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Kanban for Teachers

Agile classrooms function through the use of kanban boards. These boards are typically separated into four columns; “Backlog”, “To Do”, “Doing” and “Done”. These boards were created to make work visible and efficient in the workplace. Kanban boards can benefit all levels of a school but are particularly helpful for the classroom teacher who is always fighting against the clock and needs effective ways to check in with students and manage their own work flow.

Open Communication with Students

The main function of a Kanban board is to open lines of communication and transparency between working teams. Here we will discuss to major ways that Kanban boards will help teachers more efficiently communicate with students to free up time in the classroom.

Definition of Done

When setting up a kanban board with student groups on of the first steps is for each group to define their “definition of done”. This means each group must brainstorm, and communicate what a finished product looks like before it is handed to the teacher. The teams codify this mutual agreement by writing this definition on their board for all to see throughout the project.

By taking time before the work start to define what “done” looks like each group is setting the norms of work for the entire project. Students must take time to consider that group work reflects on all of them and that each person is responsible for the entire group.

Having this conversation at the beginning of the project helps students vent their frustrations or negative feeling about group work. Inevitably, some students always feel like they “carry” others, while other students recognize that they can blend into the background. The definition of done ensures that all students talk through their feelings, express themselves, and set the tone of what work looks like before it is turned into the teacher.

For the teacher this is practice is hugely beneficial. Instead of students coming to speak to the teacher about fellow group members, the conversations need to be within the group. The “sting” of peer review is also removed because students can simply ask each other “Does this work meet the Definition of Done?”. The position of the teacher shifts from being the decision maker, or judge of who did what work and where the miscommunication happened to the faciliator of the teams communication strategy. The definition of done holds them accountable to the group to make sure all group member feel comfortable with work before it is turned in for a grade.

Pull Work Forward

When students first set up their kanban board they will break their project into increments or small tasks that can be completed. This is called building their backlog. Building the backlog helps students visually understand how much work must be completed and get a better idea of how to manage their time. In order to pull a task out of the backlog and place it in “To do” the group must communicate with each other and decide what tasks will be completed each week.

The physical act of pulling tasks from the Backlog to “To Do” and then “Doing” means that all members of the group are aware that certain tasks are being worked on. Even if a student is absent, they can come in the next day and see on the board what work was begun, or completed when they were absent. It is a highly efficient way for groups to communicate and work can be transparent.

Teachers benefit from the visual aspect of the Kanban Board, because they too can in mere seconds see how much work is being done, how fast or slow it is moving, and if there appear to be groups that are stuck. The teacher can easily assess which groups may need special attention, a motivational talk, or clarification on the project. It also helps alleviate the internal struggle of a team that often ends at the teachers desk. Students can no longer claim that they did not know something was due, or that others were working on certain tasks, because all work is visual, and teams must communicate when puling a card. This takes the takes of being the intermediary off of the teachers plate and helps students learn how to resolve conflict themselves.

Alleviate the Teacher’s Cognitive Load

Kanban boards are also incredible tools for busy teachers that often feel like they can never get to the bottom of their To Do list. Teachers have more on their plates than ever, and it often feels like we are not making progress as new tasks are constantly piling up.

The kanban board helps teachers visually see what work is happening and helps them focus on one task at a time. Any work that must be done can be added to the backlog, and then pulled across the board as it gets done. This works for basic tasks that we complete each week, but also for lesson planning. It helps us organize our thoughts, break a large task into smaller increments, and mange our time for effectively. The heavy cognitive load that all teachers carry can be significantly alleviated by putting tasks on a kanban board, allowing teachers to use their precious short-term memory for more than shuffling the daily” To do” items around.

The Kanban board is also highly effective for lesson planning large units and keeping track of learning outcomes and standards. By color coding assignments, assessments or opportunities for hands-on learning we can better assess the effectiveness of our unit plan before we implement it. There are even specialized Kanban boards built to help teachers lesson plan in ways that encourage more opportunities for student-directed learning and agile classrooms.

The secondary benefit to teachers using a kanban is the quiet modeling of what organized thinking and time management look like for students. Most of our students are developing their executive functioning skills which help them stay organized, on task and plan for the future. When they can observe adults using tools to organize their lives it benefits them in a way that direct lessons may not. They observe that this is valuable to a person that they look up to and see that learning how to use the Kanban board benefits them outside of the classroom as well.


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