What makes a classroom agile? | Jessica Cavallaro | 4 Min Read

Throughout the summer, I answered this question from educators all over the world. While I do not have a definitive answer, there are some qualities that distinguish an agile classroom from a traditional classroom: student agency, the teacher as a guide, and skills.

Student Agency

In an agile classroom, students drive their education. This does not mean that the classroom is a free-for-all where there are no standards or organized curriculum. It is quite the opposite. 

For a moment, think about where agile originates. It developed to lean out (to make more efficient) systems of software development. The technology industry has clear deadlines, objectives and functions. No one hires software developers to create anything the developers like. Agile was conceived for business to be more efficient and flexible. 

The same need is true for a classroom. There is a scope and sequence that must be adhered to, standards to uphold, and a curriculum to be met. When students are given agency, they still have constraints, just like in the workplace. In an agile classroom, the students can choose freely within those constraints. 

In an agile classroom, the teacher poses an essential question. The question helps set the learning goals of the unit. Students understand what question must be answered by the given deadline. There is also content that must be taught. For me, that means students must analyze primary documents, evaluate historical events, and understand the causes and effects of these events. Students must understand these skills and content: it is a non-negotiable of the class. 

Choice comes from students applying skill and content knowledge. For my students, this means I teach mini lessons that model important skills and scaffold activities for learning history. Instead of treating my classroom as a stage where I dispense information, I make these lessons as autonomous as possible. I create videos to teach new skills, so students can watch them repeatedly and stop when necessary for maximum understanding. Activities are self-paced and scaffolded to develop mastery of knowledge. Therefore, student teams decide what gets done, when, and where. There are MUST lessons and activities that are turned in for a grade, but students can choose when they do them and how they apply their knowledge to answer the essential question. 

Teacher As a Guide

As students gain choice and agency in their learning, the role of the teacher shifts as well. Many times when I introduce agile to new teachers, they are weary about adding a new “thing” to their already exhaustive list of tasks to complete. 

Agile is different. Instead of the teacher leading the learning and dosing it out as necessary to a classroom of students, the teacher transforms into a guide. Teachers step back from the front of the room, delegate the work to the students, and help students troubleshoot. 

Students are now expected to plan their units, pace their learning, and problem solve the solutions. A teacher is not capable of doing all that for a classroom of students. Now teachers get to do what they really love: working with students. 

There is no more large group instruction, since each team is working at their own pace. There is no group problem solving because every team is employing a different strategy. The teacher is finally free to work in small groups or with individuals. Learning is personalized. Differentiation is easy. 

The advanced students can take off immediately because they know what needs to be done. As the teacher moves through the room, they can prompt these students with personalized questions to further push and continuously challenge them. Students who struggle can ask clarifying questions and receive the teacher’s undivided attention. Teachers get the time to build strong relationships with all of their students and the space to assess mastery and understanding that otherwise would never be possible. 

Skills

Our students are growing up in a knowledge rich environment. They can google any question, easily access ancient philosophers, or tweet political figures. They are connected and able to access depths of knowledge never considered possible by our ancestors. The real value in today’s education is no longer “recall.”

Education is now how to apply knowledge that you can access. It is the ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated topics, be creative, problem solve, make decisions and prioritize information. This is only achieved through active learning. 

Students need time to learn these skills, develop them, and become comfortable practicing them in their lives. There is a difference between being told something is important and learning it for yourself, which is also true for skill transference. Students must be granted the space to be creative, practice collaboration, and solve real world problems using critical thinking skills. An agile classroom is designed to give students these opportunities. 

An agile classroom sets up students with the necessary knowledge and a goal. Skills can be modeled and scaffolded, but most importantly, students are free to practice, reflect, learn, and try again. This is character building. It is the foundational development of social emotional learning and executive functioning skills. 

An agile classroom addresses the student needs. It begins with a standard traditional curriculum and advances it to address the needs of today’s evolving world. Students are still able to learn classic literature, world history, and physics. The difference is they have choice. The teachers are free to truly teach, and the classroom transforms from a passive learning environment to a room buzzing in active learning.

Jessica Cavallaro

Jessica Cavallaro is the co-founder of The Agile Mind, which interweaves Agile frameworks into K-12 education. She is passionate about the benefits of project based learning and creating purposeful education to drive innovation through inquiry. She is an advocate for developing systems that give students agency. Jessica earned her Bachelor’s degree at Pace University and Master’s in Education from Mercy College.

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