Dr Paul Magnuson & Bill Tihen

Dr Paul Magnuson, Research Director / Faculty, Leysin American School / Moreland University, Switzerlan


Bill Tihen, Software Engineer / Former-Teacher, Garaio REM, Switzerland

We have been playing with educational agility for nearly ten years. Agility is a flexible approach to working in iterations informed by a steady stream of feedback, managed by everyone involved, and made possible through transparent communication. Agile is big in the software industry and, increasingly, education (see Agile Research Consortium for Schools).

Initially we followed pioneers in the field, notably John Miller (see Agile Classrooms) and Willy Wijnands (see eduScrum). Over the years we have moved to a collection of practices, influenced by agile’s early history (see the Agile Manifesto) and our conviction that changing one’s practice requires internationalization through self-exploration.

We call our practices EDgilty. Some are 21st century skills (e.g. collaboration and retrospection) and some borrow directly from lean and agile (e.g. pull vs. push and iterate & adapt).  Some borrow from workplace psychology (e.g. uplift and psychological safety). What they have in common is a connection with agility, notably scrum, lean, and kanban.

Looking back, we realize that adopting an agile mindset in education has largely been an exercise in supporting student agency. EDgility can help us move from front-and-center to side-by-side, from sage on the stage to coach and facilitator.

Below are selections from blogs originally published with The International Educator. The reflections are about agency in school environments, which are ironically rather anti-agency. If the excerpts speak to you, we encourage you to explore agile education a bit more.

First, do our schools really undermine student agency?

Jennifer Groff, Innovation Fellow at WISE and experienced school reformer, thinks so.

“There’s just so much about the old model that doesn’t work and hasn’t worked for quite some time. In fact, there’s a lot of research to support  that many of the common structures that we just assume are fine … are actually rather problematic.

“When you spend 12 years thinking that the world is chopped up into linear bits and there’s a right answer that’s that short … you are doing immense damage to these kids. They don’t know how to handle the complexity of the world.” We are “sending them out into this complex world without the agency and the self direction to navigate it.”

Ouch, but yes.

“Schools “have many things that need redefining and addressing, there’s … just loads of evidence to support that.”

When you consider that school curriculum is determined before teachers ever meet the students they are going to teach, you should get an inkling that agency is not a high priority. Teachers want to support agency, but they are highly constrained. Administrators may say they are all for agency, but there you should push back. How is agency intentionally supported? Is there really any time?

Matt Barnes:

“I ask teachers all the time what they want, what is the dream environment for their learners … They want learners to be independent, they want learners to be excited about learning, curious, to be autonomous and have a high sense of agency. They want that. But the system they are in doesn’t. The system they are in is built to create dependent learners.”

Sugata Mitra, famous for his hole-in-the-wall studies, points out one significant step toward greater student agency.

“When we make a curriculum … we have to tell the children WHY we had to learn this. It’s not okay to answer “You will understand when you grow up… or because it’s good for you.”

So how do we answer?

One could also ask “Why don’t we teach this or that?” Answering “Because that hasn’t been in the curriculum before” is not allowable.

We believe, like David Perkins (2014), that much of our current curriculum is arbitrary. Uniformity is an administrative convenience and a constraint on student agency. If children do not have to all learn the same thing, there’s a lot  more room for choice and personal interest.

Tim Logan, host of Future Learning Design, emphasizes an interesting shift in thinking in order to provide more choice. In a conversation with A J Juliani, Founder/CEO of Adaptable Learning, Tim mentions the principle of pull vs. push. We should consider focusing on

“… a pull system instead of a push system. Everything gets pushed on kids, the master schedule, content, [it all] gets pushed on kids. And actually what we need to switch to is a pull system.”

What will be meaningful to do next? What will be most productive? In a jam-packed curriculum, we often feel there is no time for students to make decisions about what work, when. The combination of little choice tied to a permanent grade plays havoc with motivation. A J reminds us that we want

 “to get students to care about the learning and not the grade. You don’t want kids just doing something for marks … we want them learning because they like learning.”

This is a big ask for schools. But we can all work on it. Internalizing the notion of pull vs. push will help.

We can also intentionally teach collaboration, autonomy, stick-to-it-iveness, and so on, if we have a mind to.

For starters, we need to figure out the co-existence of content and skills, a debate which wrongly pits content and skills against each other. For Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the OECD, that’s framing the problem too simply.

“We shouldn’t treat knowledge and skills as two ends on a spectrum … one without the other is of very little value.”

Indeed. And since we have lots of content, let’s add more skills (and yes, take out some content). Then let’s start reporting learning in a manner that supports the learning of skills.

Conrad Hughes, principal at the International School of Geneva and founder of the Coalition to Honour All Learning, says his students tell him that they have lots of things they like to do, but not enough time to do them. They are stuck in a push system.

“We’ve created a system that drowns out creativity and passion … So much of what students want to do they can’t do anymore, because of the way that we’ve designed high school.”

Hughes warns us not to send the message that “this is not your place. Your star cannot shine here.” What if the curriculum was built in such a manner that students had the time and energy to pursue their interests?

And what if the high school transcript reflected those skills we claim are important – yet aren’t currently reporting in any way commensurate with subject specific achievement?

Agency can be  supported in many ways and it desperately needs our support, because agency is frankly difficult to find in schools. Pick an EDgility practice and give a  nudge toward greater student agency. You don’t need to change the world, you just need to shift a little bit. Then reflect on your students’ learning and choose another practice with which you can promote more student agency.

We’ll leave you with a final agile term: kaizen. Kaizen is a mindset, or culture, in which everyone feels empowered to make improvements. Do what you personally are able to grant your students more agency. Practice a bit of kaizen, because together we can move mountains.


About Dr Paul Magnuson

Over the past ten years, Paul Magnuson, with several colleagues, created a research center for professional development at the Leysin American School. Teachers learn through sharing action research with each other and with the world via blogs, school visits, presentations, and publications. EDgility – pulling agile into education – originated in discussions with Bill Tihen in the IT office.

About Bill Tihen

In collaboration with Paul Magnuson, Bill developed EDgility to encourage new learning methods informed by several practices and values. He found that when students ‘play’ with a topic through exploring, they make small experiments and learn to assess and adjust their work. EDgility is composed of several practices that encourage teachers to afford students greater personal agency.

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