What Makes a Classroom Agile?
Throughout the summer I have answered this question from educators all over the world. While I do not have a definitive answer there are some qualities that distinguish an agile classroom from a traditional classroom.
In an agile classroom students are the drivers of their own education. This does not mean that the classroom is free for all where there are no standards or organized curriculum. It is quite the opposite.
For a moment think about where agile originates. It was developed to lean out systems of software development. When working in the technology industry there are defined deadlines, objectives and functions. No one hires software developers and tells them to develop anything they’d like. Agile was created for businesses to be more efficient and flexible.
The same is true for a classroom well. There is a scope and sequence that must be adhered to. There are standards to uphold and a curriculum that must be met. When students are given agency they still have constraints, just like a real job. In an agile classroom, the students have the choice within those constraints.
In an agile classroom, this looks like the teacher setting an essential question. The question helps set the learning goals of the unit. Students understand what questions must be answered by the given deadline. There is also content that must be taught. For me, that means students must analyze primary documents, evaluate historical events, and understand the causes and effects of these events. Students must understand these skills and content. It is a non-negotiable of the class.
The choice comes from students applying that knowledge. For my students, that means that I will teach mini-lessons modeling important skills, and scaffold activities for learning history. Instead of treating my classroom as a stage where I dispense information, I make these lessons as autonomous as possible. Videos are created to teach new skills, this way kids can watch them over and over, stopping when necessary for maximum understanding. Activities are self-paced and scaffolded to apply content to show mastery of knowledge. This way student teams can decide what gets done when and where. There are MUST lessons and activities that are turned in for a grade, but they have a choice in when they are doing them and how they are applying that knowledge to answer the essential question.
Teacher As a Guide
As students gain choice and agency in their learning the role of the teacher has to shift as well. Many times when I introduce agile to new teachers they are weary about adding a new “thing” to their already exhaustive list of tasks to complete.
Agile is different. Instead of the teacher leading the learning, dosing it out as necessary to a classroom full of students, the teacher transforms into a guide. They step back from the front of the room to the back, delegating the work to the students and simply becoming a guide that helps students troubleshoot.
Students are now expected to plan their units, pace their learning, and problem-solve the solutions. A teacher is not capable of doing all that for a classroom full of students. Now teachers get to do what they really love- working with students.
There is no more large group instruction since each team is working at its own pace. There is no group problem-solving because every team is employing a different strategy.
The teacher is finally free to work in small groups or with individuals. Learning is personalized. Differentiation is easy.
The advanced students can take off immediately knowing exactly what needs to be done. As the teacher moves through the room they can prompt these students with personalized questions to push them further and continuously challenge students. Students that struggle have the opportunity to ask clarifying questions and have the teacher's undivided attention. Teachers get the time to build strong relationships with all of their students and have the opportunity for touchpoints to assess mastery and understanding that otherwise would never be possible.
Our students grow up in a knowledge-rich environment. They can google any question, easily access ancient philosophers, or tweet political figures. They are connected, able to reach depths of knowledge never considered possible by our ancestors. The real value in education is no longer “recall”. It is not how many facts you can recall or the breadth of your memory.
Education is now how to apply all of the knowledge that you can access. The ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated topics, creativity, problem-solving, and the ability to make decisions and prioritize information. This is only achieved through active learning.
Students need time to learn these skills, develop them and become comfortable practicing them in their lives. There is a difference between being told something is important and learning it for yourself. The same goes for the transference of skills. Students must have the room to be creative, practice collaboration, and have real problems to solve with critical thinking. An agile classroom is designed to give students these opportunities.
An agile classroom sets up the students with the necessary knowledge and a goal. Skills can be modeled, and scaffolded, but most importantly they are free to practice, reflect, learn and try again. This is character-building. It is the foundational development of social-emotional learning and executive functioning skills.
An agile classroom addresses the needs of the students. It begins with a standard traditional curriculum and advances it to meet the needs of today’s evolving world. Students are still able to learn classic literature, world history, and physics. The difference is they have a choice. The teachers are free to truly teach and the classroom transforms from a passive environment to a room buzzing with active learning.
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