Lessons for classrooms from Scrum

It is clear that education the world over is in a state of crisis. Jack Ma summed it up aptly at the World Economic Forum meet recently — “If we do not change the way we teach, thirty years later we will be in trouble….”

As individuals, most of us might not be able to re-form education in large-scale. However, there are steps we can take in our classrooms — small steps that make huge differences..

The Scrum approach to software development has, like its Agile kin, some distinguishing features that offer lessons we can learn for use in our classrooms.

1) Scrum Teams execute projects in terms of Sprints. A Sprint is a fixed period of time (usually between one to four weeks) at the end of which, the Team delivers outcomes of value to the customer. A project is executed with a number of Sprints with the customer seeing outcomes at the end of each sprint rather than as a single marathon where the customer sees outcomes (of value) later in the lifecycle and infrequently.

Can we create Lesson Plans such that Learners see the Term (or Semester) as a series of Learning Sprints? Can we group Learners into small Teams (say 3 to 4 in a Team)? Can the Learners be encouraged to create an artifact that demonstrates their learnings for each Learning Sprint (building up on all the earlier Sprints)? Artifacts could be research findings, presentations, prototypes, papers, code, models — anything tangible that is appropriate for the knowledge-area and which, demonstrates the Learners’ achievement of the Learning Outcomes for the period.

By taking this step —

  • we encourage Learners to see themselves as active, creative, participants in the venture — rather than as passive sponges who absorb and release.

  • we encourage Learners to see Learning as a project that aims to yield tangible outcomes of value for themselves and others — rather than as a journey of exams where the grades, mistakenly, are seen as outcomes.

  • we encourage Learners to nurture their interests and invoke passion. The value of this is something that great thinkers have recognised across history. In one of the essays that form the “Moralia” (written around 100 A. D), Plutarch makes this timeless point that “the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth.”

2) One of the rituals that Scrum Teams adhere to is the “Daily Scrum”. This is a meeting that all Team members participate in. The Scrum Master, a member of the Scrum Team whose job, among other things, is to remove impediments that the Team faces, anchors this meeting. During the meeting, each Team member answers the following questions —

— What did you do yesterday?

— What do you plan to do today?

— Are there any impediments you are facing?

The primary objective of this daily meeting is not to get a status update on the project. Rather, it is to make commitments, communicate a desire to honour them, and highlight obstacles.

Can we have Learners do a Weekly meeting of this kind with their Teams? Each Learner will answer the following —

— What did you learn this week?

— What do you plan to learn next week?

— Is there anything that is hampering your learning?

By instilling this ritual —

  • we encourage Learners to reflect on what they have really learnt

  • we identify challenges that Learners are facing as early as possible and, this gives us more time to help with remedial action

  • we create opportunities for Learners to help each other. If a Learner in the Team is, for example, having difficulties in a Topic and communicates this, others in the Team who have grasped the Topic could help. Peer-learning, as research from the Harvard Professor Eric Mazur demonstrates, is a powerful mode of learning — and, often, more effective than the conventional instructor-led style.

3) Individuals in Scrum Teams enjoy a great deal of autonomy. There are no roles or designations that communicate hierarchy, seniority, or power. Indeed, the ways of working demand that each member of the Team is not “assigned” tasks but voluntarily picks up work from a list. Such an environment makes for communication that is uninhibited and free of fear. There is no “Boss” — just a Team of people united in pursuit with each member achieving a state of being where individual interests and interdependence fuse.

In classrooms, we would do well to create environments where the “Teacher” makes active efforts to shed the halo. The Teacher, then, is seen by the Learner not as a “exalted, powerful, controlling being on a high pedestal” but as a fellow-Learner (someone who has been probably been learning longer than the student).

By doing this —

  • we create classrooms where Learners are less likely to have trepidation in asking questions, expressing ignorance, and making mistakes. These three factors, fear in asking questions, expressing ignorance, and making mistakes, boil down to a fear of failure and this, as the Kelley brothers observe in “Creative Confidence”, is “the single biggest obstacle people face to creative success.”

  • we create classrooms the foster the “growth mindset” which is, the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck tells us (in “Mindset”), “the belief that everyone can change and grow thorough application and experience”. This mindset expresses itself as “the passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially)” when things are not going well. This mindset is what separates the truly great from others.

In training programs and workshops i have conducted over the the past few years, i have experimented with these ideas. Learners tell me that this has created memorable learning experiences for them — they certainly have for me.

If you have experimented with ways to nourish Learners, i would be happy to learn from you.