The 4 Pillars of Agile in Education

After two decades since the introduction of Agile, we have seen Agile breaking boundaries outside software development and tech. Agile as a philosophy and way of doing things can be applied to almost any process or system. Not just in business or work, but in learning as well. 

Many are seeing the benefits of Agile in education and are changing the way students learn. Can the Agile philosophy be applied in education? How does establishing an Agile culture in a learning environment help students and teachers alike? Let’s find out how the academe uses Agile in education and what’s in store for learning institutions as they embark on their Agile journey. 

4 Pillars of Agile in Education

We all know the Manifesto for Agile Software Development

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

The manifesto was framed towards tech and software development, as Agile was established by software professionals. But if you look at the manifesto in general, it can apply to processes outside technology. If we change the software and tech terms and use terms that are more applicable to another industry, the idea behind Agile will still ring true. 

And this is what Steve Peha, founder and president Teaching That Makes Sense, did and applied to education. Steve Peha has been uncovering better ways of learning. His background as a software entrepreneur has led to his discovery and appreciation of Agile. In 2011, he dabbled on how to apply Agile in schools. The rest was history. 

He rewrote the Agile Manifesto and started what is called 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 constant negotiation

Responding to change over following a plan

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

But this is more than just word play, as Steve Peha put it. It is a paradigm shift for school and academic leaders. Agile in education pushes traditional learning aside and introduces a radical change in how learning should be planned for and managed.

How Agile Supports Student-Centered Education

If we look at education through a “business lens,” we’ll see that it has a top-down approach to management. Priorities and plans are created by top-level leaders with little to no input on what students want to learn. 

Education needs reform. Agile in education aims to equip school leaders and teachers to accomplish this. If we look back on the Agile Schools Manifesto, we see a greater emphasis on meaningful learning over the measurement of learning. There is also more focus on individual interactions, stakeholder collaboration, and responding to change. This is a stark contrast to how learning is structured and managed in most traditional schools. 

With an Agile mindset, principals and school leaders collaborate more with teachers, parents, and students and craft an educational system that answers their priorities and needs. Traditionally, schools often succumb to the pressures of state mandates and expectations. Curricula and academic programs end up taking little to no consideration of what teachers can manage and what students want to pursue. 

While we are applying business concepts to learning, Agile in education puts a human-centric approach. Teachers are the driving force and the backbone of any educational system. Students are the recipients and main customers. If we don’t take into account their needs and expectations, we end up with overworked and disgruntled teachers and students who are rated based on less meaningful standards.

By using Agile in education, we aim to revolutionize learning in a way that it’s a win-win for everyone involved. Principals and school leaders are in a better position to manage and work through competing priorities. Teachers are more equipped to balance their workload and put the needs of their students first. Parents are more involved and better informed of how their students are taught. And students have a say on what and how they learn. 

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Real-life Agile Application in Education

Continuous and Incremental Learning in Shorter Phases

Semesters have long been used as the preferred learning period for most schools. But this prolonged timeframe has its drawbacks. We often see students falling behind on a long-winding curriculum. Feedback is also pushed to the end of the semester where exams are designed to gauge a student’s learning through months of rigorous lectures and quizzes. Students try their best to remember what they’ve learned from a few months back so they could pass one exam. 

If we were to implement Agile in education through this context, we will see shorter phases or sprints, as it is called in Scrum, as the preferred learning period. To make this more efficient and interactive, a variety of online learning platforms can be employed. While the exact time equivalent of a sprint is dependent on the school, the recommendation is of a shorter time frame. Remember that you are not squeezing a full semester’s learning backlog into a two-week learning sprint. This is not the case. What we aim to achieve is to prioritize the learning backlog and plan what can be taught by teachers and learnt by students within a two-week sprint. 

This sprint approach to learning periods will speed up feedback. Students can better manage their learning workload and can immediately apply what they’ve learned. Teachers will then be better equipped to tailor-fit their learning approach to the needs of the students because they will know immediately their students’ strengths, weaknesses, and inclinations.

Learn Together

While traditional education focuses on individualized learning, Agile in education emphasizes collaboration and interaction. In the real world scenario, we will collaborate and interact with others whether we pursue professional careers or start our businesses. We should prepare our students for the reality that awaits them. Learning is more effective when done in teams. Group your students and have them manage their learning sprints. This builds communication, teamwork, and social skills which are very important when they exit school life.

This supports a more meaningful learning journey where students aim to continuously improve their learning practice as learning sprints are executed.

Teach Together

Another concept that Agile in education introduces is the concept of Paired Teaching. In software development, we have the concept of Pair Programming. Two developers take turns in trying to code and develop a feature, performing continuous peer reviews, and making a robust implementation. The same can be applied in teaching.

Teachers can pair up to design and implement lesson plans together. One teacher can be a guest lecturer at another teacher’s class. They can exchange notes about their experiences and even perform their own teaching sprints where they have their sprint goals and deliverables.

Prioritize Better Learning Experiences

Applying Agile in education will help principals prioritize better learning experiences over regulatory obedience and pleasing the few. An Agile mindset pushes principals and teachers to collaborate and come up with initiatives that drive meaningful learning across. When the vision is clear, the execution will be guided. 

Principals need to enable and support their teaching staff to deliver better learning experiences for their students. It may require some experiments until they get desired results. But this is what Agile advocates. We must recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to learning. The same goes for teaching. School leaders must nurture an environment where their teachers can self-organize and create more learning opportunities for everyone.

Constant Reflection at All Levels

One of the Agile practices that we can apply in education is reflection. Agile teams regularly reflect on their performance to improve their work in the next iteration. This should be the same for schools. Principals and teachers can do group reflection and discuss their experiences, learning, and ideas to improve their processes and teaching styles. 

This can also apply to students. If learning is done in groups, students can perform their reflection sessions or what we call retrospectives. The act of reflecting will bring about greater awareness on how learning is done and what areas can still be improved.

Principals, teachers, and students can use Kanban boards to better manage their improvement ideas and initiatives. After your retrospective sessions, track each improvement idea on a Kanban card. You can treat each card as an activity or a mini project that your group needs to implement. Design your Kanban board with appropriate steps to track your progress. You can also explore more on Kanban for Education from Jeff Burstein

Building an Agile Education System

Executive support is crucial in implementing Agile in any organization. School leaders should be the first to imbibe and promote the Agile values so that the rest of the institution can emulate them. There are many benefits in implementing Agile in education. It’s time to reform our educational system. We need student-centric approaches if we want to bring out the full potential of our youth. Give Agile in education a try and see the results for yourself.

About the Author: Lena Boiser

Lena Boiser is an Agile enthusiast. Starting off her career as a Software Business Analyst in 2010, she eventually performed other roles including Project Manager and IT Business Manager. When she was immersed in Agile methodologies in 2014, Lena found her way through honing her craft and eventually became a Certified Scrum Product Owner. In 2017, after 7 years of working in the corporate world, Lena started her own remote consulting practice. Today, she provides project management and Scrum Product Ownership services to various businesses including software development companies, e-Commerce business owners, and small to medium sized companies. She believes that even teams working remotely can harness the benefits of Agile in order to deliver results for their companies. In her free time she likes to write. One day she could be writing about Agile, the next she could be writing anything about fashion or travel.