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Scrum for Education - Experiences from eduScrum and Blueprint Education

Posted by Ben Linders on Aug 21, 2013 |

Schools are using Scrum to help teams of students to learn more effectively and develop themselves in an enjoyable way. The self-organized student teams work in sprints to learn subjects and evolve the learning process. Results from the agile way of working are improved quality of education, higher grades and motivated students. The student teams and teachers used retrospectives to evaluate the learning processes, and improve the way that Scrum can be used for teaching.

Scrum is used by students as an engaging and self-organizing way to work collaboratively and dynamically at Blueprint High School, based in Chandler Arizona. This High School is operated by Blueprint Education, a nonprofit organization that specializes in academic options for nontraditional students. John Miller from Agile Schools has helped Blueprint High School to deploy Scrum as part of their vision to prepare students for the 21st century skilled workforce.

The Ashram College in Alphen aan de Rijn, The Netherlands uses eduScrum, an educational version of Scrum for usage in Secondary education/High school and Secondary Professional training. With eduScrum, students work together in an energetic, targeted and effective way. The eduScrum team consists of 3 Scrum Masters who work independently together to support and continuously improve eduScrum.

InfoQ did interviews with Marmy Kodras from Blueprint Education and John Miller from Agile Schools on how they are using Scrum at Blueprint High School, and with Jan van Rossum from eduScrum and the Ashram College on teaching with Scrum.

InfoQ: What made you decide to use Scrum for educational purposes? In your eyes, what is it that makes Scrum useful for it?

Blueprint: Blueprint Education was introduced to the concept of Agile about three years ago through one of our then Board Members, Kevin Donaldson. We slowly began to integrate agile and Scrum into our planning and activities as a leadership group which then began to trickle down to more staff. As we were introduced to more agile related opportunities, especially with John Miller, who at the time was employed with a school district, we realized that this could be a great opportunity to spread the concept directly into the classroom and with students rather than keep the concept at the organizational level since our first-hand experience at John’s school was seeing the implementation at the elementary school level. We have an alternative education program which houses 3rd – 8th grade students, and we also operate two charter high schools as well as accredited online schools.

eduScrum: In Dutch secondary education there are often problems with groups of students working together on an educational task or project. Not every member of a group works as hard as other members. So learning in a group is not only well organized, but also an individual process. It should be different and therefore we use eduScrum. In companies Scrum helps developers to work together in a productive and enjoyable way. eduScrum is Scrum adopted for usage in educational.

Blueprint: Agile and Scrum create the environment for students to experience what it’s like to truly collaborate, work together, be accountable, use their creativity, solve problems, think outside the box, self-organize, develop higher level thinking which will give them an advantage over someone else who hasn’t been given the same opportunity. It makes the classroom experience more engaging, enriching, and trusting as well as for character development, and evokes a greater depth of knowledge with the enhanced rigor that the new Common Core standards for education (USA) require. Scrum, with its empirical foundations of inspect, adapt, and transparency, is a learning framework at its core, developed to meet the real challenges of the Conceptual Age in which we live.

eduScrum: With eduScrum students work together in an energetic, targeted and effective way. They are stimulated to develop themselves into a valuable member of a team. eduScrum creates a mind-set that aims for constant improvement. Learning is the key element: smarter learning, learning to cooperate better, learning to get to know them better. Because of that eduScrum owns an extra ceremony: creating teams on the basis of additional qualities. This creates a powerful group where everyone is doing the things on basis of his or her qualities. Students without those qualities are learning from it. It gives working in a group a special, energetic way of learning.

eduScrum: Extra instruments have also been developed, for instance for retrospectives. We, teachers, have to teach students how to do retrospectives and therefore we developed special instruments to work on during these retrospectives. These instruments challenge and appeal to young people. Using them eduScrum adds a powerful pedagogic layer to Scrum. The benefits of eduScrum are similar to those of Scrum. This way of working generates pleasure, power and responsibility, the work is faster and the results are better. In addition, students pass through a positive personal development. The secret of eduScrum is 'Ownership'.

Blueprint: Another reason why Agile and Scrum were favorably adapted in our organization stemmed from the fact that our focus for students began to change. Our aim was still to have them obtain high school diplomas but we knew that in the 21st century, the diploma was not the end all for students. We adjusted our goal to also be responsible for preparing them into the 21st century which meant skill sets beyond reading, writing, and math. Not only would students need to have a high school diploma but they also needed to be equipped with today’s skills such as creativity, collaboration, communications, diversity, accountability, critical thinking, and teamwork. Skills that we realized were very apparent in Agile and Scrum.

InfoQ: How are you using Scrum in teaching, which practices? Can you give some examples?

Blueprint: Right now, we’ve taken the first step in exposing our high school students to the concepts of Agile and Scrum through John Miller. At one of our charter high schools, John has been gracious in volunteering his time to help the Student Council group in planning and executing a few activities on campus. He’s introduced them to the concept through a scrum board and from the beginning has facilitated from them how to develop the “what” that they have been discussing and leading them through exercises to then create the “how”. This is really a pilot project that is still in the early stages. The teachers have been very amenable to the process and we’ve held a training day for staff and others as well to introduce the concepts and continue strengthening the base at that school.

Blueprint: The goal is to eventually utilize the concepts of Agile and Scrum in every classroom throughout all of our schools and programs. We are starting a Service Project Learning program next year at Blueprint High School which is described in the Service Learning Canvas.

eduScrum: eduScrum is used in all subjects in school. It started within the subjects Physics and Chemistry, but now also in Languages, History, Geography, Economics, Mathematics and Biology. eduScrum is used all the time and for all kinds of educational tasks. In all subjects scrum is used in the same way: forming groups on a basis of additional qualities, planning poker, scrum board, stand up every lesson, burn down chart, retrospectives, testing, definition of done, and demo.

InfoQ: How did you implement the Scrum roles in your school? Who is the scrum master, and who is product owner, and why did you do it this way?

eduScrum: The product owner is the teacher, who is responsible for the program, the results and the exams. He/she makes the definition of ready for a period of several weeks, and tells the students the learning goals for this period. The product owner decides what has to be done; the scrum master and the group decide how to do it. The scrum masters of the teams are students themselves. They are chosen by the other students because of their qualities and skills. The scrum masters choose the other members of the teams based upon their additional qualities and skills. In this way teams of four students are formed. Sometimes the teacher also is a (super) scrum master, for the purpose of learning and teaching aspects. Every student has to learn to be a good scrum master, so the teacher is also a (super) scrum master, and for instance organizes a scrum of scrums.

eduScrum: We implement the scrum roles in the same way we implement the ceremonies of scrum by telling them and do it together with them. We, teachers show it to them and they have to do it in the same way.

Blueprint: The Scrum roles were not stressed in the classroom, and actually get in the way to move to a self-directed/self-organizing classroom. In certain contexts, the teacher serves as a chief product owner, a scrum coach. Other times, the student team acts as both product owner & scrum master I have found that having collective ownership at the learning team level work more effectively than splitting the roles. As they grow in self-directedness, the more the students absorb the product owner role from the teacher. This happened naturally in the 4th grade classroom where I started this over 2 years ago. By the end of the year, the teacher just gave a project; the students developed their own Goals and own Peer Reviews. This is not pure Scrum, and I call it Scrum-inspired, as Scrum has specific rules for it to be called Scrum.

Blueprint: For the Blueprint High School Student Council, the entire team took on the product owner role through consensus, but, had a dedicated scrum master to coordinate, unblock, and facilitate. This was their decision and worked well.

InfoQ: How long are the sprints and what made you decide to make them this long?

eduScrum: The sprints are two weeks long. Most sprints are 4 – 6 lessons of 50 minutes. We decided to keep them short because it provides students with a possibility to reflect instantly on their learning process and to improve every two weeks.

Blueprint: As an organization, we’ve decided on having our sprints last for two weeks. I’m not sure how we came to land on that timeframe but it seems to work well for us. Four weeks was too long to leave projects on the table, and a one week timeframe was too short to complete them. We come together as a leadership team (for the most part) at the beginning of each week which is either a mid sprint review or a retro and sprint planning session. We have broken it out further into smaller groups that have their two week sprints as well. The Student Council at Blue Print High School had 2 week Sprints since it was an extra-curricular activity.

InfoQ: Did you do retrospectives on how the students work and learn in teams? How did that help you to adopt scrum for teaching?

Blueprint: We ran several retrospectives and varied them as they do in adult Scrum teams.

eduScrum: Every sprint ends with a retrospective on the learning process, on the definition of done, on the 21st century skills (working together in an effective way, problem solving, creative thinking, self testing, retrospective thinking, mindset of change). We developed a lot of instruments to do retrospectives as how the team collaborates, how team members did their job, what qualities they used, what they have learned from each other, what they can do better next sprint.

eduScrum: For us, teachers, these retrospectives are also very important because we use them to improve eduScrum, the instruments and ceremonies we developed. As a teacher we are the product owners and we are the super scrum masters. We don’t attend the retrospectives, but the results are written down so we can read it and we can react on it by giving feedback to the students.

InfoQ: Which techniques did you use to do the retrospectives? Why did you choose them?

Blueprint: The students tended to do a daily retrospective using a simple +, -, delta chart. We used a modified version of the Learning Matrix as described in reflection: nourishment for a self-organizing classroom and the reflection activity: glows, grows, knows, and throws

eduScrum: We mostly use written retrospectives. The teachers always ask the following three questions at the end of the sprint: What was OK in the last sprint, what can be done better, and are there special actions that you want to do in the next sprint? Besides this, every sprint has ended by (self) testing and a special retrospective item such as: what qualities you used in this sprint and what did you learn from the qualities of the other members of the group? Another question that often is used in the retrospectives: how about the trust in the other members of your group, and what do you want to change to trust each other more? We do it in this way because of the effectiveness of these written retrospectives. As a teacher you can’t be present at every retrospective of each group. In this way you easily can study the written retrospectives and give them marks for it.

InfoQ: What do the students think of Scrum? What do they like, and which things do they find difficult?

eduScrum: Most students like working with scrum. The most important reactions are:

  • Working together in these groups is very nice; learning together and specially learning from each other is appreciated and for most students surprising
  • Getting better marks as a result of scrum is very nice
  • Doing retrospectives learns a lot about working together, helping each other, developing your qualities and skills
  • Planning is easier and very helpful by getting better marks.

Blueprint: The students were very receptive to the concept of Agile and Scrum and seemed to really take ownership and accountability for the process. I think it allows each of them to feel like they all play an equal part of the whole and their innovative ideas are reinforced. It also allows them to be okay with failure and trying things over and over as Agile and Scrum are not punitive when it comes to that. The ability to work as a team in deciding the “how” is a favorable part of the process for them. The “difficulty” may be more in the terminology and/or some of the step details if they don’t see the value or purpose such as the retro matrix. Sometimes modifying those helps.

eduScrum: Some quotes from our students are:

  • “I think it is a good method because you get to do many things all by yourself and the others depend on you in some way. In this way you become very responsible and you learn to cope with that. You also learn to plan well and rationally because you have to do and think of everything all by yourself.”
  • “I like to work in this way; you get the autonomy to work and study by yourself. But with a little help from the teacher who gives you the exact amount of information you need to have for yourself.”
  • “Because you get a lot of autonomy you depend on your group and you take more responsibility for your work.”
  • It is proper in this way because you really work together and the other group members can help you if you don’t understand something. This makes it easy because if you don’t get the teacher’s description, someone else can explain it in another way.”
  • I myself made use of one big quality: leadership and the division of tasks. When we started off we had some struggles but later got the big picture of how I wanted it to be. During the experiment I made use of the vast ideas and the intelligence of the group. While interpreting I mostly made use of the knowledge I gained during the lessons and the rest of the group knew exactly how to match this in the context.”
  • “L. was very important to me. If I didn’t understand it I always ended up asking her (which I obviously regularly did). Whenever I did this I would always get a good and comprehensible answer. M. was very resourceful and important with the experiments. She would quickly take the initiative. K. was the smart one of the group. She would know how to match the theory to the situation. J. was the persistent one, she would encourage us to get to work or finish it.”

Blueprint: Students absolutely love it. The 4th grade class actually created a Scrum song! At the end of the year, we did a year Retrospective, and they wanted to create a Scrummer School so that they could Scrum all summer! They also brought Scrum home, teaching it to their parents, using it for garage sales. One 4ht grader reported actually teacher her mom, now she uses Scrum at her work.

InfoQ: Similar question for the teacher: Do they like to teach using Scrum? What is easy for them, and what is struggling for them?

eduScrum: Most teachers like working with eduScrum. Some find it difficult to implement all ceremonies and instruments all together at the same time, meaning that Scrum is introduced as one change in a classroom. That takes a lot of time, because you have to learn the students a lot. Some teachers try to do it step by step, but our experience is now that the best way to do it is by introducing Scrum at one time. After some time most teachers are very enthusiastic.

Blueprint: The adoption on a teacher/staff level isn’t complete and still in the beginning stages. For those using it, they love it. Usually, the teachers that want to use it already buy in to the idea of student empowerment and collaboration, but are seeking for a way to actualize these values. Teachers who do not value empowerment and collaboration, I have found, do not buy into it. I focus on the teachers with the right mindset seeking a solution, which Scrum provides, rather than the latter.

Blueprint: For example, a teacher at Cortes, said she loves it because it gave her a framework for 4th graders growing sense of independence. Chris Scott at Santa Ynez School in California, felt it provided more accountability and structure, as he tended to lean towards more creativity and empowerment, often to the point of classroom. Scrum helped provide guardrails for him against the chaos.

eduScrum: Most teachers experience the same things. They say that the students are more motivated and work harder. They work through the theory much faster than the teachers ever expected and with the same or even better results than before. “Teaching like this is so relaxing. No disorders, no motivational problems. I have all the time and attention for the subject’s content and supporting the processes and quality assurance. Supervising teamwork has become very simple with eduScrum; the students do most of the work”

Blueprint: Some struggle with the terminology, which is why I am creating the Rightshift Learning Guide currently, to make it easy to implement. Some other lessons learned are greater focus on forming learning teams that work well together, and knowing the right level of empowerment at the right time. Some teachers thrive with this immediately; others grapple with letting go of control. Again, no different really than what we have seen with managers in their agile transition. The parallels in the work world and classroom are uncanny.

InfoQ: Is Scrum helping you to improve the quality of the education? Can you give some examples of that?

Blueprint: We don’t have any specific data or evidence that we’re tracking yet because it is still a new pilot at this school. But it looks like it is improving quality in the sense of students feeling that they have a wider perspective on how to think and how to formulate ideas on various subject areas. They have a better perspective of how to take in the information they are exposed to and how best to digest that information and present it back. It’s not just a listen, soak it up, and regurgitate approach like traditional education has been.

eduScrum: We did a research amongst 230 students, age 12 – 17 years old. The conclusions are:

  • Quantitive: The test results of classes working with eduScrum are always higher than classes not using scrum; marks differ from 0,8 to 1,7 (same module, same test). To understand the importance of these results you have to realize that in the Netherlands test results score on a scale from 0 – 10. Normally a 5,5 is OK in the Netherlands. Since 2013, teams strive for making at least a 6,7; because of this, the grades seem to go up even more.
  • Qualitive
    • Subject: About half of the students notice improvement of the subject: they have more fun, can work harder and faster, learn in a smarter way, and get better grades. Teachers report a good work climate and teams that are eager to learn from them. Since 2013 the teams have tested the quality of their work during the sprints; they test themselves whether they understand the subject and all details in it, and therefore this enhances the results for the subject.
    • Team: About three quarter of the students’ reports improvements in cooperating: they have more fun, it becomes easier, they function better in a team, have more faith in their team members, and confidence in how they cooperated. Teachers report a relaxed and pleasurable atmosphere and team members that help and address each other. This includes giving and receiving feedback, so in this way they develop better feedback skills for instance.
    • Personal development: About 60 % of the students reports to know their own qualities better, to develop themselves more and feel able to take responsibilities. Almost 40 % of the students feel more confident. Teachers report that the more quiet, low-profile, hardworking students tend to flourish more because their work and skills are being acknowledged.
    • Fun: Unexpected but a great spin off: over 50% of the students feel more at ease in class and 28 % (66 students) like it more to go to school. Students think that this is the result of the teams that are based on one’s qualities; contact with other students in their class improves.

Blueprint: There is strong anecdotal evidence of student engagement, love of learning, greater independent thinking, and greater empathy for one another, and a more positive classroom culture. A 4th grade teacher reported that kids would come in sick because they did not want to miss their Scrum. She actually had to send them home. She also reported that she never saw a classroom bond so strongly. The last day of class, students are excited to leave for the summer and get a bit unruly. With her year of Scrum, the kids were Scrumming to the last day, and a greater sense of loss, as they students had much stronger bonds with each other from working in their learning teams.

InfoQ: Would you recommend scrum to other teachers and schools? What can they do get started?

Blueprint: I would definitely recommend Agile and Scrum to other schools and teachers as it only adds to the potential for those students and teachers involved. The steps can be small in the beginning but there should be a consistent and persistent effort to implement pieces whether that’s daily, weekly, monthly, etc. It’s not something that you conduct training on at the beginning of the school year and then never revisit again. It’s a living, breathing and ever evolving process, at least for us, that helped us to learn, relearn, do, redo, refine throughout. We find things that really work for us and we modify things that hadn’t. We are truly bought into the process and it is now a strong foundation piece that is part of our organizational culture.

eduScrum: We would love to see eduScrum used in other schools by their teachers. We suggest to read a lot about Scrum and eduScrum, and just try using scrum in your classroom and ask for help if you need some, by sending an email to the eduScrum team.

Blueprint: As Chris Barnes, principal of Corte Sierra Elementary stated, “Agile is a game changer in education”. Teachers who are interested can also download materials from Agile School to get them started

About the Authors

eduScrum:

Jan van Rossum is a teacher of Chemistry at the Ashram College in Alphen aan den Rijn, the Netherlands, where he started in August 1976. His passion is development of students by education guiding, training and coaching. He wants students to develop their capacities and skills so that they get the best results in learning, in working together in a group, and he wants them to develop themselves in the best possible way. His personal website is this. Jan is a member of the eduScrum team together with Ellen Reehorst and Willy Wijnands. The team can be reached via email info@eduScrum.nl

Blueprint:

Marmmy Kodras works at Blueprint Education as the Operations Director and Certified Scrummaster. She is passionate about learning and constantly improving through brainstorm activities and group collaboration. She knows how to facilitate groups to inspire everyone to contribute their talents and skills which create solutions that trump what an individual alone could conceive. Connect with Marmy on LinkedIn.

John Miller works at Braintrust Consulting Group as an Agile Coach. His passion is bringing Agile to students and teachers so they are ready to thrive in the 21st century. John tweets at @agileschools and blogs here.

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