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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Steve Peha on Agile and Education

Steve Peha on Agile and Education


1. [...] Steve I’d like to start out by saying that you’re not the average attendee here, you come from a pretty diverse background. Can you tell us a bit about it?

Amr's full question: Hello, this is Amr Elssamadisy in Nashville at the Agile 2013 Conference. I’m here with Steve Peha. Welcome Steve. It’s pleasure to get this time with you. Steve I’d like to start out by saying that you’re not the average attendee here, you come from a pretty diverse background. Can you tell us a bit about it? Sure. In my twenties out of college I spent a fairly amount of time in software development industries in the mid 80’s and early 90’s, and ended up with my own software company. At the age of thirty I sold it and by a year later I became interested in something else. I became interested in education, started volunteering in schools, and learning about teaching and found out that really what I was most interested in was learning and that’s practices and ways helping kids learn. That led to the founding of the company that I’ve had for about twenty years now, called Teaching That Makes Sense. We provide training and coaching services to teachers in K-12 Schools. And I’ve really devoted my time to essentially learning sciences and how to help people learn faster and better.


2. Thank you Steve. So, you come from a background in education, you’re here at an Agile Conference, you’re focused on learning, I’m going to assume learning is the connection?

I believe so. About four years ago, I’ve had a fair amount of knowledge of Agile for a couple of projects that I’ve been on that have used parts of it. About four years ago I got the strange notion that Agile practices were very close to some of the best practices we were using in education at the time and I ended up writing an article for InfoQ which essentially proposed that Agile was very easy to adopt over to classroom practice in K-12. And I was very surprised by the result. All of a sudden things started popping into my inbox, people were asking questions. Who is doing this? Who is using Agile practices in the classroom? And at that time I didn’t know of too many people who were. But as time has gone by I’ve still got feedback from that article and probably about every week now somebody says: well, I’m using Scrum for project based learning or I’m using Kanban. I’m getting pictures of Kanban boards from third and fourth grade classrooms and I get a sense that this is taking off sort of on its own and many people have come to the same conclusion I have that Agile has very much to offer in K-12 schooling.

Amr: So is that Agile or technology in general? Because we all know that there’s a lot of technology in education these days.

Yes that’s a really interesting question. We have had technology work in the classroom for probably thirty or forty years, some great technology. One of the great mysteries though is that we haven’t seen improvements in student achievements that we’ve had hoped. That’s extraordinary technology products that we have now and some wonderful technology services and we would all just naturally expect I think that there would be this correspondingly significant growth in student achievement, but we haven’t seen quite as much as we’ve hoped. I’ve been thinking that perhaps we’re not looking at the whole picture of what technology has to offer. I think we know very well that there are good technology products we can bring and there are excellent technology services but I think those are only two pieces of a four part puzzle here. In addition to products and services I think technology particularly in the Agile family of methodologies has a lot of practices that could bring - come right over to education. The other thing that’s important I think is technology culture, particularly in Agile culture with a such of emphasis on learning and that being such THE emphasis in education, I think bringing technology process and technology culture might be the catalyst that really supports great growth for students I their use of technology products and services.

Amr: Process and culture into education.

Yes, I think so.


3. Can you give us some concrete examples?

Sure. On the process and practice side as I’ve said I’m using Kanban a lot more in my teachings. I’m seeing a lot of other teachers use it. It’s a wonderful way to help kids feel comfortable about what there is to do, what there’re doing now, what they’ve completed. I’ve mentioned many people now are starting to use Scrum as a way of organising project-based learning. Project-based learning, kids working in teams to complete a task or create something. It’s generally considered to be a more exciting or interesting way to learn. It’s a little more like the kind of learning and work that we do outside of school. But in education we don’t necessarily have a long history or a proven methodology of how to organise a project team of children but over here in Agile we have Scrum, we know it pretty well, we know it works, we know when it doesn’t and so people are starting to adapt that directly to project-based learning.


4. Are they getting good results?

I think they are. Things are a little too early to tell weather we’re getting quantifiable or measurable results but I’m getting very positive feedback which is to say when I wrote the InfoQ article, no one I knew was using these things. Now probably once a week somebody pops into my mailbox and says: hey I’m using Scrum with this group over here and we’re achieving this. There’s even a talk here at the (Agile) conference directly about Agile education and using practices like that.


5. Wonderful. So, I’m going to get just a little deeper to get a little more concrete. So you say that you use Kanban in the classroom. Can you tell us more, how do you use it?

Sure. I use it in two ways but the most important way is: I’m often coming into a classroom as an outside consultant. The kids don’t know me and it’s natural for them to be a little hesitant about what I will be doing and how comfortable they’ll feel about it. So, one of the ways I’ve found to make them feel as safe as possible and as comfortable as possible is simply to draw three columns on the board: things to be learned, what we are learning and things we have learned. And if I was in the classroom for a week or two we’ll keep this Kanban board effectively up all the time. And essentially the things to be learned is our Backlog, I’ll often use that term and I’ll pull something off the top, I’ll move it to the things we were learning and the kids we’ll know exactly what is coming up, they’ll know exactly what we’re working on and then I like to point out to the kids that we’ve already learned something when we come to some agreement and some sense that I have learned something and I move it over to the third column. What’s kind of nice about that is that I don’t have to plan every day, my plan is in the Kanban board. The kids know exactly what’s coming up, we can limit work in progress very very well because if we get to a point where there are three or four things that we’re still trying to learn it is very easy for me to communicate to the kids: kids I think we need to back up and get one of these things done. Another thing I can do that generally in a traditional model would surprise kids because the teacher is holding the curriculum secret is I can say: kids, I was just circulating among you and asking you questions and you weren’t hearing, I noticed that we’re needing to learn this, this and this. I’m going to put those at the top of our Backlog and tomorrow we’re going to focus on those things because I think they’re going to help us with some of the things that we need to learn now.


6. And you get good results with your children?

I get really good results. I get a real win-win which is very rare. I get a win for me because my teaching is clearer and better and essentially closer to the mark every day.


7. Because you are working empirically?

I’m working empirically and essentially I’m putting out the equivalent of a minimum viable product. We really think that the smallest amount that I can give to the kids as quickly as possible and I am getting feedback right away. I think the bigger win though is for the class itself. Kids are used to feeling unsafe; it’s just an easy way to say it. They just don’t know what’s coming up next and since they face that for thirteen years six hours a day they just get used to the idea that they’re not really going to know what’s happening up next. The more I can do to show them: this is what’s coming up, this is why it’s coming up, this is what we’re still working on and also this is what you’ve already accomplished. It goes a long way toward helping them feel confident and ultimately helping them feel safe that day by day they will know exactly what we are doing. Finally if I want to apply Kanban individually which I’ve done with many kids with whom I want to learn specific things because every kid is different, every kid essentially has their own individual kanbanboard of things to be learned, that they’ve learned and they’re working on.


8. We’re not all going at the same pace?

We’re not, no never. And so I’ve often had kids keep sort of individual informal Kanbans, just in a notebook very casually. And again all of this goes to I think to the fundamental issue of safety. Kids feel more comfortable learning and in fact I feel more comfortably teaching. I don’t have to walk in worrying that a lesson I am going to teach is going to bomb because it’s the wrong one or it’s something that they weren’t ready for or that I wasn’t ready to teach.

Amr: So, you’ve said the word safe at least five times in the last five minutes.



9. It seems to be a big deal for kids and you know we’re looking on similarities between Agile and education. We don’t talk about safety in Agile much, very few people do. Is this important for learning?

You know I think it’s fundamental. I think it’s just as fundamental in an Agile situation as it is in a classroom situation. I was on a recent project, I was a Product Owner for about eighteen months, on a large Gates Foundation education technology project and one of the things I noticed right away was that many of the things that I do to help a classroom function at a high level are things that I could do on my team. And a lot of those had to do with making people feel safe to contribute. A good example would be in planning. Often times one or two people can dominate the planning discussion. These may be the more senior or the more confident practitioners. But I would often notice that four or five people have not talked at all during the discussion of the story and so I took it upon myself as my responsibility to help those people, bring those people into the discussion with a couple of techniques that I often use in classrooms.


10. Ok, so safety is important to learning and you’re saying it transfers so not only can education benefit from us and what we’ve figured out about building projects and so on and so forth. The safety thing as I understand it has been something that is well researched in education, well practiced?

It is really a foundational thing. It has been well researched and well practiced. It’s been so well practiced that it’s what we have to set up right from the beginning and that when most of us start a classroom one of the first things we consider are all the things we need to do to make kids feel safe together in that room. They are a team and if they don’t function as a team learning suffers. If kids feel unsafe or unsure many will not participate, they will not ask questions, they will not interact and then I cannot really help them if they won’t participate effectively. Another form is that kids who feel unsafe will start to act out and that will cause others problems that I’ll have to attend to that will disrupt the learning. So we do a bunch of things right from scratch, almost from the first day of school that are almost always designed to accomplish two things: one to make people feel safe, two to bring together a community or a culture within a classroom that is what I would call a culture of inquiry or culture of learning specifically based on asking questions of things we know to know about and feeling like that’s ok. Not only ok but in fact required to be as efficient and as effective as we can. I think the same thing at least in my last experience worked exactly the same way.

I worked hard with my ScrumMaster to develop a culture within our team where it was a perfectly normal and in fact encouraged to divulge to the team that you did not know something. Often I did not know something; I was not the technical leader on the team at all. I’d asked my team-mates a lot of questions. At first I felt hesitant to do this, I didn’t feel safe but once we’ve established this as a norm I started asking questions all the time. There’s double win here. I got the information that I needed and my team-mates got a chance to help me and each time I asked a question I overcame something and showed a vulnerability to them. Each time they answered a question they helped me which made be a better product owner which made they’re life as engineers better. So there’s kind of a building effect.

Amr: It is a virtuous cycle.

It is a virtuous cycle. That’s exactly the way to put it: it is a virtuous cycle if we can get past the fear that we might have that someone may not respect me or someone may not like me, or I may challenge someone in the wrong way. If we get past all of those fears to a place where we communicate more freely and more openly about what we do and don’t know we can dramatically increase learning and remove the friction that often builds up when perhaps two people disagree and they let that disagreement just fester for day after day after day and sprint after sprint after sprint.

Amr: In Agile what we’ve figured out is: there’s Scrum here. There’s something very specific, we’ve got a name, we all know what it is, there a processes and techniques for it. Safety, ok I’ll buy into that, it resonates and I think it will resonate with most people here but what do we do you know? Are there any techniques that you can share in this interview that will help us do that? So we can actually feel or see when it’s unsafe and begin to work on it.

Sure. I think that you know one of the easiest ways to recognise that there are issues relating to safety on your team is simply the degree to which people participate. If all people don’t seem to be participating fully it’s probably because they don’t feel comfortable or safe to participate as who they are, they are not bringing their whole self to the work. Once we discover that and we can almost assume that that’s going to happen with a new person coming on to the team, a junior person coming on to the team.

Amr: Or any team doing an Agile transformation.

Or any team doing Agile transformation. Especially doing an Agile transformation an entire team of people could feel unsafe simply with the practices. So, one of the first things that we have to do I think is talk about this and establish right from the beginning that part of the culture of our team is going to be a culture where we 1: acknowledge of discomfort or fear and 2: that that is never a problem, 3: in fact that that is encouraged. One of the easiest ways to build that in as a practice is to elicit questioning. It’s very common for someone to give a short presentation, talk about some new technology or a new architecture and will give it as a lecture and the architect will get up in front of the team and talk about something or way to do for thirty minutes and then: any questions? And of course no one on the team wants to say: yes I just missed the last twenty minutes and I have no idea about what you were talking about. So what I say is: why don’t we build in, this is what I do in teaching and I did it a lot during our work together as a team, I’m sorry at a project. I said: look, instead of asking are there any questions because we know there are, why don’t we stop about every eight to ten minutes which is about all our human brains can take in terms of brand new information and say: What questions do you have? Let’s set the expectation that there will always be questions and we’ll write them on the board together and the next ten minutes or twenty minutes we’ll go toward answering them, or if we can’t answer them within the context of the ten or thirty minutes that we have we’ll parking lot them and will absolutely make sure they get answered. Another practice if things are very unsafe to people, particularly in an Agile transformation, I think this might be something I’ve done a lot in formal training and education.

We may offer people the opportunity to write down questions they have and submit them essentially anonymously such that if I’m the coach and I’m working in a transformation situation I know there are going to be questions and I know people are going to be hesitant to be the first one to raise their hand and then say: I have a question. So I’ll offer a mechanism, a formal of practice where after each session or each march that we go through I’ll collect up sets of questions on three by five cards. I do this in my teaching training, recently I did two days of training with a new group of teachers, they don’t know me, I don’t know them, we’re talking about brand new practices. I got 653 three by five cards. What’s great about that is they all come into about six or eight piles, that all are about the same things. It turns out that if one person has a question probably ten other people do too and so I just have to sort them into piles, I answer the questions on email and a hundred people get the answer. It’s a very low friction, low risk, high value and high efficiency way to distribute information equally among the group. One of the biggest problems, one of the biggest tensions that we have in education and in any teamwork situation is what I call: hidden knowledge or secret knowledge. Obviously some people are in a project team know more than others. We want people who have a lot of knowledge but knowledge is ...

Amr: Knowledge is people. Yes

That’s right. Well, knowledge is not equally distributed and in a knowledge work industry, knowledge is power.

Amr: Correct.

And people can feel not very powerful if they don’t have the knowledge.

Amr: And if you let it show it’s less safe.

It can be less safe because you can feel that you’ll be marginalised over time if you’re the person who is always looking like he doesn’t know something, when in fact you might be the person who is really trying hardest to learn the most. So one of my rules and again this could be not so much a practice but a cultural norm that I would want to embue into a team is: no secret knowledge, no hidden knowledge. If you learn something come and share it with the group at the most appropriate time. If you need to know something ask the question right now if it’s appropriate.

Amr: A culture of inquiry.

A culture of inquiry, absolutely. That’s the term we use over in education, it’s been used for thirty or forty years over in education and in my recent experience of product ownership bringing that over directly into our team turned out to be very successful, especially as our team evolved in terms of personnel. We grew by adding junior members to the team. Obviously they were the quietest at our early stand-ups, they were the quietest in our early planning. But the more we got to know them, the more they’ve got to know us and the safer they felt it was amazing to watch their growth and in the end I think some of them probably became as knowledgeable, and as effective and as important and as valuable as many of our senior team members.

Amr: That’s wonderful. Thank you. So, what we get is that we can help education and we can learn from the education world, also. There are two ways.

Yes. This is been something that has been very important to me in the last four years because I work in both industries. I see such similarities of course in the goal, learning being the central goal that we have in both places and I also see that each side has something to offer the other. I think Agilists have a wonderful set of named and proven practices that are easy to explain, that are easy to identify and that could be easily moved over and are being moved over directly into education.

Amr: Sure.

Where we have a little bit of confusion about methodology sometimes. Ok, so Agilists have a lot to bring. I think on the education side we know a lot about helping people learn and we know a lot about what sometimes we think as the invisible curriculum or the hidden impediments to learning that the people don’t often think about. I think of safety of course on the education, I think the safety is the first one, safety is the prerequisite of learning because it is what gives learners the feeling that it is safe to take the risk, that it’s necessary to learn. Specifically the risk of failure. You have to make failure ok, we have to make people realise that it is safe to fail and in fact without failure learning is impeded.


11. Without failure learning is impeded. Well I want to thank you very much Steve for spending the time with us. It feels that there’s so much more that we can learn about this. Do you have any places where we can go. I mean, if we want to learn more about this do we just contact you directly?

Right now yes, please contact me directly at Steve Peha at What I’ve noticed as I’ve said three or four years ago writing an article for InfoQ: things coming into the email, I’m still getting feedback from that article, the feedback has changed though, it’s now who’s doing this, it’s: I’m doing this. And what are we working at I the next few months is putting together something I’m just calling: Agile Schools. It will be an area on my website and I’ll start talking more directly about this and I’m hopefully creating a home resource where people can come, share their experiences and we can kind of knit this world together for the purpose of helping people in the Agile community see how well this works and also on the education side to show educators that there’s quite a lot of this that is not so new, it’s not so scary, has been proven, is being used right now and could be of extraordinary value on the educational side.

Amr: Wonderful. Thank you so much Steve.

Thank you so much Amr. It has been a pleasure talking to you today.

Dec 08, 2013