Agile learning - an alternative learning model

Since the 1990's Agile software development has been evolving as an alternative method of project management for motivating and empowering teams of developers to develop and release great software for customers. But are "agile methodologies" applicable to learning and education? Could they help us learn? The more I learn about and try out agile software development, the more I reckon that the answer is "yes".

Agile methods came about because most software development projects were being managed in a similar way that you would manage a 3-lane bridge construction project - with slow, bureaucratic and, at times, demeaning processes that assume the project manager can:

  • plan the whole sequence of steps from start to finish in advance, including determining the specific work that each team member will do,
  • assume that there will be very minimal changes in project requirements once implementation begins,
  • know each team member's needs and abilities in advance and
  • direct the whole show from the top down.

During the 1990s people were realising that this traditional "waterfall model" was not necessarily the best model for delivering great software - and perhaps now we are also realising that it isn't necessarily the best model for delivering great educational programs. If you're building a 3-lane bridge your client cannot come to you and say, "uh, sorry, I think I now want a 4-lane bridge rather than a 3-lane bridge", nor can you allow your workers to self-manage the tasks that need to get done. Everything needs to be set down in stone before the construction begins. But that's not the case in software development - often clients don't know exactly what they want until they start using the software that you're creating. Similarly, often members in a software development team are much more productive if they self-organise to get things done (rather than being told what they have to do next). And I reckon that an educational course has more in common with a software development project than it does with building a bridge.

Of course, there's been loads of iterative development methods that have been around for a while (prototyping and feedback loops as part of the development process), and any teacher worth their salt adapts their lessons and activities to the needs of learners. So why am I so excited about applying Agile development practises in education? For the first time there seems to be a well-documented successful alternative to the traditional approach that seems very applicable to many (but not all) educational contexts. I believe that agile learning can provide an alternative self-empowering-yet-co-dependent, flexible-yet-well-planned model for learning in a face-to-face social group environment.

Example 1: The daily stand-up meeting (or daily Scrum)

To give a taste of how agile principles might be applied in a self-paced-yet-social educational environment, let's take a look at the daily stand-up meeting (or Scrum meeting). The daily stand-up meeting is a pattern that seems to be part of most agile methodologies - a short daily meeting focusing on:

  • What have I achieved (learned?) since yesterday?
  • What am I working on today?
  • What obstacles are in-front of me?

But it's definitely not a status update for superiors (for project managers or teachers). The theme of the daily stand-up is self-organisation - helping members and stakeholders understand each others' issues and accomplishments so that they can organise to help each other get things done. According to Jason Yip (a Sydney developer working for Thoughtworks) in his article It's not just standing up: patterns of daily stand-up meetings:

This is not just because self-organisation leads to better productivity but also, and perhaps more so, because it leads to a more humane, respectful, and mature work environment.

The purpose of the daily standup is:

  • share commitment
  • communicate daily status, progress, and plans to the team and any observers
  • identify obstacles so that the team can take steps to remove them
  • set direction and focus for the day
  • build a team

There's an incredible crossover here with educational goals in the classroom context as well as numerous issues. Reconciling the task-based focus of software development (where the whole team is working off a backlog of to-do items) with the less-tangible, varied focus of the learning environment may be difficult. Another difficulty will be the commitment factor - people are more likely to miss a day of learning than a day at work (although this is also dependent on how stimulating that day is!)

Over the next while, I hope to get some time to look at other aspects of agile software development, examining how they might be applied in an educational context. Next up: iterations (or sprints - short-term milestones with mini-deliverables).

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