Benefits of Kanban in the Classroom

The year begins with a bang. Students shuffling in with crumbs of summer still in their eyes are staring down the project to end all projects. 

Their first topic in a U.S. course of U.S. Government is about Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. The Social Contract theory, an idea most of us first experienced in high school is the first topic to be tackled by these new 8th graders. What’s worse, is that they are being asked to answer an unanswerable question: 

How Should Power Be Distributed in a Stable Society?

Confused about the content the students look for structure, but all of this is new. Students will tackle this content and answer the essential question in self-selecting teams. They will navigate their learning through teacher chosen resources, but then they choose an area in the real world to apply their knowledge. Looking down the scope of this project seems like an impossible task. So much to do, so many moving parts, and ugh… Working in teams. 

When asked to share their feelings, the number one feedback is that they do not want to work in teams. They complain about pulling others through, unfair workload, confusion, and arguments. In their experience teamwork means some kids slack, some kids work, and in most cases, it ends in a Hail Mary to the teacher’s desk. 

I promise them this time will be different. Eyes roll and not one person actually believes me. Then the kanban board is revealed. 

The first step is determining a Definition of Done. Student teams work together to determine when work is considered done. The definition will differ for different teams. The definition should fit the team and the personalities within it. 

If you know you tend to procrastinate how will you address it? 

If you are detail-oriented how can that benefit the team? 

How will you determine deadlines and most importantly stick to them? 

These are the important discussions that need to be had before a project is launched. Our students all know each other. They have worked with each other in some way throughout their educational career. What could be better for them than to pull the skeletons of past projects out of the closet, address the elephants in the room, and set intentions based on the realities of their teams? 

When the definition of done is complete the real questions begin. 

Why were you asked to set a definition of done?

 What is the purpose? 

Immediately, the faces light up. Answers sprout from around the room like wildflowers in the spring. Suddenly the classroom has energy and voices come from all directions. 

The definition of done ensures that they have a team agreement about working together. It sets expectations about work to be handed in. It makes criticism less personal. Group standards are set and they were created in a cooperative manner. 

The negative feelings surrounding teamwork are beginning to evolve. 

Next, there is a quick mini-lesson about the setup of a basic Kanban board. The backlog contains all work to be done, and broken down into increments.! All work that can be planned will go into the backlog until it is ready to be worked on. The backlog can and will change because new information will be discovered along the way. 

When a task is expected to be completed it can move into “To Do”. This means to the teacher and the team the task will be completed within the next increment of time. 

The team moves the task to “Doing” when the task is underway. This signals that work is in motion on this task.

The task can finally be moved to “Done” when it meets the Definition of Done. 

Students will begin their class meeting at the board and discussing their workflow. They will determine what will be done, what they are working on and check work to ensure it meets the Definition of Done. They pull their work across the board and create a flow of information that can be seen across the room. 

The mini-lesson takes under 15 minutes. A room full of skeptical students stares back. Too polite to say “no”, they sullenly gather in groups to determine their backlog. No one believes this is the tool that will save their projects.

Students then gather in teams with their rubrics, task statements, celebration criteria, and other project artifacts to start building their boards. 

Again, the room erupts in energy. Instead of lecturing about kanban, or planning their projects for them, I step back to the position of guide. They are communicating, collaborating, and sometimes arguing. They are developing their social-emotional and executive functioning skills by using them in a real situation. They color-code tasks, check against their rubrics and break down large assignments into do-able tasks. They are in control while I drift between groups asking questions, offering praise, and answering their self-generated questions. 

When the post-its stop flying the class sits down for a moment of reflection before our time together ends. 

The conversation is led with questions. 

Why are we using kanban?

What is the purpose?

Are there any benefits?

The energy of the room has dramatically changed since the beginning of the class. Again, student voices rise from around the room. 8th-grade students begin discussing how they like kanban because it lets them visually see the work being done. That it aids in group communication. Students cannot say they did not know a due date or that work is being done because it is being pulled across the board. They can see their work compared to other groups to determine if work is happening too fast or more likely to slow. They will all be on the same page and work can be divided easily. 

When asked if creating their backlog created clarity for the project they all answered with an enthusiastic yes. Several students explained that the process of building their backlog gave them insight into the work that must be done. That they now understand the scope of their project and it will be easier to tackle. One student even expressed that making their work visual brought a new understanding of using her time and the work required. 

What the kids were expressing in their words is the transparency of work, communication, and collaboration that kanban brings. They were able to understand the benefits of visually seeing work, planning ahead, and pulling work. In less than a class period, they were able to take a 6-week project and break it down into doable steps and feel in control of their learning. 

Leaving class the attitude towards this tremendous project changed. Once an unconquerable summit, the project had been reduced to a hill. The only tool that was employed was a blank kanban board. 

The foundations of an agile mindset have been laid and the students feel accomplished and in control of their learning. 

This is the benefit of kanban in the classroom. 

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