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Growing an Agile Mindset in the Classroom

With the recent eruption of technology and specifically AI challenging traditional means of assessment, the world of education needs a dramatic shift in mindset and focus. The jobs and industries that have held constant during our formative years are no longer guaranteed to be there. When industry shifts, higher ed must adapt and so must K-12 education. As educators, we need to best prepare our students for an increasingly complex world that heavily relies on technology. Instead of continuing down the same path, we must adapt and change our mindsets towards the skills that will transcend technology and allow our students to find success no matter what changes and shifts during their lives.

The shift we must focus on is the development of an agile mindset. This is distinctly different from a growth or fixed mindset which has dominated our lexicon for the past few years.

A fixed mindset values expertise but discourages risk in learning or development. A growth mindset opens up the possibilities of change, helping us acknowledge that character, skills, and knowledge can shift over time. The agile mindset goes beyond the growth mindset because it acknowledges that change can happen and openly searches for the changes that can be made to improve the process and outcomes.

Our current technology can pull facts, put together sentences, and sort data, which means we need to purposefully teach students how to reframe situations, and approach issues from different perspectives. An agile mindset values collaboration, innovation, and problem-solving. It is flexibility in our thinking and processes by working collaboratively, trying new ideas, and constantly reflecting on learning. Instead of just acknowledging that situations can change, it opens the mind to possibilities, divergent ways of thinking, and multiple paths to goals.

It helps students become more resilient, adaptable, and flexible in their cognitive paths. An agile mindset promotes learning through taking risks in assumptions, experimenting, and reflecting on the positive and negative results. These are the skills that our students must learn and become fluent in as they will need them to navigate AI, which is currently incapable of participating in these kinds of functions.

An agile mindset cannot be cultivated in a vacuum. It must be practiced during lessons and when there are opportunities for collaboration. It is not enough to tell students that it is essential for them to problem-solve in different ways. It is not an advisory class or an assembly with a new PowerPoint. An agile mindset is a collection of skills that must be scaffolded, modeled, and practiced. It requires students to manipulate knowledge on their own, make predictions, explore possibilities, and reflect on what was learned. An agile mindset helps students see that the wrong answer isn’t the final stop, but an opportunity along the journey of learning.

For future-focused teachers ready to stretch beyond a growth mindset and challenge students to think beyond the first result from google, or the being focused on THE answer these exercises incorporated into class can help students learn content, have opportunities for hands-on learning, and develop an agile mindset that will benefit them throughout their lives.

Wide Open Questions

Wide Open Questions are based on real-world ways to apply knowledge. Unlike Essential questions that usually have one answer, or are directly tied to content, Wide-Open Questions allow students to build connections between the new content being taught and their schema and interests. For example, a Wide Open Question may ask students studying earth science to explore the ways our gadgets can be recycled, or how to improve the health of our oceans. In a social studies course, students may be asked if one government can meet the needs of a diverse population or what principles of government lead to a thriving society. These questions are real and complex. They will require students to find ways to apply the information they are learning in class to the issue while encouraging them to think outside of the box for new information.

Wide Open Questions offer no easy solutions. They are complex in nature, which pushes students to have to grapple with possible solutions. Students must learn new knowledge from the unit, explore connections of the WOQ, propose possible solutions, and prove why their solution can answer the question. This process involves problem-solving, collaboration, broad analytical and creative thinking, and reflection.

The complexity of Wide Open Questions means there are no easy solutions and students must grapple with impediments that arise through their research and testing. The Wide-Open Question helps develop an agile mindset by ensuring the students explore multiple possibilities and pivot as they learn new information. It deepens learning by not just applying new knowledge to the problem, but integrating it with background knowledge, and outside interests, and applying it all to a real-world problem. Through this pursuit, students discover that they need to learn from mistakes, reflect on their assumptions, and persevere when working with complex issues.

Wide Open Questions work well in the classroom because they are not “Googleable” and require deep thought, analysis, and critical thinking. They are the kinds of questions our students will be working to solve as they become adults. Technology will aid in the gathering of information, sorting of data, and building projections, but creative problem-solving must come from our students, which is why it is essential they have the opportunity to practice in the classroom.

Challenge Day

During larger units or projects, there is always a risk that the classroom can get monotonous. When there is a good deal of content that must be taught, it is easy to slip into a rut where an agile mindset is challenging to develop. When the class feels too repetitive, it is time for a Challenge Day!

Instead of a normal day in class, student teams are thrown into learning Challenges that reinforce content, provide hands-on learning, and opportunities to grow their agile mindset. The Challenges are always completed in teams, and usually encompass cross-disciplinary skills that are being taught in other classes. This helps build an agile mindset because students use English skills in their math class or science skills in their history class. It breaks down the “rules” of how learning should look in different classes and softens the guardrails on the subject silos.

A Challenge Day may be several tasks that the team must complete by the end of the class period. This keeps students on their feet, excited, and applying the content knowledge in new and novel ways.

Examples of Challenges may be:

  • Participate in a game of charades using vocabulary words.

  • Write a Haiku to express how to multiply fractions.

  • Write a Greek Myth that explores the powers of Congress. Must include correct literary elements from English class.

  • Nominate a fictional character to the role of the Presidential cabinet. Why should the Senate approve them?

  • Create a rap battle between characters in a book expressing their conflict and presenting their sides.

Challenge Days break up the flow of the class, give students time to be a little silly, and help them safely build connections outside of their normal classroom tasks. They can see how different content areas work together, and how to build strong relationships between seemingly unrelated topics. The ability to link unlike ideas, and find connections between different areas of expertise are the sparks of innovation. Challenge Days practice and celebrate difficult skills that students must learn when basic recall can be automated. The celebration of making this a special day gives positive reinforcement to be creative and willing to try new ideas.

Encourage Questions

An Agile Mindset is about being adaptable enough to adjust to new information to find better ways of learning and working. To truly encompass an agile mindset is it essential to ask great questions. Unfortunately, as students get older the amount of deeply inquisitive questions they ask declines. When they are toddlers everything is a question, but by 8th grade, they only ask to go to the bathroom.

We must put real intention and focus on the value of questions in our classroom. Questions should be celebrated, encouraged, and reinforced. The art of asking questions should be taught in the classroom in the first few days of class. Teaching students the difference between open and closed questions and how to use them should be taught and reinforced throughout the school year.

Questions can be used to kick off a unit as a way of exploring what students may already know about a topic, as a research tool while discovering new information, or as an exit ticket to help teachers guide learning the next day.

One way to encourage questions is by building a question wall. Students can write their questions on a post-it and stick it to the question wall. Over the course of a week they can see how many questions can be written, and then go through the wall as a closing activity on Friday. Students can try to answer as many of the questions as possible to reflect on the work of the week. The visual aspect of this helps build momentum because students will be drawn to add their idea to a colorful and inviting wall. They will also be able to see that they are not the only ones with questions. If it fits the class the questions can also be anonymous which will help shy students express themselves better.

Encouraging questions, even silly, quirky, or off-topic questions, help develop an agile mindset by asking students to think about what they are learning. When questions are encouraged, students are not just taught to accept them as truth and move on. They are tasked with engaging with ideas, processing their thoughts, and evaluating if they stand up to scrutiny. It helps students build stronger connections, think critically about topics, and spark intrinsic learning on a variety of topics. Placing value on questions in the classrooms builds a practice of inquiry that students will carry throughout their lives. This practice benefits them as they must navigate through more and more readily available information, a fast new cycle, and other advances in technology. Questions help sort through the extra layers and delve deep into what matters in complex scenarios. This small practice builds an agile practice that students can use in every area of their lives.

An agile mindset is developed through practice. It expands beyond the idea that change is possible, to actively explore new ways to build connections and apply new knowledge. An agile mindset is absolutely necessary for our students to develop during their formative years to best prepare them for a world of increasingly advanced technology and complexity. It is our duty as passionate educators to scaffold, model, and help them develop the AI-Proof skills that they will benefit from for the rest of their lives.


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