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Agile Schools: How Technology Saves Education (Just Not the Way We Thought it Would)


Education in America is stuck.

No Child Left Behind, the landmark federal legislation passed under the Bush administration in 2001, ushered in an unprecedented era of curriculum standards, high-stakes testing, and consequential accountability. But this historic bill long ago began to show its age. Scheduled for reauthorization in 2007, and in serious need of a tune-up, the highly controversial law has languished while the Obama administration has wrestled with the economic crisis, healthcare reform, and other pressing concerns.

As a result, NCLB is unlikely to be addressed until after the 2012 election. Unfortunately, the incredible degree of bipartisan support that marked its original passage (Ted Kennedy was the democratic co-sponsor) no longer exists, and chances for significant and positive improvement are slim.

In the meantime, growth in student achievement, modest though it has been during the NCLB years, has slowed. Teacher morale seems at an all-time low. The federal government and the states are out of money. And those of us who work in schools-if we still have work-have been told we must do more with less.

Many people have suggested that technological innovation is our best path to revitalizing reform for children and their families. But research has yet to reveal clear causal connections between the use of new technology products (hardware or software) or new technology contexts (like online or blended learning) and significantly increased achievement for K-12 kids.

Where’s Waldo?

I was a small-time tech entrepreneur right out of college. My third venture was acquired in an IPO in 1993. I wound up with a lot of responsibility at the age of 29 as head of development for a public company. It was the first time I had to lead a software team in the context of a corporate strategy. I did not lead well.

Up to this time, I had been working with "smart folks" to make "cool stuff". Now I had to work with folks I hadn’t hired myself, make plans, meet budgets, coordinate with marketing, create a testing team, a support program-all the normal things that were, unfortunately, not normal to me. Transported overnight from a tiny private company to a rapidly growing public company, I was in over my head and I sunk like a stone.

Around the new millennium, I got another shot at the brass ring when an old friend asked me to be his VP of Product Management. We made enterprise content management software-badly!-but this is where I began learning about XP and had my first encounter with anything Agile.

These days I run an education consultancy called Teaching That Makes Sense. I also write a lot about school reform and national education policy. Having strategized with dozens of school leaders, worked in hundreds of schools, and taught in thousands of classrooms, I’ve come to the conclusion that education is stuck because we have no proven methodologies to help us move it forward. 

Running public schools is a sacred responsibility enshrined in state constitutions nationwide. But to support us in this important endeavor, we have but a motley patchwork of scattered management practices, most of which turn out to be unreliable.

After a quarter century of national reform, unprecedented funding, and thousands of studies, we have yet to identify a scalable, replicable, well-documented, and research-proven methodology for running an existing school, starting a new school, or resurrecting a failed school.

And yet, perhaps such a methodology does exist.

The Method in My Madness

Over the last six months, I’ve been adapting Agile for use in schools. Each time I look at a principle or a practice, I’m amazed at how easily it translates to education, and how perfectly-suited Agile is for running schools.

Some teachers and principals may think I’ve gone mad when I bring Agile into the schoolhouse. And some engineers and managers may wonder how Agile could work in schools.

Here’s the bridge: Agile is fundamentally about learning, people, and change-three things we struggle with in education and handle poorly at the present time.

Amr Elssamadisy expresses the learning angle well in "Agile Adoption Patterns: A Roadmap to Organizational Success":

"The learning that occurs… [is] the main reason that Agile processes work so well-they are all about recognizing and responding to change. All Agile practices,…, consist of cycles that help the team learn fast. By cycling in every possible practice, Agile teams accelerate learning,…."-Amr Elssamadisy, Agile Adoption Patterns: A Roadmap to Organizational Success

Jim Highsmith captures the people part perfectly here:

"At the core, I believe Agile Methodologists are really about… delivering good products to customers by operating in an environment that does more than talk about "people as our most important asset" but actually "acts" as if people were the most important-and lose the word "asset". …[T]he meteoric rise in, and sometimes tremendous criticism of, Agile Methodologies is about… values and culture."-Jim Highsmith, member of the Agile Alliance, History: The Agile Manifesto

And Don Wells schools us up on change, noting that the later change comes, the more leverage we have to produce quality results:

"The changes we get late in a project are usually the most valuable because that is when we know the most about our problem domain and solution. Consider every dollar spent on development as also being spent on learning about a better solution. The last change request is always the one you paid the most for, so use it to your advantage."-Don Wells, Agile Software Development, A Gentle Introduction: Iterative Planning

We talk a lot in education about creating a culture of learning in our schools. But we don’t have reliable ways of creating this culture. Agile does.

A Man(ifesto) For All Seasons

Some people in education today are calling for a complete "refactoring" of our schools. Here’s something Chester Finn, former Assistant Secretary of Education under President Reagan, wrote just last year:

"The education reform debate as we have known it for a generation is creaking to a halt. No new way of thinking has emerged to displace those that have preoccupied reformers for a quarter-­century, but the defining ideas of our current wave of reform (­standards, testing, and choice), and the conceptual framework built around them, are clearly outliving their usefulness."-Chester Finn, The End of the Education Debate. From National Affairs, Issue #2, Winter 2010.

To begin my own refactoring of education, I started with The Agile Manifesto. Clearly, it’s about software development and not about school. But it has a universality to it that I find compelling. By substituting ed words for biz words, I came up with this:

The Agile Schools Manifesto

We are uncovering better ways of educating children by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools;
  • Meaningful learning over the measurement of learning;
  • Stakeholder collaboration over constant negotiation;
  • Responding to change over following a plan.

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

This is more than just language play; it’s powerful leverage for effective school leadership.

All school leaders confront competing priorities. Assessment directors are deluged with data and reporting requirements. Curriculum directors have so many duties they rarely have time to direct curricular change. Principals may have as many as 50 direct reports and a dozen different job functions.

"Agile is something that really needs to be implemented in schools," says Glenn Kessinger, a middle school teacher and instructional coach. "A big problem we have in most of public education is a lack of focus; we have so many competing priorities. Agile could clear that up."

Almost everyone in schools feels like a boxed-in middle manager trapped by pressures from above and below. The Agile (Schools) Manifesto sets clear priorities that would help educators make better choices.

"I love the Agile Schools Manifesto, says Tim Boyd, Language Arts Specialist at Bio-Science High School, a one-to-one laptop school in Phoenix, AZ. "Even if a school could embrace just one of the statements, it would help tremendously. Eventually, people would see how inter-related the Manifesto concepts are. Thinking about school through these ideas could bring about big change."

School leaders are like mayors. In theory, they hold a position of power over others but often can’t execute that power because they have to please so many competing constituencies. With no proven guidelines, no set of shared values, and no explicitly defined decision-making processes, most leaders fall back on gut instinct, risk management, and disaster avoidance. Instead of playing to win, they play not to lose.

How Agile Shows Us How to Improve Our Schools

The Manifesto also explains, in just four bulleted lines, why we face so many challenges in improving our schools:

  • Most schools are heavily invested in processes and tools; human needs are rarely prioritized. In public education, there are always many humans with many needs-and almost never enough resources. To many education reformers, the human equation seems, therefore, unsolvable. It also involves painful zero sum decision-making. As a result, during reform, a technocratic style of school management has emerged, a more business-like and rule-driven approach, one that at least partially insulates school leaders from having to take direct personal responsibility for decisions that affect human lives. The phrase "data-driven decision-making" is frequently invoked nowadays. School leaders are increasingly less inclined to consider the individual human dimensions of a given decision, and more inclined to use processes (often in the form of policies) and tools (often in the form of software for data analysis) to allocate resources, orchestrate human interactions, define the lives of children, and conduct the most essential work of running schools. If schools were businesses, teachers were cogs, and kids were widgets, this might make sense. But schools are communities, teachers are people, and kids’ needs vary greatly and change radically over time. This makes Agile a responsive and responsible choice for school management because it supports the achievement of both qualitative and quantitative goals through a human-centric approach to organizational development that also enhances business discipline. In this sense, Agile has the potential to unite currently warring factions in education reform: so-called "corporate reformers" and "venture philanthropists" who dominate the national dialog with a free-market ideology characterized by increasing standardization, external accountability, quantitative measurement, and strong support for charter schooling; and so-called "traditionalists" currently mounting a massive grassroots backlash and advocating a return to humanistic principles.
  • Most educators are focused on teaching techniques, curriculum materials, and test scores (what they want to "build"); the value of what kids actually learn (what the "customer" needs) is rarely discussed let alone assessed and used as input for improvement. Some of this has to do with No Child Left Behind. When schools were more locally focused, educators were more inclined to focus on local needs. This wasn’t always successful because educators didn’t coordinate their efforts and because talent is unevenly distributed within the system. With the advent of high-stakes testing, many schools have chosen, out of fear of punishment, to treat the state as the "customer". Since the state’s interests are embodied in generic curriculum standards and standardized tests, many educators have privileged the reality of testing over the truth of teaching. Things don’t have to be this way. We can teach creatively, meet kids’ individual needs, and have high test scores, too. But doing this takes a new set of skills and attitudes that has never been required in the past. Under pressure to raise student performance, many educators have made fear-based decisions to prioritize the needs of the state over the needs of students. Deciding to change practices or programs is a lot easier emotionally than deciding to change the way people act and react to government mandates. Even though most educators regard children and their families as the true customers of education, many find it increasingly difficult express that value in their work.
  • Most school interactions are crippled by negotiations of all kinds at all levels; true collaboration among stakeholders almost never occurs. The most obvious challenge that we hear about all the time is, of course, union negotiation. This is typical labor versus management stuff. But the reality inside a school is different than the reality at the negotiating table. The really crippling negotiations are the little ones that take place between principals and their teachers, or among groups of teachers themselves. We are now in an era where tough decisions need to be made. At the same time, education culture is highly conflict-averse. Decisions are made by committee, results are not individually owned, and minor objections from a single participant can sink even the most promising new initiative. As a result, we end up with a lowest-common-denominator effect or, at best, a form of regression to the mean. The ideas that get implemented are those that offend the fewest people. Virtually everything in a school is "negotiated" in this way. While many negotiations are not explicit, conflict-avoidance is typically the driving force behind most decisions. As such, the best elements of collaboration are often over-shadowed by the worst aspects of compromise.
  • School culture is deeply invested in planning and highly resistant to change. There are many reasons for this but two stand out: one historical, the other cultural. Historically, we’re still operating out of the 19th century factory model our public schools were founded upon. In fundamental ways, school has changed little since the Industrial Revolution. Culturally, the sameness and incredible predictability of school (along with low standards for entry into the profession and, until recently, a guarantee of lifetime job security) has tended to attract people who favor stability in their work lives over change. In order to maintain an antiquated system, and to deal as well with extraordinary changes in federal control and community demographics, while at the same time attempting to minimize change, educators have sought greater degrees of control through more detailed planning. The myth is that bigger and better plans offer more control. As we know from working in chaotic systems, just the opposite is true: the more we plan, the more likely our plans are to go awry. We confuse predicting the future with influencing it. The result is a lot of time wasted up front and extraordinary degrees of frustration and inefficiency encountered later on as we execute formal government-mandated school improvement plans and watch them fail-sometimes for years at a stretch.

If you’ve been scratching your head for years wondering why we struggle so much to improve education, now you know-when it comes to how we run our schools, we’re not Agile.

"We’re still doing the same thing, the same way, and expecting different results," says Boyd. "Recently, I worked on a big team project. Our efforts were continually thwarted because we made decisions based on what we couldn’t do instead of what we were willing to change. Agile would encourage educators to consider innovative and strategic ways of working instead of just rummaging through antiquated approaches that have never worked, hoping to find some magic potion."

Agility is the essence of responding to change, and change is the thing that we in education fear most. But change might not scare us so much if we had proven principles to help us manage it.

Principles for Principals

Agile provides a manageable set of proven principles that inform the culture and behavior of organizations interested in extraordinary results using lightweight approaches that solve significant problems in unpredictable environments. School principals need principles like these because there are few environments more unpredictable than schools. Turning the The Twelve Principles of Agile Software into "schoolware" isn’t any harder than modifying the Manifesto: 

The Twelve Principles of Agile Schools

We follow these principles:

  1. Our highest priority is to satisfy the needs of children and their families through early and continuous delivery of meaningful learning.
  2. Welcome changing requirements, even late in a learning cycle. Harness change for the benefit of children and their families.
  3. Deliver meaningful learning frequently, from a couple of days to a couple of weeks, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
  4. School and family team members work together daily to create learning opportunities for all participants.
  5. Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
  6. The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a team is face-to-face conversation.
  7. Meaningful learning is the primary measure of progress.
  8. Our processes promote sustainability. Educators, students, and families should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
  9. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances adaptability.
  10. Simplicity-the art of maximizing the amount of work not done-is essential.
  11. The best ideas and initiatives emerge from self-organizing teams.
  12. At regular intervals, teams reflect on how to become more effective, then tune and adjust their behavior accordingly.

Here again, we find a blueprint for better schooling.

While no one would argue against the notion of providing "meaningful learning" in schools, there is a deeply divisive argument going on now in our country about what meaningful learning is. The twelve principles bring this issue to the fore, where it belongs, and give us an opportunity to decide if test scores are really as meaningful as some people contend or whether, as others point out, there are additional metrics worthy of consideration.

Imagine the powerful effect of Principle #7: "Meaningful learning is the primary measure of progress." Focusing directly on learning (and its value to the "customer"), rather than on indirect and often unreliable measurements of learning (which are primarily valued only by the state), would change education radically and for the better.

Guided by a customer-focused approach, and a proven methodology, principals and teachers could put the needs of their students ahead of the demands of the system-and probably fulfill system goals, like higher test scores, as an after-effect of thoughtful, well-targeted, and action-oriented practice.

As one principal expresses it: "In their classic book, In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman talked about the importance of organizations having ‘a bias for action’-‘a preference for doing something rather than sending a question through cycles and cycles of analyses’. In education, we definitely have a bias for planning, and against action, and this impedes change," says Justin Baeder, Principal at Olympic View Elementary School in Seattle, WA, and author of EdWeek’s On Performance blog. "We also suffer from ‘analysis paralysis’ where we end up unable to make decisions because we’ve made gathering information and making plans more important than using information to take action. Bringing Agile methods into school would address both of these problems directly. Any school that applied Agile would be more inclined toward decisive action."

Or consider just the first part of Principle #5: "Build projects around motivated individuals." This would help principals form powerful teams to drive new initiatives while neutralizing the negative influence of knee-jerk naysayers. It would also encourage teachers to choose curriculum and lessons based on the affinities and interests of their students.

Without a set guiding principles to follow, educators often lose their way. This is why school is stuck, reform fatigue has set in, educator morale is in decline, public cynicism is growing, and animosity among reform factions is rising rapidly to destructive levels.

Agile Patterns Solve School Problems

Below the level of Agile concepts live many powerful Agile constructs, the patterns of practice that move us from Manifesto to manifestation. These practices would work just as well in schools as they do in software companies.

  • Sprints would solve the problem of kids falling through the cracks and of teachers wasting time on ill-conceived units of study that run for months at a time without any significant assessment of learning. Ideally, small teacher teams would be running sprints. Right now, teachers tend to conceive of instruction in terms and units, quarters, and semesters. These time spans run may run anywhere from 3 to 18 weeks with few opportunities to assess learning along the way, and no time allotted to go back over material kids have failed to master. We don’t keep "learning backlogs" in schools. We can. It’s not that hard. But we’re simply not used to it. So much of what we do now pushes toward a single end-of-year test. The idea of a "sprint" culminating in a "working product" as we know it in software development seems to many educators incompatible with our current approach to summative assessment. In reality, two things are compatible but the notions of frequent delivery, adjusting to changing requirements, and rapid iteration-while logical and perfectly suited to teaching and learning-are simply not part of education culture, and the current reform emphasis on high-stakes testing privileges "annual delivery" over more frequent "releases" across shorter time spans.
  • Stand-up meetings would solve the problems of personal accountability and team communication, two of the most disabling conditions in our schools. Though stand-up meetings for teachers and principals would be a shocking cultural change, they would be extremely effective. People who work in schools are incredibly isolated from each other, both physically and emotionally. As a result, schools are often plagued by needless conflict and cultures of low personal and communal accountability. At the same time, many people "suffer in silence", dealing with impediments that could easily be removed if only they were communicated. Ironically, there is a very successful form of "stand-up meeting" for kids. In the so-called "workshop-style" of teaching, we use a "pattern" called "status of the class" in which kids announce quickly what they are working on for the day and if they think they need help to get started. Unfortunately, this model of teaching has been discredited by reformers citing poor results when students and teachers are granted greater degrees of autonomy. When every child is forced to do the same thing, in the same way, at the same time, on the same day, "status of the class" is pointless. All activity has been pre-determined-and can’t easily be altered-so there is little to be gained in applying the stand-up pattern. Unfortunately, when teachers’ work is pre-planned, kids’ work is pre-planned, and the work of both parties is determined by generic state requirements, accountability and fulfillment tend to decrease over time. Here again, Agile could provide a unifying balance of freedom and structure that would satisfy and support all parties.
  • Paired teaching would solve the problem of isolation so many teachers struggle with. Ideally, teams would be formed out of sets of paired teachers. This could be expressed as traditional team teaching, as "guest" teaching where teachers trade off leading lessons according to individual instructional expertise, or it could be accomplished through cross-class activity. One of the most ideal team structures (though it is seldom used) is the vertical cohort where, perhaps, two teachers at each grade from 3rd to 5th in an elementary school would form a team of six people that would, over three years, pass kids up to one another. Working together for a substantial period of time, and sharing responsibility for the same kids, would increase the common use of optimized practice, and also provide many more opportunities for teachers to understand the needs of their students as they progress. As it is now, horizontal teaming is the norm as each group of teachers is now focused on end-of-year tests within their grade of discipline only. Testing and tradition (like membership in a particular department or grade level) most often determine the instantiation of groups, so the opportunity to benefit from self-organizing teams is lost.
  • User stories would solve the problem of interpreting vaguely-worded state curriculum standards. Curriculum standards are intentionally vague because they have to be implemented at the classroom level in many different ways. As such, they don’t directly define highly specific outcomes. This specificity has to come from a test, and since kids don’t take the test until the end of the year, it can be very hard to determine whether kids are on track to meet a standard until the year is over and the student has moved on to the next grade. Educational standards are the rough equivalent of old-style software feature sets. We know from experience that we can implement many feature set and still fail to reach important user goals. Teaching teachers how to restate generic standards as specific user stories-with kids as the "users"-would make teaching easier and more effective.
  • Test-first development-in the context of rapid iteration and customer-centered design-would solve the problem of clarifying learning targets and achieving learning mastery. To some extent, this has already been accomplished, but with an unexpectedly negative consequence. Teachers know before the year even starts what the final tests will look like, the types of problems kids will need to solve, and the instructional sequence the state would like them to follow. But this approach to test-driven development of educational practice has gone horribly awry because it often manifests itself as a "test-last" rather than a "test-first" approach. Where it makes perfect sense for programmers to write tests which their software must meet, and then code to assure those tests are passed, this is done in the context of short sprints, a customer-centered design process, multiple rapid iterations. In this sense, "coding to a test" works because the harnessing of changing requirements, the disciplined use of backlogs, and the possibility of refactoring afford the flexibility teams need to produce great work. This same approach could be applied to schools. But the current focus on high-stakes end-of-year testing, with tests determined not by customer needs but by the needs of politically-driven state and federal committees, encourages a kind of mindless instructional delivery where covering the curriculum becomes more important than learning it.
  • Scrum would solve many significant problems: the removal of impediments by a school ScrumMaster; the establishment of ownership and roles; and the implementation of shared practices that, year after year, would contribute to "instructional economies of scale" as teachers in upper grades began to benefit from ideas applied in lower grades. There is no logical reason why this should not be happening. And yet, in most schools, it isn’t. I believe the lack of a methodology is a significant factor here. There is simply no tradition in schools of people working this way in a disciplined and systematic fashion, and no widely disseminated and well-understood method to help people learn how. Hence, once again, the need for Agile principles and patterns of practice in schools.

Valuable Practices

Many Agile practices would be extremely valuable in education. Best of all, Agile brings the notions of pattern-based practice and empirical process control to a culture that has historically been grounded in blind faith, randomness, fear, and superstition.

As James Madison wrote in a recent InfoQ article:

"Agile development starts to build before the outcome is fully understood, adjusts designs and plans as empirical knowledge is gained while building, trusts the judgment of those closest to the problem, and encourages continual collaboration with the ultimate consumers."-James Madison, Agile Architecture Interactions.

This is exactly what many of the most forward-thinking educators in the country are crying out for. Teachers, especially, want administrators to "trust the judgment of those closest to the problem." 

In two recent studies, one by MetLife, the other by The Gates Foundation, teachers indicated that this kind of professional respect was the number one thing they wanted-not higher salaries, not lifetime job security, not better pensions, but more respect, and a reasonable degree of autonomy to make the best possible decisions for the students whose academic lives they know better than anyone else.

In another recent InfoQ article, this one from the Agile Manifesto 10th Anniversary series, Angela Martin explains how Agile improves teamwork:

"Agile also encouraged us, as programmers, to consider daily interaction with, and feedback from, our customers as normal. We should no longer expect a document to be "thrown over the wall" that described the customer’s perfect system. Instead, we would be an integral part of the customer learning what the system needed to be. The good news is, that in our research, we found that customers loved this new way of developing software."-Angela Martin, The Art of Creating Whole Teams: How Agile Has Changed The Way We Work With Our Customers

Anyone who has worked in schools for long will tell you that teamwork is frustratingly elusive. Teachers literally share students as they send them up the grades and across the curriculum, but they rarely share ideas for improving practice. As for collaborating with the "customer" (students and their parents), this rarely happens either.

More often than not, relationships between families and schools are frosty or downright adversarial. Many parents feel like they are reasonably informed and that their children are safe at school, but they don’t learn much about what and how their children are taught.

Students-the true customers-are almost never consulted (nor are their individual needs often considered in strategic planning). Imagine making software without asking customers what they need; simply deciding for yourself, by committee, what you think they should have. That’s what school is like for most students and most families, and it is becoming more like this with each passing year.

Teachers are customers, too, in the sense that their work requires them to "run" the "software" of federal, state, and district policy. According to The Gates Foundation study, teachers also feel ignored during this time of reform as they are increasingly bound by bureaucratic mandates about which their input is not solicited and over which they have no control:

"Teachers play a critical role in students’ academic achievement, in our workforce’s skills and in our nation’s future. They dedicate their lives to educating, inspiring and preparing today’s youth for life beyond high school and yet, according to the 2010 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, 69% of teachers believe that their voices are not heard in the debate on education. The goal of Primary Sources is to place the views of our nation’s public school teachers at the center of the discussion on education reform. As our nation grapples with how to dramatically improve student academic achievement, we must ask ourselves-if teachers are left out of the conversation on school reform, can the movement ultimately succeed?"-Primary Sources: America’s Teachers on America’s Schools

Agile practices, and the culture they inspire, could be useful to American education at every level of the system. But especially to teachers because these are the people working closest to the results we want to create.

"Agile’s focus on process is of value because it takes us into the realm of human interaction, which is where the action is," says Anthony Cody for Oakland, CA, National Board-certified science teacher and author of EdWeek’s Living in Dialog blog. "The interaction between teachers, parents, and administrators-and between these three sets of adults and students-is where we will make real change happen."

Shall We Have a Go, Then?

As a software developer, I was attracted to Agile. But now, as an educator, I find myself attracted to it even more. After months of study, I’m convinced that we in education have much to learn from world of software development, and that Agile gives us a well-reasoned, well-researched methodology from which to derive effective practice.

I’ll be putting this theory to the test with a new educational venture I’m launching in September. Between now and then, I am seeking as much feedback as possible from members of the Agile community about the potential of this idea.

I’m particularly interested in information I can gather about the practical challenges of implementing Agile in the context of what would have to be considered a dangerous assignment in a foreign land. If you have thoughts on this-positive, negative, or anything in between-I would love to hear them. As Seth Godin blogged recently, please "Share your confusions with me." Tell me what confuses you about this idea so that I can clear it up-and learn from your inquiries.

As I said at the beginning of this article, education is stuck. And many people are looking to technology to get it moving. Most people think that new technology products or technology-enabled learning contexts will swoop in to save the day. I hope they do. But I wouldn’t bet the future on it. The effects of technology on education are still poorly understood-and I think much misunderstood.

As I see it, tech process not tech product is what will move us forward. Tech culture not tech context will prove to be the basis of the first replicable model of high-quality schooling. And Agile will provide the energy that revitalizes reform.

About the Author

Steve Peha is the President of Teaching That Makes Sense, an education consultancy in Carrboro, NC specializing in literacy, assessment, and school leadership. Since 1995, he has taught in thousands of classrooms and hundreds of schools across the United States and Canada. Prior to that he was a software entrepreneur. His writing has appeared recently in The Washington Post, EdWeek, Edutopia, and Title I-derland. He also writes each week on national education policy as a member of The National Journal Education Experts Blog.

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Community comments

  • I want to create an agile process like Zara's in school system

    by Krista Soboh,

    • Excellent article!

      by Jeremy Bridges,

      Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

      I think this is a great idea. Many people I know have dropped from the school system because of the recent shifts in how schools are run. Even before this shift, I have never liked the factory mentality that is baked into almost every educational institution. Changing the culture of education with Agile should have as profound an influence as it did in the programming world. Good luck in your endeavours! Let's hope you find some willing partners...

    • Re: Excellent article!

      by Steve Peha,

      Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

      Thanks, Jeremy. I just introduced the ideas to a set of educators in the Midwest this week. They were excited about it and even started saying things like "Yeah, if we just kept a backlog when kids missed a concept, no one would fall the through the cracks." Or "It would be amazing if we worked in self-organizing teams rather than always being assigned to teams just grade level or department." One teacher said that if she could form a team with three other teachers in her building, she knows they'd all come in early for a morning "Stand Up Meeting" every day. That's a huge commitment for someone to make who probably already works 70+ hours a week.

      It was interesting for me to see how naturally the teachers picked up new language that was, until our training, complete foreign to them. One teacher took out her iPad and began Googling "Agile" while I was introducing it because she just had to find out more about it.

      Agile and education are a natural fit -- and a real antidote to the factory model approach we've used now for so long.

      What's needed at this point is -- in true Agile parlance -- a "Scrum" -- where Agile practitioners and educators can come together in the same sphere to team up and make this happen. That's what I'm hoping to start. I appreciate your encouragement very much.

    • Montessori principles prove agile works in education

      by Carolyn Jefthas,

      Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

      As I read this article, it dawned on me that Montessori principles follow agile principles - without even knowing it. And these principles extend to the children, as well as the teachers in terms of the "team". If you compare #5: Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
      In a Montessori classroom, the children (not just the teachers) decide on their "work" for the day & they get it done. Like in agile, the class ("team") assists each other for the greater good. It is amazing to watch a 5 yr old teach a 3 yr old how to button a shirt - with no teacher intervention.
      Obviously the daily stand-up is not a Montessori principle, but certainly a worthwhile info share. Have a look @ Montessori education & you will find more of the agile principles that the few that I have mentioned above - there are too many to go into detail here.
      Thanks for the article.

    • Re: Montessori principles prove agile works in education

      by Steve Peha,

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      You're absolutely right. And the comparison between Agile and Montessori is an excellent insight. There's a lot of Agile in Maria Montessori's work, as there is in Dewey's original ideas about experiential learning. Today, we see this to some extent in Waldorf education, in Ted Sizer's work at The Coalition of Essential Schools, and perhaps most prominently in the famous Reggio schools in Europe.

      Good learning turns out to be good learning no matter what time frame or continent one lives in. The challenge that we face today here in the US is that we seem to be moving away from all this at a rapid pace -- and with much government, philanthropic, and business influence -- toward a system that isn't governed by any of the principles you mention.

      Clearly, we're not moving in a Montessori direction these days. It just doesn't offer the structure and control we seem to crave politically at the federal level. At the same time, human relationships in education are becoming less fashionable in schools as well, supplanted by technology.

      This is why I think Agile provides a particularly good solution at this point in time. It has the qualities, as you point out, of the world's best humanistic education, but it's also a proven approach to business productivity, something that is extremely important to our political leaders today who seem to view education less in terms of the human exploration you describe and more in terms of macroeconomics and global competitiveness.

      Thanks for your comment.

    • Yes! Finally

      by Bob Allen,

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      We are so on the same wavelength. I started out in software development and was most recently at a County Office of Education for ten years. I left there pursuing a path to becoming an Agile coach.

      A funny thing happened along the way to becoming an Agile coach. In a UC Berkeley class on Agile Management Principles and Practices I had an "Aha!" experience: I asked aloud in class "Why isn't this being taught in K-12?"

      Shortly after, I -also- tried crafting a K-12 school-focussed Agile Manifesto and Principles (I like yours better). I signed up for Stanford's SPLASH spring program and taught 100 middle schoolers how to invent games using Agile practices. I'm not sure which of us had more fun but it focused more than ever my desire to see Agile in the classroom.

      You have taken the idea of mapping Agile (specifically Scrum) roles to existing K-12 school roles further and used a slightly different model than the one I chose, but I think the two can work together. While you mapped teachers to team members, the principal to a Product Owner (you mention ScrumMaster but didn't map the role), I focussed one step lower.

      In my model, the students are the team members (with increasing autonomy in the higher grades), the teachers are the ScrumMasters, and the principal maps to the Product Owner role.

      My reasoning is simple:

      • A ScrumMaster's responsibilities include - process advisor, coach, impediment bulldozer, and facilitator. Stated another way: responsible for creating an environment that allows the team to excel. Sounds like the very definition of a teacher's role to me.

      • The team members responsibilities include - owning their collective commitment to delivering on what they've taken on, working to support one another towards that goal, self-organizing around how to get the work down. Isn't that what teachers would most like to see happen with their students?

      • In scrum, the Product Owner is characterized as the single-wringable-neck. After all, a parent who is not satisfied with what they get from the teacher; who do they go see? The principal.

      These two models can co-existing as a scrum-of-scrum model. They compliment one another nicely.

      Here's my question to you; how can I help you achieve your goals?

      Bob Allen
      One Step At a Time Agile

    • Re: Yes! Finally

      by Steve Peha,

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      Great thinking here, Bob. And nice to know there other folks out there with the same idea. Ideally, you're right, that having BOTH children and adults following Agile methods is the goal. But just as you demonstrated in your work with kids, an adult has to go first.

      That's really the next step: adapt Agile practices for use by classroom teachers and get a few adults to "go first" just like you did.

      Agile is ideal for project-based learning, of course, but also for anything that is process-oriented like reading, writing, or math problem-solving.

      Perhaps most promising of all would be the cultural changes we might see at an Agile school. Teachers and children applying the same fundamental principles would probably rub off on parents, too. You can see the "good" cascading throughout the entire school community.

    • Human evolution and risk avoidance

      by Seth Ahlborn,

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      Steve, In a time when the amount of information created (and available) daily is more than one can read in one's life time (versus T Jefferson's day) it seems as though personal accountability can always come under scrutiny because of 'expert' opinions. As an anthropologist and educator I don't think our personal needs (Maslow's hierarchy) have changed any more than our dentition since the time when it was possible to read all that had been printed. Developing and supporting interactive teams for honest collaborate seems to me to be essential, and Agile appears to be a human-centered educational tool, spiraling learning in the ways that support differentiated learning needs (of adults and children). I agree with the need to develop sprints and repetition of core concepts until internalized by the student (including teacher and parent) - just like any physical activity, if you want to faster you need to adapt your training. Since we can change the firing pattern of our brains (in the cognitive and skill areas) we need an effective implementation platform for patterned behavior to be able to change. Dweck's work with Mindset and Coyle's work in Talent Code support the idea that we can (and must) think differently AND this is trainable with great coaching. Education is looking for great coaching that will not allow under performance.

    • It's about time

      by Allison Wood,

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      Fascinating article Steve, and I couldn't agree with you more. This is a process issue, not an end-product result, that needs to be addressed. That in turn produce the product that we're all looking for: meaningful learning for our students and lives of meaning for our teachers.

      I am no Agile expert but in preparing to go "in country" on this dangerous assignment of yours, I'd suggest you read the book "Switch: Making Change When Change is Hard" by Chip and Dan Heath, the brothers who wrote "Made to Stick." I think "Switch" is one of the best books I've ever read, full of profound and practical advice for all of us: parents, educators, business people, anyone.

      A couple of insights that I carry around with me: The idea of focusing on the "bright spots", the areas or people or systems where things ARE working and building on them, rather than staring into the abyss of all the things that aren't working and trying to figure out what the hell we should do. Another is their focus on having a "growth mindset" vs. a "fixed mindset" (from Carol Dweck's research) which can be completely life-changing . Too many other good stories and lessons to mention - just read it! I imagine this book would be very helpful in getting educational leaders to make the "switch" to an Agile way of thinking and behaving. Can't wait to see what happens!

    • The human capital question

      by Stephanie Myers,

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      You are spot on that leaders (and teachers) are forced to play not to lose. Two years ago, I relocated to DC and took a position as master educator (teacher evaluator) with Rhee's new evaluation system. Last fall, I transitioned over to the American Federation of Teachers with a focus on supporting districts nationwide on redesigning their teacher evaluation systems. Where do you think evaluations (or more importantly, systems for support and growth) fall in Agile's human-centric approach? I plan to share the 12 principles with my team - my sense is AFT's platform is well aligned, especially with principles 5, 6, & 7. Seeing you are from NC, are you familiar with Eric Hirsch's teacher working conditions surveys? The principles also remind me of Micheal Fullan's work. Wishing you continued success with this project.

    • Re: Human evolution and risk avoidance

      by Steve Peha,

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      I think your last line here is great: "Education is looking for great coaching that will not allow under-performance."

      What I love about Agile is it's "coaching" frame and "team" nature. Coaching is something we understand very well in education, and something that has improved dramatically in the last 20-30 years on the athletic field, in the music room, on the stage, in the art studio, etc.

      But, alas, not in the classroom or in the principal's office.

      I've often felt that "teaching" is an "individual sport" but that "education" is a team sport. A single "player" or student may have 30-40 teachers from K-12. And it would be much to everyone's benefit if this group of individual "competitors" could function more cooperatively as a set of "well-coached" teams.

      We "coach" kids (and other coaches) very well. But we tend to teach (and to lead) poorly in school because we do not have ready access to proven, thoughtful models of building-level and classroom-level coaching.

      The Agile leadership "frame" is, by definition, a "coaching" frame. It is also designed specifically to improve team performance. Following Agile principles, it's hard not to get better.

      The Maninfesto and 12 Principles define the human-centered foundation; the myriad Agile practices provide the essential "coaching" tools. The result, I think, is something that not only solves a core problem in education -- Why do teaching and school leadership fail to improve while other aspects of schooling succeed in improving? -- but is something many of us in education may understand intuitively if we shift our view from "inside the classroom" to "out on the playing field."

    • Re: It's about time

      by Steve Peha,

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      Thank you, Allison, for your kind remarks.

      I love both "Switch" and "Mindset". You're right that both have a lot to teach us about human change.

      Agile seems very consistent to me with both of these texts. The nine essential recommendations in "Switch" are all addressed directly by Agile practices. And Agile's bias toward continuous improvement is completely consistent with Dweck's work on the "growth mindset". In fact, one might say that Agile is a "growth mindset" methodology by definition. (And that our Industrial Age model of schooling is, unfortunately, premised on the "fixed mindset" view of life.)

      You're right, too, I think, that the solution to improving schools will be process-oriented by nature rather than product-oriented. While we will continue to develop better and better technology, and to increase the access kids have to it, it will be the ways in which that technology is used that will determine whether or not we prepare our kids effectively for the rapidly changing Information Age world they are growing up in.

      We give up a lot of "mindshare" in education to the notion that a new "product" is going to change everything: a new curriculum, a new technology, a new set of resources, but time and again this outlook leaves us disappointed. Learning is a process so it seems logical to me that changing that process directly is the most promising approach.

      We are all aware nowadays of the incredible amount of technology our kids have access to at home and at school -- and how much they use it. But despite this, student achievement doesn't seem to have improved very much over the last quarter century, inflation-adjusted school funding has risen dramatically, and educators are working harder than ever. It doesn't seem that adding more "product" into the system is producing a corresponding result. But I think that changing the process might. And I think Agile is a great way to do this.

    • Re: The human capital question

      by Steve Peha,

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      Great points, Stephanie. And thank you for sharing a bit about your background here.

      You're right, also, that Agile sounds a lot like Fullan. Agile sounds a lot like many of the smartest people in human potential and organizational performance. Many excellent minds seem to have converged on similar principles in the last decade or two.

      You ask an important question about our nation's new approaches to teacher evaluation -- one that deserves more than can reasonably be accommodated in a comment box. But I'll offer a few quick thoughts here and perhaps we can pick up the thread offline.

      First, when it comes to teacher evaluation, it has always been my experience that the "player" is more important than the "instrument." That is, your ability as an evaluator seems to me more important than whichever evaluation instrument you use. I would imagine, for example, that your talent as an evaluator would be just as strong with the current instrument you are using as it was when you used IMPACT in DC. What you can see in someone's teaching, and what you can say to help them improve, frames the evaluation process and serves as the purpose of the exercise. Since Agile is a "coaching model of continuous improvement", I think it would serve teachers (and "teacher coaches" like you) very well.

      At the same time, however, even our best new teacher evaluation instruments are still premised on the Industrial Age model of schooling. For example, the notion of "team participation", how well one teacher works with others, or how well a team of teachers functions, is not usually represented (and if it is, it doesn't count for very much). This is an odd discrepancy, I think, when we're all fully aware these days of how important it is for kids to have consecutive successful school experiences with multiple teachers across their many years in school. (I'm reminded here of Sanders' work in Tennessee which showed that having a "team" or "set" of "highly-effective" teachers several years in a row can go a long way toward closing the achievement gap for less advantaged kids.)

      Next, I think we are currently asking our teacher evaluation systems to do two things at the same time: help teachers improve and cull the profession of low-performing practitioners. I'm not sure that's the best and highest use of this process. I would prefer a "continuous coaching" process -- similar to what someone would experience on an Agile team during a long project and where people feel consistently supported -- rather than an "evaluation process" (where one can't help but feel consistently judged). If, after a long period of continuous coaching within a team setting, a particular individual is found to be less effective than we'd hoped, switching to an evaluation model makes sense. But up until that point, assuming competence, assuming the ability to improve, and engaging in explicitly improvement-oriented interactions, is a much healthier stance, I think, for both both teacher and coach. I also think it's narrow of us to imagine that one "view" of teaching, as represented in a single evaluation instrument, could help us with all teachers in all teaching situations. There is, for example, no single "right" way to run an Agile project -- and as a participant, I would expect to work differently, be coached differently, and be evaluated differently on every project I was involved with. New practices are applied and developed to meet the needs of new customers and new circumstances all the time. This is precisely what makes Agile agile -- or "responsive to change". I wish such an approach were politically palatable right now in education. But we're still operating with teachers, as we do with kids, on the Industrial Age premise of "one size fits all" approaches to educating people and judging their worth. Teacher evaluation is getting better. But it's still not very agile in that most instruments "freeze" practice and can't account very well for innovation -- even innovation that might be required to do a better job with a given group of kids in a given situation.

      Finally, perhaps the sharpest and most instructive contrast I see between Agile and educational evaluation is that Agile is fundamentally team-oriented while educational evaluation is still individual-oriented. Just think of all the places that are now using individual teacher test scores as parts of their evaluations. This seems to make sense. But when we think of what schools are (communities of children and adults interacting) and we think of what our goal is (students prepared for success after many years working with many people), I think we should bias ourselves toward team evaluation first and individual evaluation second. Both are needed. But clearly, other industry sectors have made this move, and have recognized that team performance is the primary metric of organizational success. This is something we still struggle with in education -- even though we're all aware of how many adults shape a child's experience.

      Fundamentally, as I look at the Agile Manifesto, the 12 Principles, and the core practices within the methodology, I don't see anything that is inconsistent with good teaching. But I do see many things -- like the team orientation and the coaching for continuous improvement aspect -- that we have yet to acknowledge fully in education, even though we know they're very important. The core challenge of reform is that we're still trying to get Information Age results out of Industrial Age systems. To me, almost all new "reforms" attempt in some way to straddle these two things, and I think this is why we are all working so hard yet achieving only modest success. Whenever we introduce a new idea -- like better teacher evaluations -- we often don't acknowledge the incredible amount of friction the new idea will encounter simply because of the system we've introduced it into. The answer is to simultaneously introduce new practices within new structures that support them. And that's another why I'm excited about Agile -- it provides a good structure and also brings with it a large set of practices optimized for that structure. It's called a "lean" or "light-weight" methodology but it could also be called a "low-friction" methodology as well.

      This is primarily why I would like to see Agile ideas brought into schools. I think that we would not only function better as teachers and leaders, but I think we would come to see ourselves differently and in a healthier way -- more as team members, working together, supporting each other, sharing the load; less like lone rangers battling the bad guys all the time. For example, what if instead of "teacher evaluation" we had "teacher support" or "teacher teamwork" or "teacher coaching" or, as Parker Palmer once so eloquently defined it, "teacher formation" -- and we left the "evaluation" (which we still need, of course) as a separate function?

    • Looking forward to seeing a backlog!

      by Michael Maza,

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      Ideally, in user story format.

    • Re: Looking forward to seeing a backlog!

      by Steve Peha,

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      Backlogs and user stories are a great idea. And they fit in naturally, albeit with a few considerations for the highly non-Agile way we have set up our schools right now.

      The backlog is actually one of the easiest Agile patterns to implement. Long before I thought of trying to adapt Agile to education, I was keeping what I now realize was a "learning backlog" every time I taught. Sometimes I keep it as an informal list of information as I teach. It's very easy to have a plan for a lesson or a unit and then realize while I'm teaching it that there are other things kids need to know -- or that some change has occurred that requires my responsiveness. But interrupting the lesson or unit is not good. So I'll usually just start a "backlog" (either in a corner on the whiteboard or on a clipboard sheet). And then, over time, I'll prioritize it and, often, just work it into the current "learning sprint" (if it fits naturally) or in a more formal way, carry over the backlog items into the next "sprint".

      I also created an integrated planning, assessment, and reporting tool for teachers that creates, as one of its outputs, a backlog for the next sprint. Again, back when I created it, I didn't see the explicit connection to Agile. But now I do.

      Finally, I usually have kids keep their own personal "backlog" but since that term doesn't make much sense to them, we just call it a list of "personal learning goals." These are usually very small things, well within the context of the "sprint", just things I want each kid to address in the near future as we work through some new set of skills. Some kids, not surprisingly, end up with the same "goals" on their "backlogs" across several "sprints" simply because they resists attending to them.

      So I typically keep three lists of "features" or "stories": one for the class as a whole which usually represents the overall learning we're trying to capture in a given unit or what Agile would call a "sprint"; then a second list which is really my backlog of what I see needs to be done in the next sprint; followed by individual backlogs (or goal sets) for individual kids. This assures that I meet overall classroom needs, attend to new issues that arise unexpectedly, and customize the learning somewhat for each individual student.

      Because I'm teaching alone, or with someone on my team who understands the language we use, I don't have to write out full stories. But I would if I were working with a new team who didn't know the language I was using. I might also have to understand from them what their language is and have them articulate the stories. Kids, too, as customers of their own learning, can write their own stories in the form of simple goals.

      Regarding "user stories" in a more strategic sense, I've been working on these quite a bit, and reading some good books. "User stories" have some great applications. But perhaps the best is at the level of the "standard". Today's classrooms are unfortunately dominated by government learning standards. But the standards are abstract. Teachers routinely have to spend time "unpacking" them in order to know what to do -- and unpacking standards is by no means and exact science. Explaining standards as "user stories" (which, of course, would end up on a backlog anyway) makes a lot more sense than "unpacking" abstract learning goals.

      Many user stories in education would be considered "too large" for an Agile sprint. For example, something like "A 3rd grader can write a brief multi-paragraph expository essay" is a common learning goal and very doable. But it usually takes many "sprints" to accomplish fully. This "story" might break down to 50 component stories if it were deconstructed as a software system. But, unlike software, the components can't be "coded" and "tested" separately in a meaningful way. For example, a kid needs to spell words correctly. But practicing spelling words, outside the context of writing, has no positive correlation with improvement in spelling.

      Two things seem to converge here, and the metaphors don't line up exactly but they do still make sense: a practical view of "user stories" which allows for non-testable elements and successive approximation of the "done state" across "sprints". The other is "refactoring". Much of what we teach kids -- and writing is a great example -- involves having them produce whole "working" pieces of writing over and over. The "external behavior" of a piece of writing is always the same. We define it like this: "Writing is the communication of content for a purpose to an audience through a form." But the learning that goes on is all about clearing up and optimizing the "internal structure" (like the spelling and punctuation, for example). Outwardly, the "behavior" doesn't change; internally, the piece gets cleaner and "technical debt" is not allowed to accumulate. In this sense, there's quite a lot of refactoring going on at the "skill" level even though a kid is cleaning a problem in a different piece each time. This would be true as well of other process-oriented activity like reading, for example. Once we learn to read, we don't forget how. We merely refine our ability to process more challenging texts.

      Now, in a traditional social studies or science unit, the user stories would be smaller, more testable, and require less refactoring. But (and this is the tricky part with traditional scope and sequence curricula) there's technically no way -- in our current approach to education reform -- to implement a backlog. It's easy to make a backlog but there's not time allotted in the year to do any real "burndown" of a "backlog". That's because the way we implement standards and standardized testing -- along with curriculum packing guides -- does not account for the possibility (which we know will happen) that some kids may fail to learn something when we'd like them to. Given that we're operating inside a classic "waterfall" system in education, it's sort of like saying "ERD did its job but development screwed up and integration and testing caught it." It's a bad deal all the way around -- especially for the kid.

      Getting us off the assembly line, and out of the waterfall, is the "system change" component of Agile Schools. This is where we really have the opportunity to make a big contribution to society. But, seeing as we are currently stuck, by law, with a waterfall, we have to do the best we can to infuse as much of Agile into it, so teachers and kids can at least work more efficiently, and the waterfall process will result in fewer break downs.

    • Agile Schools Already In Progess

      by john miller,

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      Hi Steve,
      I just wrote my first blog post (not as good as yours)on a similar topic, Agile Schools. I am a Certified Scrum Master and my IT Department in a School District is already on the path of Agile. I immediately saw the potential to change the classroom & schools and got 2 schools to do a Scrum Crash Course that I presented to them last year. They loved, and are Scrumming for some of their team projects, and some teachers have already done it with their students with some great results. I am developing a kid friendly version of Scrum (it has to be modified for elementary kids imo) and hope to have it in some of our classrooms in a month. Anyway, just wanted to reinforce your opinions on Agile and Schools, it does work, and is actually out their in the wild where I am. Check out my blog and contact me if you want more information or to be posted on our progress. I do believe this has to start grassroots style for an agile school movement.
      John Miller

    • Re: Agile Schools Already In Progess

      by Steve Peha,

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      This is fantastic, John. I read your blog and really liked it. I am focusing more generally on the use of Agile in schools at the leadership level with principals and at the classroom level with teachers. But the most important thing is to get the learning to the students just as you are doing.

      I would love to learn more about what you're up to. Perhaps we can share a few e-mails or have a phone call. I'd also like to interview you about your work for a series of articles I'll be writing about this topic. People are always asking me, "Is anybody doing this?" and "What does it look like?" Those are the two important questions I want to begin answering.

      Drop me a line at

      Keep up the good work and keep me up to date on what you're doing.

      Steve Peha
      President, Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc.

    • Re: Agile Schools Already In Progess

      by john miller,

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      Definitely. Thanks for replying back.

    • I want to create an agile process like Zara's in school system

      by Krista Soboh,

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      I am researching the idea of agile in schools. I am interested in how you have adapted the agile methodology to create organizational change. I got the idea myself after living in the Middle East which is an agile adaptive environment and after reading some articles in the NYT that suggested going agile would be the so.ution to the troubled health care website. Where are u now in applying this thinking to the school problem?

    • Re: Agile Schools Already In Progess

      by Steph Ngarepa,

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      Thanks for sharing your address. I have had a look and stolen a bunch of ideas to get started with Agile in my home and my classroom. We are looking at so many new ideas for my post-grad studies that it was cool to findm something that really resonated with me. I have been very inspired by Steve's writings and am looking for new ideas, tricks, tools and platforms to use with my 11 & 12 year old students in New Zealand.

      Steph Ngarepa

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