The Power of Agile Education
What would it look like if schools began to employ the Agile methodology used by so many of today’s top software development companies? Here are twelve Agile principles we believe you can apply to public education to dramatically improve the performance and happiness of students, teachers, principals, and support staff.
Principle #1: Early and continuous change.
Educational institutions are notorious for pushing down massive changes with limited testing. Consider how many times provincial education curriculums have undergone epic rewrites that, not so coincidentally, align with political party shifts. School boards may change out an entire student information system or enterprise resource planning system affecting all teachers.
Agile proposes that changes be small, iterative, and measured for success before being released on a larger scale. In other words, rather than shifting an entire curriculum all at once, one would make changes to one small part – perhaps starting with a specific grade and subject. Working with teachers, principals, and school boards feedback is gathered about what worked and what didn’t. That feedback is used to correct course and move forward with greater confidence of future success.
Likewise, rather than changing out an entire software system which may impact thousands of teachers and support staff, Agile proposes working with a single pilot school. Then ten schools. Then a hundred. Each time collecting feedback and shifting positions to improve the likelihood of success.
Principle #2: Change is welcome at any time.
Regular retrospectives with key stakeholders, including students, parents, teachers, support staff, and folks at the ministry level are important. Feedback should be incorporated into all processes meaning change isn’t just checking a box, it’s an expected part of each process. It’s welcomed.
This requires teachers in the classroom, principals in the schools, senior leaders at school boards, and support staff at the ministries to actively seek out feedback and be willing to adapt.
Principle #3: Deliver frequently to your stakeholders.
Once you’ve collected feedback it’s important to do something with it. Collecting feedback isn’t about the optics of giving people a voice, it’s about really listening to peoples’ concerns and adjusting course. It’s ok to be wrong – that’s why it’s so important to collect regular feedback and welcome change. It shows your stakeholders that you’re listening, learning, growing, and moving in a better direction every day. This is far more important than the appearance of being right.
Principle #4: Bring your stakeholders closer.
Parents need to be closer to the classroom. Teachers need to be closer to administrative processes. And principals need to be more involved in central office decisions.
Here’s a thought: do you involve teachers in the hiring decision over their future principal? Do you involve principals in the hiring decision over their future associate superintendent? Nobody understands their kids better than parents. Nobody understands the classroom better than a teacher. And, nobody understands their schools better than a principal.
Principle #5: Design projects around motivated people.
If you’re about to introduce a new school initiative, seek out the individuals in your organisation who are motivated to be a part of that project. Find your “agents of change” and your “innovators” who are eager to disrupt the status quo.
Make sure people have what they need to succeed, support them in every way possible, and trust them to get the job done. These agents will become your advocates and validators minimising the resistance that often comes with change.
Principle #6: Efficient and effective communication.
One of the things developers do is called a stand-up. Each developer on the team has 30-60 seconds to communicate what they did yesterday, what they’re doing today, and any potential challenges they face. This is not a time to discuss those challenges but rather identify what they might be and who on the team could help overcome them.
This tends to be far more effective than lengthy meetings as you create surgical teams to solve problems instead of tying up an entire staff of resources.
Another way to apply this principle might be having a principal periodically join a random class. Get them in on the ground level so they can engage directly with the students and teachers. It’s good servant-leadership practice and it can help them relate better to classroom level challenges.
Principle #7: Student performance and growth is the primary measure of success.
It’s important to understand the measurement for success to determine if changes that are made have been positive or negative. This is your north star and will guide you in the decision making process.
The education system has no lack of quantifiable data to measure the success of students. F&P, MIPI, GB+, English as an additional language testing, provincial achievement tests, internationally there is the PISA scoring… students are constantly being benchmarked and evaluated. It’s worth mentioning that formative learning is often under-evaluated and under–appreciated and therefore a warning is necessary: if you follow the wrong north star you’ll end up in the wrong location. Refer to principal #1 about how to adjust your province or school board towards a more formative approach.
Principle #8: Processes should be sustainable.
Teachers, principals, and support staff should be able to maintain their current processes without workers feeling like they’re burned out or overworked. As new processes are introduced it is always important to factor in the resourcing required: when you say “yes” to one thing you are really saying “no” to something else. Have you considered the “something else”?
It’s always important to consider how much effort something takes to deliver successfully. Good ideas are abundant, time and resourcing is usually not.
A principal may decide it’s a great idea to start an intramural program. Or, introduce junior varsity teams. Knowing who’s going to supervise and coach is a big constraint. The average basketball coach puts in 250-300 additional hours committing to practices, exhibition games, and weekend tournaments which is time away from lesson planning, individual student planning, marking, and other essential tasks for teachers.
It’s all too easy to add without subtracting which creates unrealistic expectations for people followed by poor performance in many areas as opposed to great performance in a few.
Principle #9: Attention to excellence.
Famous researcher and author Jim Collins once said “good” is the enemy of “great.” Refactor the things that aren’t working and figure out how to expand the things that are working. The moment we are comfortable with the status quo we become complacent.
Creating a culture of excellence requires developing habits and creating interventions that are designed to jar us away from the status quo. Schools, school boards, and provincial ministries should figure out how to raise the bar every day.
Principle #10 - Simplicity, the art of maximising the amount of work not done, is essential.
Learn from the 80-20 rule. This is the principle that you can usually get 80% of your outcome with only 20% of the effort. Agile encourages thinking this way; doing the things that can have the most impact with the least amount of effort.
This requires having a razor sharp focus on your classroom, school, and school district objectives and making some seriously cutthroat decisions about what is essential. Don’t build, design, or change, simply for the sake of building, designing, or changing. Be strategic and adjust course with a clear focus on the outcomes you desire.
Principle #11 - The best decisions come from self-organising teams.
Traditionally, most organisations make decisions and evaluate success top-down. A principal defines a teacher's objective. Principals receive their objectives from the associate superintendents and superintendents. This process often makes it harder for people to identify with the goals and therefore they never become personally connected to them. Being truly responsible for a goal or objective requires that personal connection in order for people to do their best possible work.
Self-elected people take responsibility over their projects and have a feeling of ownership over those tasks. They feel they were a part of identifying the problem and they have a personal stake in solving it. If you want a team of extremely high performers let them self-organise around problems and be a chief player in defining the objectives.
Principle #12 - Retrospectives and fine tuning.
There’s no room for “we’ve always done it this way” in Agile. We’re always learning new things from students, parents, teachers, principals, and the rest of our community. We learn from books, blogs, and the rest of the education community. That learning should be continually applied in an iterative and measured way.
Experimentation should be encouraged in the classroom and school environments. Success should be rewarded. Failure shouldn’t shatter confidence but rather embolden people to try the next new thing with their newfound experience. It can be challenging for school boards because they’re so publicly accountable – and as a society, that’s on us. Sometimes we discourage public education and government institutions from trying new things for fear of being ostracised for failure. This results in these institutions getting “stuck” delivering the status quo. If you aren’t failing, you’re not trying anything new. And if you’re not trying anything new, you’re not getting better.
What do you think?
The education community has an incredibly unique culture: it’s friendly, inclusive, and immensely stable. Every day our developers, product people, and design folks get the opportunity to learn from educators across Canada. We hope this article inspires some ideas within you!
Do you leverage any of these techniques in your school or school board? Tell us about it below.