When the school day starts, everything looks the same.
Students file into the classroom and find their place.
The teacher begins the “lesson.”
Here is where it deviates from the norm. The room starts to come alive. It’s charged.
The teacher’s address evolves into a daily “stand up” that moves quickly – 10 minutes tops. The instructor facilitates the discussion and then the students take over. They have already been divided into a few small groups they’ve determined themselves, and they cover three main things: what they learned yesterday, what they will learn and do today, and what may possibly block them from learning.
The students are in the middle of a “sprint,” and each one is responsible for reporting on something. Students learn quickly that they must participate. It’s a very awkward environment for the student who has nothing to say. Once the stand up ends, it’s time to get to work to develop the end product.
The end product might be a lesson about language and how to teach onomatopoeia or the life cycle of a rock, how rocks are formed and what types of rocks exist. Really, the project or product can be anything.
Welcome to scrum in education. Scrum is a part of the agile movement rooted in the world of the technology industry. What originally started out as a software development method – and is very well known in Silicon Valley and other bustling tech hubs – is today a fairly hands off, yet inclusive, project management methodology that’s being used more and more in the classroom.
Bring on the collaboration
“Scrum is very much like a [book on the] game of chess. It simply describes how you would go about building software, but it wouldn’t tell you move by move what to do. You have to figure that out for yourself,” Ken Schwaber, founder of Scrum.org has said. Schwaber worked with Jeff Sutherland to formulate the first versions of scrum in the 1990s to help organizations struggling with complex development projects.
For teachers who are “scrumming,” which is the most popular framework of the agile operation, the results are very encouraging because scrum touches on so many elements of success that will pay off long after students leave the classroom and continue to prepare for college and career.
“Students are not born knowing how to work together,” says Bea Leiderman, instructional technology coach for Goochland County Public Schools in Virginia. “Scrum really teaches students how to be efficient and effective together.”
Take, for example, a project where students partner to create a newspaper that covers events from the American Revolution. Students work collaboratively to research key names and events, write news articles and design a newspaper or magazine. Teams work together to decide what materials or technology to use and to create their final artifact, Leiderman describes.
“What I’ve seen is that kids have improved their communication skills and are able to keep their team working through problems by discussing what is going on rather than arguing unproductively,” Leiderman says. “Since all tasks and ownership of those tasks are explicitly communicated, it’s easier for students to resolve conflict rationally rather than stumbling over emotions or personal conflict. When a team member runs into difficulty with a task, they can ask for help because kids are working independently, but not in isolation.”
“Two essential elements of [scrum] are self-advocacy and self-organization,” adds Lindsey Oh, director of virtual schools at Education Elements based in California’s Silicon Valley. “Scrum is really dependent on the student and gives ownership to students for their own learning, which will be revolutionary.”
The summary argument by Adam Bellow, founder and CEO of eduClipper, winner of the ISTE Outstanding Young Educator Award and keynote speaker at ISTE 2013: “It’s simply a wonderful way to teach people. Scrum highlights the individual strengths in a team, which makes the individual weaknesses less relevant.”
Leverage classroom creativity
As the world races along, education is sometimes slow to change. Few industries that began in the last century that are still in business today are making products the same way they used to. The lifeblood of business is innovation and transformation. So it makes sense that a methodology like scrum was born in the technology field, arguably the most progressive industry we now have.
“Society wants technology to be more personalized, so we want the classroom to change as well,” says Oh.
Scrum is wide open without being unwieldy; it’s energetic without being chaotic; it’s collaborative without being controlling. This last point is critical, as more and more research emphasizes the value of students working together on projects, which increases overall achievement, productivity and preparation for the real world.
“Scrum allows students to get very creative,” says Amy Fox, a computer science faculty member at Valhalla Union School District in Valhalla, New York, and an ISTE member who holds a doctor of professional studies in computing. “Students do more on their own and then in their groups than I can ever ask of them. They always exceed expectations. Always. And because they are so empowered to work independently, it allows me to stay out of the way and help when and where it’s most needed.”
Building a better mousetrap
Scrum may be a new to the classroom, but its main principle is basic and time-tested, particularly in the business world: build the best mousetrap. Before the stand ups and the sprints, students are given a goal and the specifications are clear, but the creativity is left to the students.
In software development, the end product is for the client. In the classroom, the end product is the learning along the way, but students also need to answer the question: how and what will we ultimately achieve? In both worlds, the key word is agile, the bedrock of scrum.
“There is no single correct answer, as the methodology allows several iterations,” Leiderman says.
And perhaps nothing promotes agility more than failure. In scrum, students are encouraged to fall down.
“Failure is not a problem,” Fox says. “It’s just another step to get to the right solution for the situation.”
Educators personalize the approach
More than likely, scrum’s flexibility will look very different in a school setting from how it’s used in software development. “Classroom teachers can and should put their own spin on things,” says Bellow.
Fox, for example, says he plays two roles. “Part of what I do is different than industry. We don’t have ‘customers.’ I play the part of the customer: this is what I want. And I also play the role of scrum master. What we do is definitely an adaptation.”
Some ideas are inseparable. Failure and allowing for different iterations are foundational elements. According to an article from Brandwatch.com, “You don’t want to waste your time and money building a product no one will want to use or pay for. This is where minimum viable product comes in, creating a product with the minimum set of product features that will give value to users, in order to test the concept and get feedback before continuing development.”
“I compare scrum in the classroom to the great apps and products,” says Oh. “Take the development of the iPhone. It didn’t come into existence from nothing. It was iteration, iteration, iteration to the days of 2007. That’s the idea of iterating and improving.”
Accountability is king
With all the emphasis on teamwork, the power of the individual within the group and the benefits of scrum, it’s easy to assume that this methodology is a no-brainer. Not true. Successful student collaboration has its challenges. For starters, it’s difficult for students to hand over the achievement of their grade – still the main yardstick of student success – to someone else. It’s natural for students to want to take matters into their own hands. Then there are those who may want just to blend in and get by.
To help offset any misgivings among students, the stand ups promote transparency and accountability, which often leads to competition, a sneaky motivator.
“With scrum, there’s no place to hide,” says Joe Beasley, a fifth grade teacher at Goochland Elementary School in Goochland, Virginia. “Everyone knows what everyone else is doing.”
“From the beginning, scrum empowers students,” says Jim Frago, who teaches sixth grade at Goochland Middle School. “Students pick their teams. We don’t pick their teams. They learn very fast that teams shouldn’t necessarily be selected on friendships. It’s about achieving a goal.”
Bellow adds that the accountability is visual as much as it is verbal. Teams track their progress with Post-It notes for all to see. All a student needs to do is look up and check the scoreboard. But all of these checks and balances may not make sense for certain environments. There is no silver bullet.
“[Scrum] won’t work in every classroom,” Bellow says. “We need to avoid the trap in education that just because it’s ‘buzzwordy,’ it will fit into everything.”
A student’s take on scrum
Eddie Williams, 10, a student in Beasley’s class, is quick to explain how scrumming differs from typical group projects that are often dreaded by students and teachers alike. “In group projects, usually one or two people do the work. Not everyone knows what they are doing so they don’t help the group,” Eddie shares. “With scrum, everyone stays on track and is more organized. You aren’t all frustrated and there’s less sitting around.” That organization is driven by a scrum board Beasley has students create using a manila file folder. The folder is broken into three sections: the outside is the cover; the left inside page is labeled “backlog;” the right inside page is labeled “doing;” and the back is labeled “done.”
“If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can look at the scrum board. And if a student is absent, another student can check the board and fill in,” Eddie explains. He’s used the scrum technique for both reading and science projects and assures it ups the participation and the fun for students.
A buzz with a burst
HBO, a television trendsetter, has added to the buzz around scrum by including references to it in one of its popular shows. In an early episode of “Silicon Valley,” a project team is shown visually illustrating the progress of their product. Yes, they are scrumming on TV.
It may not be President Nixon’s sweaty lip, the O.J. Simpson chase, the last episode of “M*A*S*H” or the coverage of the 2000 presidential election, but it’s a start. Scrum is now becoming more common in classrooms, even if it’s still a bit unclear for practitioners.
“I don’t even know exactly what scrum is,” says ISTE member Camille Ryckman, with a laugh.
But Ryckman did know enough to take a chance. The digital teacher-librarian at Bear Creek k-8 in the Denver area encourages her peers to do the same. To get started, just go.
“I haven’t been doing this [method] long, maybe a few months, but as an educator, I know in my gut it is a good idea. I jumped right in,” she says.
Small and chewable
Education demands equal parts innovation and inspiration in order to evolve and compete with tomorrow. Scrum offers tremendous potential and excitement.
For Oh, once scrum starts, the clarity of how we’ve always learned takes over. “We don’t learn calculus in a day,” she explains. “It’s steps, sprints if you will. We learn material in small and chewable cycles. Scrumming is small and chewable. We divide it into small pieces to consume it easier.”
“Students tell me that scrum gives them a sense of accomplishment unlike anything else in school,” says Ryckman.
“The amount of energy going through a scrum…I’ve never experienced anything like it in a classroom,” Frago adds.
“Scrum works,” says Fox. “It definitely works in schools.”
A jolt of electricity to charge the classroom? That’s the hum of scrum.
Tim Douglas is a former television news producer who also served as a senior media consultant for several speakers of the california state assembly. today, douglas is a freelance writer who covers a wide range of topics.