Agile in Education: How Hope High School Embraced the Journey and Learned to Fly
When Krissyn Sumare was offered the position as the next Hope High School Principal in 2014, she was ecstatic, despite the negative circumstances surrounding that school. Things like violence, drugs, poor attendance, and low proficiency rates all threatened school closure, but Krissyn was ready, willing and up to the challenge. What she wasn’t ready for, was a new CEO who proclaimed that “Agile and Scrum” was going to be a “solution” for both high schools and the struggling district. No teaching methodology course or academic journal could have prepared her for this complete organizational shift in the way learning and business would ultimately move forward.
At its core, Agile in education means leaving the current prescriptive, gatekeeper controlled, assessment-focused models, to embrace a more transparent, iterative, and student-driven experience. To make it work, teachers and staff needed to feel trust and be given autonomy to innovate and foster new types of classroom experiences and students needed to stop feeling like education was something being done to them.
There it was. It all sounded good, but she still wasn’t convinced that Agile in education would fly.
From Pointing Away to Huddling Up
As Krissyn described, there were 99 problems revealing themselves but no plan of focus on which one should be addressed first. Why? Because the schools and staff had fallen into the habit of pointing out the “wrong” instead of taking the challenge head-on to innovate and iterate towards incremental improvements. How was someone supposed to even begin chipping away? In Krissyn’s words, It literally felt like a stalled plane on the runway. All the passengers were seated with seatbelts fastened, a new pilot at the helm, but somehow the plane couldn’t take off.
Instead, there were countless things keeping the organization grounded. The plane wasn’t painted, seats were dirty, windows were foggy, cabin air pressure not working, and the wings needed major repair. Agile and Scrum gave Blueprint, really a blueprint and structure to implement rituals and artifacts that helped prioritize what mattered and brought value to the schools and the organization. Once in the air, new perspectives could be seen. Issues that once seemed so overwhelming were now just dots on a map. We were flying! The air pressure was being addressed, and despite the foggy windows, we could see the sun shining and that inspired us to learn more about Agile and Scrum.
Teachers who once sat passively in a classroom working on the one thing they could control– lesson plans and information–began innovating ways to improve the air quality and seats. Students, who had been taught to stay in their seats, soon became chief designers and stakeholders in everything from what the customer flight experience should feel like to what color the paint should be. Our district went from being run by a voice in a control tower, to every employee being a voice as part of their own cross-functional teams.
Through consistent iteration, we have improved over time, eventually going from a school with a failing letter grade to a much improved “B” school! Through shared accountability and putting trust in the gap, we’ve grown enrollment by more than 200% and have renewed our charter schools well into the year 2037.
Transparency and Trust Over Silos and Slackers
Krissyn clearly remembers the moment she realized our educational culture was actually transforming. There is an all-too-common conversation between teachers and students: “If you want to get a good grade in my class, you actually have to be here.” To Krissyn’s delight, during a student scrum team’s retrospective, student A said to student B, “Dude, one of the reasons things didn’t go well is because you didn't show up for two days.” The teacher, standing in the back of the room facilitating, cracked a dainty smile and waited to see how things would play out.
Student B rationalized that he had finished his tasks so it didn’t matter that he wasn’t in class. The aha moment was when his team helped him recognize that he had value beyond these tasks–they needed his contribution to the creative process. He had missed the ideation of their hypothesis, and also the day that they uncovered three possible solutions. At that point, student B realized attendance was really about being a part of something bigger than himself–being a part of a community of learners, seekers, and problem solvers.
Not only did the teacher forego her traditional gatekeeper role, she also learned that by creating the space and opportunity for honest reflection and team improvement, her students would hold each other accountable for being in their seats.
Cultivating a Collaborative Culture of Inspired People
In The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger writes, “I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do is, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff, I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going, I have to come out from somewhere and catch them.”
Most organizational leaders will tell you that they feel an innate need to do all the “catching.” They take on the role of the pilot and think it means that they must control all the details of what’s going on inside the plane when they should be keeping their eyes focused clearly on where they are headed. Transformational leaders want to be known for inspiring their teams to do great things, and this rings true for teachers as well. Our agile transformation was not about rattling off scrum vocabulary or having a common language. It wasn't about things being perfect or wishing for overnight change. It was about cultivating a collaborative culture of inspired people that want nothing more than to motivate our end users–our students.
We are not that far removed from our first awkward sprint, and there are many times the start of school seems impossible and the turbulent descent at the end of the year brings a much-needed sigh of relief. The difference is that now, even when there are a million little things that need to be fixed, we sit in pure anticipation of that weightless moment when our wheels lift off the ground and everything is possible.
Agile in education, does fly. Teachers across the globe are embracing and implementing Agile values in their classrooms, and our organization looks forward to the day more administrators, superintendents, and school districts adopt this way of working together and educating our future pilots.
The paradox of being a great educator is knowing which students will fly when you push them and which ones need more attempts at it, and I suspect the same could be said of an agile leader in any industry.
So are you ready for takeoff? Come fly with us.