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Having more energy left at the end of the day: Bringing Agility into our classrooms

There is an energy crisis happening in education now. The crisis is impacting millions of young learners each day in schools across the country and much of the world. The crisis sees empty classrooms across the US and it sees thousands of highly skilled educators seeking refuge outside the profession.

Unlike other energy crises, this one is not reliant on anything other than how we teachers walk into a classroom and structure our classroom time. This energy crisis isn’t expensive to fix, nor does it take a long time to address. It does take a shift in practice and perspective, one that is decades overdue.

Teachers whose energy is being drained by the chaos of recent years are finding deep wells of energy and student engagement when they begin to pull new ways of learning that are profoundly student-centered and fundamentally adaptive, in the sorts of ways all parents want their kids to be adaptive.

A teacher's role is vital to the success of happy and healthy students, but in recent times we have witnessed teachers expressing that the amount of work that they are asked to complete by their supervisors is beyond what they can handle. Teachers fleeing the field of education is not a new phenomenon, but one that has exploded in the past few years. Teachers feel that there is not enough time in the day to complete all of the work that has landed on their shoulders, often arriving before the first bell and staying far after the last buses have pulled away.

This overwhelming feeling of work causes the kinds of burnout that is prevalent in education. The traditional systems of learning, built around antiquated ideas from the late 19th century by manufacturing consultants like Frederick Taylor, have set the culture and mindset of PUSH. In a push system almost all of the responsibility lies squarely on the teachers. They have to read the learning standards, interpret them for their students, create and modify content, plan the pacing of content for 30 different minds, find ways to deliver content to all students at the same time and finally assess the content. This is all before they deal with classroom management, meetings, differentiation, paper work, guidance, advisory and administration. The roots of this system and the problems wrapped around those roots are described in detail by Todd Rose’ excellent book, The End of Average.

The culture of PUSH centers around the teacher and their ability to hold everyone's attention, provide all of the content and find the right pacing for every child in the room. When working with elementary students this means the teacher works with the same group all day, constantly moving through different content areas, always moving, assessing and pivoting. For middle and high school teachers this means using the “sage on the stage” model where they prepare the visuals, activities, and deliver the content several times a day to over 120 students.

Push based education models are based on an adult centric culture. Historically, this model worked well in education because the teachers specialized in content areas, and helped their students memorize and learn the information that they would need to carry with them throughout their lives. Outside of a school students and adults could read to access new information, but new knowledge was hard to access and work was based in the production of mass produced goods. A teacher's job was, like a foreman in a factory, to push as much information as they could into their students, the ‘workers’, before they left the classroom because knowledge was scarce and time in school was limited.

With the existential crisis of teacher shortages looming in every state, thought leaders and policy makers in education need to re-evaluate the culture and models that are being implemented in classrooms around the country. Instead of relying on traditional PUSH based systems, we must listen to what the stakeholders in education need.

What are the needs of our current teachers and students?

The most efficient, effective and empathic way to move forward in all educational spaces is to transition our mental models and our instructional models from PUSH based to PULL based. This means removing the responsibility of all learning from the teacher and placing it on the main stakeholder, the student. In Agile PULL based systems teachers are respected with the autonomy to create their own units that reflect the standards they work with. They begin with developing Wide-Open Questions which captures students attention through the use of compelling and complex issues tied to real life situations. Teachers then create a backlog, or list of assignments, resources, and opportunities for hands-on learning that students can PULL from. This means that teachers can mandate the use of content and skills, but students have real choice and autonomy in their daily learning. Finally, teachers work as learning guides instead of “sage on the stage” style leaders. In Agile PULL based classrooms students must use the knowledge they learned from completing the teacher’s learning backlog to find a solution to the Wide-Open Question. The students are responsible for building connections, researching and finding new information, and working together to solve complex real life problems while the teacher is free to move between small groups asking questions and having the opportunity to personalize the learning experience. This solves two critical issues education is facing.

  1. Teacher burnout due to overwork and lack of autonomy.

  2. Student apathy due to lack of purpose and the passive role in PUSH based classrooms.

An Agile PULL based classroom is different from a PUSH based traditional classroom in several critically important and consequential ways. In PUSH based classrooms students are often seated in desks, facing forward with the teacher in leading a lesson from the front of the room. The conversation is often in one direction with the teacher responsible for over 80% of the speaking, while students sit quietly, taking notes. We can visualize this by thinking of the teacher pushing content like water flowing from a hose into a bucket. The hose is doing all of the work, while the bucket sits retaining whatever water does not splash out the sides, but is not active in helping collect more water.

PUSH based classrooms are hard for teachers to manage. In modern classrooms teachers often work with at least 30 students at a time, all with different needs, levels of maturity, interests and hobbies. For the teacher this turns a simple lecture into a performance. They must keep the attention of 30 different brains that all function in different ways, while continuously pouring new knowledge out. It is a full out exercise of stamina and showmanship, if the teacher is able and willing to put out that much energy every day for months on end. Teachers not only need to know their content, but put on a show that keeps students engaged, otherwise behavioral problems arise from all sides of the room. At the end of the day teachers are exhausted from repeating the same lesson 5 times, performing, pivoting, and in their free time planning and assessing.

In Agile PULL based classrooms there is an entirely different type of energy. Students are arranged in self-selected groups, where the diversity of learning styles and interests is highlighted and celebrated. Student teams are largely independent, all working to solve the same Wide-Open Question, but provided the autonomy to navigate their own learning path. Students sit where they can work, focused on each other instead of where the teacher is in the room. The teams are talking, sharing, and brainstorming. Often an Agile PULL based room is buzzing with hive-like energy. Students are talking to each other, sharing ideas and testing predictions. Work is being PULLed from the teacher-created backlog by each team at their own pace. The responsibility of learning has shifted to the students, they are now active in their learning, having to engage with each new piece of knowledge and find ways to apply it. Through trial, failure and reflection they are held responsible for their own outcomes.

The role of the teacher is transformed as well. They are no longer responsible for putting on a three ring circus, forcing content delivery and desperately trying to reach all children at the same time. Teaching becomes fun again. The passion returns. Teachers have put in the work creating the unit, crafting the right Wide-Open Question, curating sources of information that opportunities for hands-on application. When the students begin working, teachers get to do the part of the job they truly enjoy; building authentic relationships with each student, have genuine conversations and helping kids push and grow their curiosity.

Teachers shift from the role of PUSHER of content to a facilitator of learning. In Agile PULL based classrooms teachers are free to meet with each student group, discuss what they are learning and prompt them with questions that will challenge their understanding of content. Students that are struggling will get one to one time with a learning professional, while those that need a challenge get the personalized attention. Instead of running through a script of lecture accompanied with slides, teachers get to engage with students, helping students learn how to communicate with each other, scaffolding learning experiences unique to each group and truly getting to know each student. At the end of the day instead of dragging themselves home with an empty battery, Agile PULL based teachers are recharged and energized. This is a result of the fundamental rebalancing of responsibility in the classroom. Teachers are treated like the professionals they are, given the autonomy and creativity to work with students, while truly participating with their learning journeys.

The people most vulnerable to our current energy crisis in education are those least able to defend or insulate themselves from it: our students. Luckily human ingenuity and imagination are more than sufficient to change this situation and address this crisis. It’s time for folks in education who want to improve how it works for all involved to consider a change in direction: less push, more pull.


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