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Can Scrum change the world?

Read how Agile evangelist John Miller brought Scrum to a fourth grade classroom, teaching the students valuable lessons in teamwork, decision-making and managing work.

According to Jeff McKenna, one of the founding signers of the Agile Manifesto, “Scrum, as defined, actually doesn’t...

say anything about software. Scrum is about work management and team dynamics that can be used in non-software projects.” He may not have imagined that one such non-software project would be a fourth grade classroom. Yet, Scrum Gathering Atlanta presenter John Miller has collaborated with a public school teacher to experiment with bringing the Scrum method to one elementary school class’s daily lessons and activities.

Miller gave a presentation titled, “Kiddie Hawk – Scrum in Schools for Generation Agile” that explored how he took a crazy idea, pursued it until he found people willing to give it a try and brought Scrum to a class of fourth graders. He trained his collaborator, seasoned teacher Kim Mills, on Scrum, and continues to meet with her and the school principal to observe how the experiment is playing out in her classroom and how it has changed the learning activities of the students involved. Ms. Mills has since obtained her Scrum Master certification.

“Agile isn’t just a software development technique to make great products; it’s a very humanizing system. It’s transformative,” said Miller, explaining how he transitioned from a strictly IT background into a career path that sought to innovate in the realm of education. “The way we make technology can have the biggest impact on education,” he said.

Scrum for 21st century schools

Miller supported his vision for Scrum in schools with some historical context. He highlighted how public education became widespread during the industrial revolution, when the focus was to educate a large number of individuals in a “simple” landscape, to fill jobs in factories. Later, a “complicated” landscape came about with the “knowledge age,” and left-brained strengths dominated. Now we are in a complex time, entering the Conceptual Age, a term defined by writer Daniel Pink that asserts the importance of right-brained thinking to adapt to the constant change we face in the 21st century.

Schools for the most part still operate in “simple” landscape terms, relying on a non-complexity view, with known inputs, repeatable processes and expected outcomes. However, the world is already much more complex than in the past, and will only get more complex in the future. A complex system is “connected, adaptive, diverse and interdependent,” Miller explained. It must rely on an emergent process that has variable inputs, adaptable processes and emergent outcomes. “Complex systems are learning systems,” said Miller, because they support the changing behavior of children who vary from class to class and even from one day to the next.

In order to be able to adapt quickly, we must recognize that we are in the age of Motivation 3.0, according to Miller. “It’s no longer about carrots and sticks; it’s about intrinsic motivation.”

Scrum in Ms. Mills’ class

So what are the students in Kim Mills’ class actually doing with Scrum? They first broke up into self-formed teams. They created working agreements on a self-directed basis, which were signed by all team members. They have Scrum Masters, they do daily standups, they do retrospectives and create burndown charts.

In an interactive Facetime segment of Miller’s conference presentation, attendees were able to see the students themselves display their team charts with columns for “goals,” “tasks,” “WIP” and “done.” Many students have individual charts that map out their progress on a daily basis. Each team has implemented the terms and practices of Scrum a bit differently, allowing for the creativity of team members to shine through, and each team assumes total ownership of their learning tasks.

The students resolve their own conflicts, they give themselves time limits to accomplish tasks and they even are allowed to disagree with the teacher if they explain their reasoning. They have the opportunity to make decisions, and thus learn how to make good decisions.

This experiment has been underway for only a matter of months, yet Miller and Mills have found that students are more interactive, finish projects more quickly and demonstrate an eagerness to learn. They are more individually productive, as well as productive as teams. It’s important to note that the class is comprised of students with varying learning styles and abilities; there are learning disabled students and students with different needs, yet each student participates in Scrum and has the opportunity to contribute to group decisions. The teams create their own rules and view each other as equals.

What’s next for Scrum in education?

In this Arizona public school, Ms. Mills has at least one team of students doing a Scrum project on how to teach other students to do Scrum. Ms. Mills and her students, along with the enthusiastic support of the principal, will be part of an expansion effort in the coming school year to bring Scrum to all the fourth and fifth grade classes.

Miller advocates for Scrum to be part of many more classrooms, as it relies heavily on 21st century skills like innovation and creativity and cultivates autonomy, reflection and accountability. He touted the “complexivist” learning traits: trans-level learning, distributed authorship and authority, emergent learning, neighboring interactions and classroom centered learning, and idealistically positioned the complexivist learning paradigm as what “leads to transformational learning.”

“When you're always focused on the most important thing, you are always doing the work that matters most. When things change, as they always will, you can adapt your focus to what's important NOW,” according to the Scrum Alliance website. There is perhaps no focus more important now than the decision-making abilities of the children who will someday be leading our complex world.

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