Setting an Agile School Rhythm

When I moved out of the classroom a few years ago, one of the things I missed immediately was the imposed rhythm of the school year. There’s something inherently useful about knowing everyone’s on the same page. Staff and students alike know what’s coming next, with peaks and troughs of activity evident through a glance at the calendar.

Over recent years there have been moves which, for better or worse, could alter this imposed rhythm. An increased focus on personalisation, more opportunities for blended/flipped learning, and concerns about student regression after the long summer break, mean that learners are taking varied pathways. These different pathways may mean a more agile approach to planning is required.

In this post, I want to outline some ways of working that will benefit educators looking for different ways to approach planning, for those looking to co-create curricula with learners, and for those who work collaboratively in teams.

Kanban

kanban

For our purposes, Kanban is a very straightforward system. At it’s simplest, it’s three lists (To do / Doing / Done) with a list of cards. On these cards are the things that need doing. This system is extremely flexible and can be implemented offline using Post-it notes and a whiteboard. I prefer using online tools like Trello.

The advantage of using an online Kanban board is that cards can include checklists, due dates, labels, and be assigned to someone. Everyone gets updated when something is changed in the “stream” within the app, or by email.

Kanban doesn’t presuppose any particular kind of approach. Whatever planning system you bring to it can be accommodated. You might want to add a couple of lists, as I do, such as “Stalled” (to the right) or ”Ideas” (to the left).

Another advantage of this system is that it means less meetings. When everyone’s got the information needed and it’s easy to find out what everyone else is working on, this dramatically reduces the number of meetings required to move projects forward.

You can use a Kanban approach for almost anything, including:

  • Creating a new programme of study or scheme of work

  • Tracking the progress of individual students

  • Working toward a fundraising goal with parents

Whether it’s designing a new school building or coaxing a piece of coursework out of a student, when there’s a place to go to find the status of a project everything works more smoothly.

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Agile

A whole host of approaches to project management have been created over the past few decades, especially around software development. Many of these are collected under the heading “agile”:

“Agile software development is a group of software development methods in which requirements and solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organizing, cross-functional teams. It promotes adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery, continuous improvement, and encourages rapid and flexible response to change.” (Wikipedia)

The terminology used in agile development sounds a bit odd, even in a business context. There’s talk of “scrums” in which teams “sprint” toward a deadline. Daily “stand-ups” allow everyone to keep up-to-date and focused on solutions.

Closer to home, imagine using this with students taking ownership for their revision, or working with the IT department to roll out 1:1 laptops/tablets. It could even be used for occasions where the curriculum is collapsed for interdisciplinary projects of discovery.

Recently, I’ve been advising people to take bits and pieces from these approaches and use them in ways that make sense for their context. For projects I’ve been involved with over the last few months this has meant more of a “Scrum ban” approach:

“Scrum ban is… a mix of Scrum and Kanban project management with aspects of both methodologies put together. Scrum ban is meant for an unpredictable work environment, where plans and requirements change often.”

With Kanban and agile, the big picture can get lost. Scrum ban is a useful antidote to that with its flow between “buckets”:

Continuing the example of using Trello from earlier, you can link together strategic vision boards with quarterly goals and then through to projects that last a few weeks. These can be made public, available to everyone in your organisation, or private to the people you invite — just like a Google Doc or YouTube video.

I can envisage educational institutions using a Scrum ban approach to turn a lofty vision into practical reality. A three-year planning board could include everything that appears upon one that covers a single academic year. The difference would be that, as the time chunks get smaller, the level of detail increases.

It could also be useful for working with students. The ‘production board’ would be their focus right now, but the larger buckets would allow them to stay “out of the weeds” and focused on a longer horizon.

Conclusion

Project management and product development use language that can be off-putting. This is particularly true if it feels “businesslike” rather than specifically focused on education. What I’ve tried to show in this post is that we should widen our toolbox of approaches we have in education for planning. There are times when a very fixed, linear, “waterfall” method is required. For other times, when we’re working alongside colleagues and students, perhaps more agile approaches could work. Why not give it a try?

Bonus content:

Image credits: banner and bucket illustration by Bryan Mathers, Kanban illustration by Jeff.lasovski