How To Become An Agile Educator | Roslynn Jackson | 8 Min Read

What does it mean to be Agile?  What is all of this talk about Agile in education?

Those questions went through my head, too, when I first heard about this framework.  I remember being concerned about having to learn yet another trend in education.  I did not want to be bogged down with another learning tool. And then, with much encouragement from my friend @Jessica Cavallaro and receiving training from @L-EAF.org through @Jeff Burstein, I understood how off-target I was. Becoming Agile would make my work as an educator easier, not harder.  I would be able to cover more material in a school year, not less.  And best of all, my students would lead the way.  Sounds too good to be true, right?  Well, it’s not.  I’ll tell you why.

What Is Agile? Here’s A Quick Explanation.

Being Agile is about adopting a mindset.  It means that your students will work on accomplishing the objectives of any project through self-directed teams. These teams collaborate on the achievement of goals through small iterations and continuous reflections and improvements, if necessary, of the work they produce.  

That’s quite a mouthful, right? Are you still confused?  Let’s work through an example:

  1. Start With An Essential Question/Problem

How do we design a plan to ensure that materials we use every day are recycled properly and minimize environmental impacts? 

  1. Identify the Objective  

The essential question should be tied to your learning objectives for the students.  For example, students must be able to “Construct an explanation that predicts patterns of interactions among organisms across multiple ecosystems”. I have taken this directly from Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).  However, you can paraphrase a standard into wording that you and your students easily comprehend.  Doing this will help to make sure that they understand the objective of the overall project as well.  

  1. Identify What Tasks Must Be Completed To Reach The Goals  

As the guide for the project, first, you will identify the main activities the students will do to learn a set of skills and content knowledge. Then, you give them the power to determine how they will apply and demonstrate what they are learning to answer the Essential Question.  Again, students will decide what tasks are required to reach the goals they have established. But this is a good place for you to provide some overall guidance and scaffolding to assist them. Each assignment that you scaffold is a stand-alone task with a deliverable that the students will submit. 

4. Identify What Check-ins Might Look Like For Goals That the Students Establish  

Each team of students will have identified their own goals, right? But there are certain criteria that they should be able to meet (or demonstrable skills they should be able to show) as they progress. Here are some quick scaffolding tips to remember:

a. Can they show you what they are trying to achieve? 

Do they have a mock-up, a written outline, or a great verbal overview of their plan?

b. What do they already know, and how are they using it to create their goals?  

Are they using prior knowledge or is it based on research they have found?  Is that research sound? Can they show that the research is reliable?

c. Are there new concepts that they have discovered in their research?

Do they understand these new concepts?  Can they clearly explain them?  Good, have them prove it to you. 

d. Can they articulate what they have learned visually? 

It is an amazing skill to be able to visually translate what you know into a product that will convey important facts to others.  Can your students show mastery of a topic by doing this?

e. Are they reflecting on what they have learned?  

Do they know and understand how the new information relates to the goals that they have established, and moreover, the overall objective?  If it does not, will they still need it?  Is it important enough that it requires the goals to be redefined?  

How To Let Your Students Run the Show 

  1.  You Have To Plan Ahead  

Have a plan to facilitate their first stages of shock and confusion when they still look to you for answers as to what to do. My students are always shocked when I tell them that they are in control of the lesson.  They still ask me what to do next.  My usual response is “I don’t know. What do you think should be your next step?” I have a set of questions I ask to help them get started. These general questions can work with any topic, any project.

  • What does this term mean?
  • Do you know how this process works?
  • What person/entity is responsible for this process?
  • Are there any advantages or disadvantages to the process?
  • What else do you think is important to know?
  1. Identify Specific Skills That Will Be Assessed During the Project

What will the students be graded on?  What will you assess? Remember — scaffolding. Through my experience with project-based learning (PBL), I have found that assessing skills is a more effective teaching goal for me than assessing content knowledge. It can be helpful to have a rubric prepared to show the students exactly what skills they must exhibit as they progress through the project. Demonstration of certain skills can be used to assess them.

  1. Reinforce Team Collaboration and Reflection 

In my experience, students lean on each other in the beginning when they are all confused about how to proceed, but may try to work independently as the project progresses.  They forget that splitting up the work may help you achieve goals faster, but without collaboration, that work may end up being in vain.  This is why regular team reflection, collaboration, and improvement must continue throughout the project.  No student is always correct. No one student should take over the project.  They must work as a team.  If a team leader is assigned, great.  That does not mean he or she is in control. It means they have the responsibility to make sure that the group continues to communicate, collaborate, and reflect regularly.  The team leader’s role is to make sure the team stays on track to achieve the goals that will further the overall project objective. 

  1. Celebrate When Goals Are “Done”

Working on a project using an Agile framework means the students can celebrate their achievements as they occur. Incremental parts of the project will be submitted that allow them to demonstrate, and you to assess, their understanding as the project progresses.  You do not have to wait for the final grade to celebrate a job well done.  Each team must define and set the criteria for what “done” means for them.  It is like quality control guidelines for the team’s work.  These criteria define how they will know when a task is complete, and if it meets the standards the team feels will match your expectations as their guide and customer.  Before any work can be submitted, all members of the team must agree that it is “done”.  Identifying a task or product as “done” allows the team to move on to the next task or skill.  

Share the Results With An Authentic Audience

When your students have come to the end of their project, they have found an answer to the Essential Question. Now what? Usually, it would end in a presentation to you or to the class.  But, it does not have to end there.  Find an authentic audience.  Have a plan to have them present and share their results with someone, anyone outside of your classroom.  Can they share with another class in your same subject area? Using our example from above, the students could draft a proposed plan of action to present to school administrators to ensure that the school’s trash is actually being recycled according to specific protocols that will minimize environmental impacts. 

Even better, can they share with another class outside of your subject area and ask them to add another element to the project?  For example, I teach 7th-grade science. What an opportunity this could be for the math teacher and her students to add new data elements that my students had not yet addressed, adding another layer of complexity and insight to our original question.

Reflect on the Process With Your Students

Reflection is the key to growth.  Ask your students what they have learned.  Ask them what skills they have achieved.  Do they even recognize them?  Have them refer to your rubric, and see if that helps.  Model the behavior for them by sharing your own reflections on the process.  Your vulnerability and insights will encourage them to be transparent and forthcoming with their own. 

Key Takeaways

  • Agile is a mindset.  It is a way of working with a team to collaborate and get more work done in less time by making small iterative moves, reflecting on the actions taken, and making improvements to them as you go in order to reach an overall goal or objective.  
  • It fosters student agency and creativity.  
  • It allows teachers to become facilitators of learning, instead of dictators.
  • It allows students to demonstrate true knowledge of skills and content through problem-solving activities and challenges. 
  • It allows true collaboration and connection between students as they work together to achieve shared objectives and goals. 

Making an Agile transformation in your classroom can be done.  You just need to have the courage to go for it. Will it be perfect? No. Will it be instantaneous? Probably not. But, in my experience, the benefits to you and your students are worth the effort. 

Roslynn Jackson, Co-Founder, The Agile Mind, [email protected]

Roslynn Jackson

Roslynn Jackson is a Middle School Science Teacher at Pine Crest School (Fort Lauderdale). She is The Agile Mind Co-Founder | Entrepreneur | Educator with a passion for encouraging students of all ages to use failures as the stepping stones to success. She received a Bachelor's Degree from Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University and J.D. from University of Miami School of Law.

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