to satisfy the needs of students and their families through early and continuous delivery of meaningful learning.
  2. They welcome changing requirements, even late in a learning cycle, and harness change for the benefit of students and their families.
  3. They deliver meaningful learning frequently, from a couple of days to a couple of weeks, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
  4. School and family team members work together daily to create learning opportunities for all participants.
  5. They build projects around motivated individuals, give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
  6. They recognize that the most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a team is face-to-face conversation.
  7. Meaningful learning is their primary measure of progress.
  8. Their processes promote sustainability. Educators, students, and families should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
  9. They believe that continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances adaptability.
  10. Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work done–is essential.
  11. The best ideas and initiatives emerge from self-organizing teams.
  12. At regular intervals, teams reflect on how to become more effective, then tune and adjust their behavior accordingly.

Try It Out Yourself

In addition to following the Twelve Principles, Agile schools use specific strategies adopted from software development to achieve greater learning and collaboration. See if you can try some of them out in your own class.

1. Sprints

What Is It?

A sprint is a time-boxed duration within which classes commit to a set of outcomes to be achieved by the end of the time-box. Just like a sprint in track and field, it is a short duration with a starting line and a finishing line, except in this case, it is not distance, it is time. The time-box is typically a week, but can be as short as a day or class period to as long as a month. Once one Sprint ends, the next one begins. For example, if your Sprint cadence is set to one week, your Sprint may start on Monday and end on Friday. The next Monday, the next Sprint begins.

How Can It Help?

Among other things, Sprints would solve the problem of students falling through the cracks and of teachers wasting time on ill-conceived units of study that run for months at a time without any significant assessment of learning.

2. Stand-up Meetings

What Is It?

A stand-up meeting (or simply “stand-up”) is a daily team-meeting held to provide a status update to the team members. The “semi-real-time” status allows participants to know about potential challenges as well as to coordinate efforts to resolve difficult and/or time-consuming issues. It has particular value in Agile software development processes, such as Scrum, but can be utilized in any development methodology. The term “stand-up” derives from the practise of having the attendees stand at the meeting, as the discomfort of standing for long periods helps to keep the meetings short.

There are three questions to ask and answer in the daily stand-up:

What did I accomplish yesterday?
What will I do today?
What obstacles are impeding my progress?

The structure of the meeting is meant to promote follow-up conversation, as well as to identify issues before they become too problematic. The practice also promotes closer working relationships in its frequency, need for follow-up conversations and short structure, which in turn result in a higher rate of knowledge transfer – a much more active intention than the typical status meeting.

How Can It Help?

These would solve the problems of personal accountability and team communication, two of the most disabling conditions in schools today. Agile could provide a unifying balance of freedom and structure that would satisfy and support all parties.

3. Paired Teaching

What Is It?

Based on Pair Programming, an Agile software development technique in which two programmers work together at one workstation. One, the driver, writes code while the other, the observer, pointer or navigator, reviews each line of code as it is typed in. The two programmers switch roles frequently.

While reviewing, the observer also considers the “strategic” direction of the work, coming up with ideas for improvements and likely future problems to address. This frees the driver to focus all of his or her attention on the “tactical” aspects of completing the current task, using the observer as a safety net and guide.

How Can It Help?

This would solve the problem of isolation so many teachers struggle with. Ideally, teams would be formed out of sets of paired teachers. This could be expressed as traditional team teaching, as “guest” teaching where teachers trade off leading lessons according to individual instructional expertise, or it could be accomplished through cross-class activity. Working together for a substantial period of time and sharing responsibility for the same students would increase the common use of optimized practice, and also provide many more opportunities for teachers to understand the needs of their students as they progress.

4. User Stories

What Is It?

In software development and product management, user stories are a quick way of handling customer requirements without having to create formalized documents and without performing administrative tasks related to maintaining them. The intention of the user story is to be able to respond faster and with less overhead to rapidly changing real-world requirements. It captures the ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘why’ of a requirement in a simple, concise way, often limited in detail by what can be hand-written on a small paper notecard.

Before a user story is to be implemented, an appropriate acceptance procedure must be written by the customer to ensure by testing or otherwise whether the goals of the user story have been fulfilled. Some formalization finally happens when the developer accepts the user story and the acceptance procedure as a work specific order.

How Can It Help?

Educational standards are the rough equivalent of old-style software feature sets. Developers know from experience that they can implement many feature sets and still fail to reach important user goals. Teaching teachers how to restate generic or vaguely worded curriculum standards as specific user stories–with students as the “users”–would make teaching easier and more effective.

Bonus Tip: Use a Story Map

A story map is a graphical, two-dimensional product (read: curriculum standard) backlog. At the top of the map are big user stories, which can sometimes be considered “epic” and other times correspond to “themes” or “activities.” These grouping units are organized according to the user’s workflow, or “the order you’d explain the behavior of the system.” Vertically, below the epics, the actual story cards are allocated and ordered by priority. The first horizontal row is a “walking skeleton” and below that represents increasing sophistication. In this way it becomes possible to describe even big systems (or standards) without losing the big picture.

5. Test-Driven Development

What Is It?

Test-driven development (TDD) is a software development process that relies on the repetition of a very short development cycle: first the developer writes an (initially failing) automated test case that defines a desired improvement or new function, then produces the minimum amount of code to pass that test, and finally refactors the new code to acceptable standards. Kent Beck, who is credited with having developed or ‘rediscovered’ the technique, stated in 2003 that TDD encourages simple designs and inspires confidence. A 2005 study found that using TDD meant writing more tests and, in turn, programmers who wrote more tests tended to be more productive.

Test-driven development offers more than just simple validation of correctness, but can also drive the design of a program. By focusing on the test cases first, one must imagine how the functionality is used by clients (in the first case, the test cases). So, the programmer is concerned with the interface before the implementation.

Test-driven development offers the ability to take small steps when required. It allows a programmer to focus on the task at hand as the first goal is to make the test pass. Exceptional cases and error handling are not considered initially, and tests to create these extraneous circumstances are implemented separately. Test-driven development ensures in this way that all written code is covered by at least one test. This gives the programming team, and subsequent users, a greater level of confidence in the code.

How Can It Help?

Where it makes perfect sense for programmers to write tests which their software must meet, and then code to assure those tests are passed, this is done in the context of short sprints. In this sense, “coding to a test” works because the harnessing of changing requirements, the disciplined use of backlogs, and the possibility of refactoring afford the flexibility teams need to produce great work. This same approach could be applied to schools.

6. Scrum

What Is It?

Scrum is a framework for managing software projects and product or application development. Its focus is on “a flexible, holistic product development strategy where a development team works as a unit to reach a common goal” as opposed to a “traditional, sequential approach.” Scrum enables the creation of self-organizing teams by encouraging co-location of all team members, and verbal communication among all team members and disciplines in the project.

A key principle of Scrum is its recognition that during a project the customers can change their minds about what they want and need (often called requirements churn), and that unpredicted challenges cannot be easily addressed in a traditional predictive or planned manner. As such, Scrum adopts an empirical approach – accepting that the problem cannot be fully understood or defined, focusing instead on maximizing the team’s ability to deliver quickly and respond to emerging requirements.

How Can It Help?

Scrum could solve many significant problems in educational settings: the removal of impediments by a school ScrumMaster; the establishment of ownership and roles; and the implementation of shared practices that, year after year, would contribute to “instructional economies of scale” as teachers in upper grades began to benefit from ideas applied in lower grades.

Agile schools embrace the risk inherent in the achievement of great things. Their leaders educate for maximum potential, not minimum competence. They welcome change, innovation, and seek out challenges that organize and measure the best of everyone’s energies and skills.

And Agile schools work because people choose to make them work. Those people believe in freedom of choice, and that making the choice to participate fully in teaching, learning, and leading is the most important choice we can make.

“As a software developer, I was attracted to Agile. But now, as an educator, I find myself attracted to it even more,” says Peha. “After months of study, I’m convinced that we in education have much to learn from world of software development, and that Agile gives us a well-reasoned, well-researched methodology from which to derive effective practice.”

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