Getting Agile in the Classroom

This past week I had the pleasure of traveling out to Oregon wine country to visit Dayton High School. While Dayton may be a small rural town, big changes were taking place in the classroom. The school is experimenting with a new type of learning model, dubbed Agile Learning, to spark a culture of creative problem solving and collaboration throughout its halls.

Agile Learning finds its roots in the agile project management strategy popular in the world of software development. So what is this agile methodology? In the development world, the agile method arose as an alternative to the sequential, assembly line-like product development strategy that had been commonplace in the industry. Instead of completing a project in sequential phases, the agile method takes a more iterative approach--encouraging development teams to constantly “inspect and adapt” as they move through various iterations of their development cycle, called “sprints”. The format of a sprint is simple: the team is posed with a problem, they develop goals and strategies to address the problem, and then embark on cycles of design and testing. Teams stop work daily to assess their progress and adapt on the fly. A key component of sprints is a concluding “retrospective”, where the team learns from their process and can reassess their goals before a new cycle begins. Sprints, as the name implies, are short, a few weeks at most. An entire development project might be accomplished after one sprint, but often a development team will take multiple sprints before producing a finished product. The agile method emphasizes constant team collaboration, through daily self-inspection and process adaptation.

The faculty at Dayton High School, and other schools in the state involved in the Innovate Oregon initiative, are practicing implementing agile methodologies into their pedagogy. Teachers are adapting the agile sprint into short cycles of intensive, student-driven problem solving projects. Leading up to a sprint, teachers prepare students with the requisite background knowledge and skills to tackle a project in a particular topic area. From there, the teacher takes a hands-off approach as the students are charged with posing their own real world problems and working together to seek solutions. Student groups must engage in dialogue to devise a plan of attack, discuss how they will apply previous learning, and strategize what resources they still need to seek out to fill in the missing gaps. The teacher’s role is to observe, ask questions, and give minimal guidance and redirection when needed. Students must hold each other accountable through the same “inspect and adapt” check-ins that are so popular in the product development sprint. Being held accountable by your peers and a fast approaching project deadline can serve as powerful motivators for students, forcing them to take ownership and accelerate their learning process.

Now this all sounds well and good, but what does this agile method actually look like in the classroom with real students? Will a group of energetic high school students be able to focus their energy into a three-week sprint of intensive learning and collaboration? Will they be able to develop their own problems? Set team goals? Assess their progress against those goals? Will they be able to persevere through impending struggle and hiccups with minimal teacher intervention? And now the big question, will the agile learning model still prepare students with the knowledge and skills necessary to be successful high school graduates? Or are they missing something that might be better learnt through more traditional models of teaching?

Well, we had those same questions, and many more! So that’s why I packed my bags and traveled to Dayton High School, on behalf of ODI, to see the Agile Learning approach be put to the test in a 9th grade Integrated Sciences class. Hold on to those burning questions (and maybe post a few in the comments section), we’ll cycle back to those in a later blog where I will share what I learned in Dayton!

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