12 Agile Principles in Education

Bringing Agile to education means developing and driving your course with intention. Lessons are not copied from internet sources, or thought up the morning of. There is a level of flow that must be achieved within the learning objectives that builds knowledge and skill acquisition throughout a unit and the year. Being intentional and mindful of the skills that you are trying to develop becomes a daily task. You must be able to zoom in and out over the course of the year to ensure that learning is meaningful and deep. Those lessons build on each other and students understand the importance of what they are doing. 

To achieve this I keep a copy of the 12 Agile principles at my desk. This is not some profound statement. This was much more practical as I started the year, reading about agile and eduscrum, but never having experienced them. I knew what I wanted and what felt right from reading the experiences from others, but executing this plan was confusing and messy. Keeping the eduscrum guide and agile principles in front of me as I planned, working through each section and developing and designing curriculum has helped me “stay on track” when it would have been easier to sub in a lesson from a previous year or add an activity to give me time to grade or plan. 

Here I thought it would be a good space to walk through my thinking of the 12 Principles of  the Agile Manifesto as an active educator trying to make sense of this new world. 

  1. Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software. 

In education this to means that the highest priority is the student. The student must be learning and acquiring skills on a continuous level. That means building new skills they have no base in, expanding content beyond words in a textbook and constantly assessing how far we’ve come. Through reflective practices students recognize that their skill and knowledge base are constantly improving and building upon itself. Students, no matter the age, know where their teacher is genuine, and working hard to deliver the kind of education they deserve. 

This also builds a high level of trust between the students and teacher. Students know my priority to deliver useful knowledge and skills continuously. They know I will never come to class without a plan, or have them do busy work to fill time. All of their assignments are genuine learning experiences that will build on previous content or skill base. 

  1. Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage. 

In an agile classroom the changing of requirements comes in our project based learning. Students have to work through content developing skills along the way and creating authentic assessments. Students and teachers need to be flexible throughout this journey in terms of their final product. The “competitive advantage” is a deep understanding of the learning goals. As long as students are learning, creating connections and building skills the product can change. 

  1. Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couples of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale. 

Students should be constantly moving forward in their education and there should be real artifacts of learning as they gain knowledge. This is clearly seen in project based learning where students are working through a large project but complete pieces along the way. This ensures that students are working at a steady pace through the unit and it helps the teacher assess that all of the students are on track and learning. I have always referred to these points as checkpoints in a project where smaller parts have to be delivered and assessed. What students are working on and the time frame for handing in work depends on the teacher, unit and students, but it is a must for a successful project based learning unit. 

  1. Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project. 

Throughout my career I have worked with teachers that assume I hand out a poster board project, sit back and nap. They assume because I am not lecturing daily, or grading handouts that I am not working as hard as a traditional teacher. Of course this could not be further from the truth. After implementing EduScrum and Agile this year I meet with each team and do more small group instruction than I have in my entire career. I work daily with all students both in person and virtually to help guide, explain difficult concepts, brainstorm and coach. I have been able to build stronger relationships with all of my students and ensure that every single student gets undivided attention every day. That quality education that cannot be replicated any other way. 

  1. Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need and trust them to get the job done. 

This agile principle is about building strong relationships and creating a learning space that is highly communicative and trusting. Whenever a teacher builds a unit they are basing it on the needs of their students and helping motivate them to reach the learning goals. The place that this tends to teeter is trusting students to get the job done. This principle pairs well with delivering artifacts of learning frequently. We all know we cannot launch 20 students into a project, ignore them and the learning outcomes will magically appear. However, if we build projects that pull in student interest, create checkpoints to check progress and learning along the way we should trust the work will get done. This is part of building student agency and their time management skills. Students will never build these fundamental skills if we hand them every piece of learning, or guide them by the hand through every learning event. We have to trust them and give them the space to figure it out. 

  1. The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face – to – face conversation. 

Last March we went virtual in the course of a weekend. There were bumps and bruises. We jumped into another level of teaching and learning that none of us was prepared for. We had to learn and adapt through our failures and mistakes. 

    My biggest takeaway from my test-flight into virtual learning was that students MUST feel connected, be able to communicate and collaborate. They need time outside of lectures, they need time to be kids by themselves. When faced with a year (or more) of hybrid learning my number one priority was keeping kids connecting and collaborating. This was my primary draw to Agile. Kids would work in teams to be connected as much as possible. Clearly not all of my students are face to face. Some move back and forth, others have been home all year. They are connected though, and through the power of zoom they get to look each other in the face when brainstorming, learning and executing their plan. They are connected on a human level and get to openly communicate with kids their own age in a meaningful way. 

  1. Working software is the primary measure of progress. 

Learning is messy when done right. It’s always nice when we can tie up a lesson in a beautiful bow and hang it on our classroom walls. Often that kind of learning shows superficial knowledge and no deep understanding. The goal is real learning, not beautiful decorations. Like in Agile when software is successful if it is working, the same is true for learning. Learning is successful when it drives further learning. When students can build connections and apply their knowledge. Building schema and connections is the primary measure of progress. 

  1. Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely. 

    The days are long, but the years are short. That’s how most teachers and students will describe a regular school year. At some points we cannot believe it’s on Tuesday and then suddenly it’s May. In the eighth Agile principle content and skills needs to be taught, and evaluated at a consistent pace, not breakneck racing through content. Although we break our projects into sprints, we do not want our students to race through and burn out. It is the teacher’s responsibility to teach time management to students so they can  break content and skill development into a  consistent pace. This can be done by modeling, asking probing questions or simply through working on the Kanban board. When all students are communicating and collaborating through Kanban. The movement of cards, checklists and deadlines move the students forward. They can visually see what each member of the group is doing, who is moving quickly and who may need a nudge

    Again, this is consistent with delivering at checkpoints throughout a unit which ensures work is being accomplished at a consistent pace. Students also need the time between focused and diffused thinking. There is value in letting minds wander and big ideas sink in. 

  1. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility. 

    The ninth principle can be applied to education through lesson and unit design.Universal Design for Learning is a method that ensures that there is good design and excellence in lesson and unit design. It all starts with creating strong learning goals. From the learning goals teachers plan backwards to map out the ways students can achieve those goals. What questions can I post to engage inquiry, how can I scaffold learning paths that will appeal to all students? How can I embed necessary skills to aid them along the way? For me, this is the technical excellence that drives good design of lessons and units. When lessons are well constructed, scaffolded and learning goals are clear they enhance the agility of any educational experience. 

  1. Simplicity – the art of maximizing the amount of work not done – is essential. 

When teachers get their first job, they are handed a scope and sequence and told to teach it all. Not long into the education journey any reasonable teacher realizes that you cannot teach all of the material and certainly kids will not LEARN all of the material. This is the full realization of the 10th principle. Simplify content. Simplify skills. What is necessary that students must understand. What connections must be made? Pick one of two big ideas that students must now and plan from there. Make these big ideas the center of your essential question. Then students then launch off on their agile project based learning they will learn what they need to by having the focus of the essential question. Everything cannot be taught, but real learning can happen when students are set in the right direction and able to determine what they must know to answer the questions.  Which then leads us to….

  1. The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams

Each student is an individual, with their own lives, learning styles and skills. Each brings something nuanced and unique to every situation that they enter into. Why then is it OK to teach them all the same? 

    When each team self-organizes they are a new unit the world has yet to experience. Their combined skills and personalities bring them unimagined advantages as well as disadvantages. While I believe I am decently smart, I have no idea how to optimize learning for that exact team,  at that space in their lives, during that unit of study. The only ones that can unlock that magic are the kids themselves. 

    As long as I set up with clear, simple goals the students can find their unique paths. I may add that a certain task needs to be completed along the way, or certain skills must be demonstrated in their learning journey, but carving the path of learning can only be done by each team. 

    For formally trained teachers this can be incredibly hard. Letting go of the reins and watching students veer. Giving agency and letting decision making happen, when you know it is not the clearest path. But that is part of the learning. That is life learning because education is not about content, it is about learning how to live in the world. Self-organizing teams that must continuously deliver results travel their own path towards success. 

  1. At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly. 

Reflection. Reflection is the heart of learning. As students move through learning they need to be explicitly taught how and why to reflect. This is often left off the table for other skills or more content, but this is a mistake. How do we know if we are learning if we never reflect?

    As an agile student team reflection needs to be embedded into every class. The team needs to communicate about what they are doing, what works, or doesn’t and what the future may hold. The kanban board aids students in reflection because it makes communication transparent. The students know who is doing what, when and how. They see movement through their project and as they communicate on the board it forces them to think of the “HOW’ and “WHY” together and by themselves. When reflection becomes part of the culture of learning, students automatically use it as a tool to adjust their behavior and eliminate the excess. No one that takes time to reflect on their progress keeps the inefficient parts. 

    In my classroom we keep a reflection journal as well. Students reflect on their progress at the end of each month, project and unit. They create a personalized Google site where they can be honest in their reflections. At the end of the year they are asked to go back to the beginning and read their thoughts as they move through the year and take time to recognize how much they have grown. 

As a reflective process I will revisit this in August and see how I can amend my ideas. I am at the beginning stage of my journey, and there are so many new lessons to learn and ideas to update.

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