"It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change!" - Charles Darwin

Friday, 8 September 2017

Agile Education at a primary school in Italy - Part 1

Agile In Education Compass - designed by Stuart Young (Radtac) 
My brother Marco is a primary school teacher in Italy. 
From this perspective we share a common interest, since I am a trainer and I am interested in how people learn. 

I’ve been actually interested in that for more than 25 years: as a Scout leader it has been very clear for me that educating boys and girls is giving them the opportunity to learn and become the best they can be.
It is not by chance that the verb “to educate” comes from the Latin “ex ducere”, which literally means “to lead out” what a person already potentially is.

Last year we happened to talk about how to create a learning experience for primary school kids which would encompass the following:
  • Being more adaptable to a kid’s specific learning needs
  • Being a meaningful experience involving feelings and physical emotions
  • Fostering self-development and co-education
  • Training skills which are crucial in the 21st century and the school is traditionally not that good at teaching, e.g.
    • self-organization
    • leadership
    • ability to plan
    • imagination
    • self-reflection
    • dealing with uncertainties and the unknown
As an Agile coach and trainer, all these things resonated a lot with me as they sounded like the skills of true "agilistas" or the characteristic of an awesome Agile team.

On the other side, I was aware of the many experiences in the field of Agile in Education, which are summarized on the website agileineducation.org and conceptualized through the Agile Education compass created by a group of Agile educators at the Scrum Gathering in Orlando in April 2016.

So the proposal was kind of natural: why not trying a learning experience based on Agile values and principles? Learning and using the Scrum framework looked to me the simplest and most straightforward option to help the kids practice agility at school.

The very first step was actually to educate Marco in Scrum: I led him through an introductory session to the Agile manifesto, Scrum and its foundation, including Empirical Process Control.
This was enough in catching him up in the idea: the confidence in his older brother did the rest in accumulating enough enthusiasm and motivation to get going with the whole experiment J

Basically we wanted to have a first-hand validation that applying Scrum in a primary school class is doable, kids enjoy it, they can learn faster and practice skills they normally do not in a traditional classroom environment.

Below I will describe the whole concept we adopted, how we structured it, a report of the different phases and some final results we achieved (I will actually split the whole story over a couple of posts to make each post reasonably short).

Selecting the project

The first problem to solve was to pick a learning project which was suitable for the experiment.
It should have been challenging enough to get a meaningful result out of it.
At the same time it should have been concrete enough, so that the kids could actually produce something tangible (iteratively and incrementally) and see the outcome of their work.
There is no Scrum team without a productJ.

The class consisted of 19 kids: considering the recommended size of a Scrum team between 3-9 people, the selected learning project should have been suitable to work in multi-team environment. Multiple Scrum teams had to work in parallel on the same product and get success by collaborating and integrating their work, hopefully at each and every iteration.

The natural choice emerged to be an interdisciplinary geography project, including learning objectives in arts (mainly image), math (mainly statistics) and humanities.

Students in the 5th grade are supposed to study the whole Italy and specifically each of the different 20 regions which form the country. This looked very promising for creating a backlog of multiple items, which many teams could work on at the same time: each Product Backlog Item would have been one of the 20 regions.


The whole experiment started in the first week of November 2016.
In a previous meeting, Marco had informed all parents about the trial which would have involved their children during the year. He explained them the idea and the rationale and all of them showed curiosity and agreed to move on, based also on the trust they had in the teacher.
The kids were also prepared. They were informed that this year they would have studied geography in a different way: they got full of enthusiasm but also expectations.

Whenever I kick-off one or multiple Scrum teams, I basically help them learn three things:
  1. Know about the Process
  2. Know about the Product
  3. Know about each other
So, we reserved one full school day to achieve the following results:
  • Deliver an introductory training on Agile and Scrum to all students
  • Create and kick-start the different teams
  • Getting the teams acquainted with the backlog
  • Hold the first Sprint Planning

Marco introduced the day and then we had a 2-hours interactive training so that the kids could understand:
  • What is the most suitable approach to solving complex problems, like learning something new
  • The Agile values and principles'
  • The Scrum roles, events and artifacts
The day could have not been started better than by trying the Marshmallow Challenge and learn the beauty and effectiveness of “prototype and refine” and why it works better than planning upfront and just following the plan, when an individual or a team faces something they have never tried before.
It was just amazing how they immediately grasped this and made all sense to them.

At the end of the 2 hours they could explain what a Product Owner or a Sprint is.
After a short break we moved to their actual classroom where my brother had prepared all the necessary supply I had instructed him to buy to facilitate the day and the team work.

So we started presenting the backlog. To make the final product visual, Marco prepared a big blank map of Italy, just reporting the borders of the different regions (see the draft picture below).

Each backlog item (i.e. representing each of the 20 Italian regions) had to fulfill the following Acceptance Criteria.
  • A construction paper shape of the region must be prepared:
    • Borders must conform to the map
    • High and low grounds are represented
    • Hydrography is represented
    • Cities are positioned properly and regional/provincial capitals highlighted
    • Different sectors of local economy are represented 
    • Peculiarities of the region are highlighted
  •  A report on the whole region must be prepared and shared by the team with the whole class

In that way the kids had something concrete to produce and an underlying architecture which made integration easy. At the same time the different teams could work independently.

Then we moved to form the Scrum teams: with a class of 19 kids we decided to split them in three teams. The teacher would have the role of Product Owner and I would formally act as a Scrum Master for all teams.

However I knew that I could not be present so I instructed my brother that he should work as a facilitator as well and take actually care of the Scrum Mastering part, while I would have coached and consulted him remotely along the way.

During the preparation phase we evaluated whether it would be a good idea to let the kids self-organize in three teams by following a certain number of constraints, but we discarded the option. Marco did not feel too comfortable and he wanted to make sure that the groups had enough diversity from many perspectives, including different learning styles and proficiency at school, which probably the kids would have not been able to take into the right consideration themselves.

So we proceeded with the splitting: the first empirical evidence was that they did not look surprised at all about how their teacher split them up and no one complained. This might mean either that the split made sense to them or they simply did not care or did not dare to speak out about their teacher’s decision. Having interacted with the kids and having seen the teacher-students relationship in the class, the first option looked more plausible to me.

Then we gave time to the different teams to select a team name and logo and enjoy some practical activity to create their task boards, pick a corner in the classroom space, hang the whiteboard on the wall and craft their own team space.

The next step was to stipulate an agreement on our routines.
When it comes to decide the Sprint length and day/time for the different events, we had some constraints:
  • Marco works only 4 days a week in that class (school week in Italy is 6 days)
  • We wanted the kids to work on the project mainly at school, not at home, so that we could observe and facilitate team dynamics
  • I had mainly Friday and Saturday available to join them remotely over Skype

The agreement came pretty constrained:
  • Sprint length: 3 weeks
  • Sprint Planning: Saturday mornings
  • Sprint Review and Retrospective: Friday after lunch
  • Daily Scrum: 8.45 in the morning (but 4 times a week,  when my brother was in the class)

The different teams worked on drafting their own team ground rules on a flip-chart, which they then hung in their team space.
Last step before moving to Sprint Planning was to draft the first version of Definition of Done, which I renamed with the slogan “We will have done a good job, if…” to translate in a more suitable language for 5th graders J

Here below is a picture of how one of the team’s corner looked like at the time they were building it the first day.

We had finally everything ready to get going with the first Sprint Planning.
My brother explained the first few backlog items on top of the backlog, re-read and clarified the Acceptance Criteria. He mentioned more than once that each team could pull any backlog item they wanted in the order they were presented, but if they felt that one item was too much to get done in 3 weeks, he was available to discuss possible ways to split the work in smaller chunks.

No team actually considered this as necessary and on the other side no team believed they could take more than one region into the Sprint. The whole class collaborated to agree which team pulled which of the top 3 items in the backlog.

The teams moved to decide on how the chosen work would get done. 
I instructed them to split the Backlog items in smaller tasks and the kids even started pulling tasks.

Each student designed a magnet with his/her own avatar and put it close to a post-it. 
We encouraged pair working from the very beginning.
The day ended with a celebration.

The kids were extremely happy and enthusiast. Some of the comments I got from them included:

  • “Will you stay with us for the whole school year?”
  • “I usually have troubles in following, but today I understood everything”
  • “We love you!” (This obviously moved me to tears!)

It looked like we were on a good track and had managed to create the right foundations for the experiment to give the expected results.

Side note: the day after, I met the mother of one of the kids, which is a dear friend and an ex-school mate of mine. 
She stopped me and asked: “What the heck did you do at school yesterday? My son came back so enthusiast like I have never seen him before after a school day!”

I was in a hurry: I simply smiled, hugged her and left. This event triggered the idea to involve the parents as much as possible moving forward in the experience.

Stay tuned for the continuation of the story in a coming post!

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