Agile In Education Meet-up Group

Agile Education: Extraordinary Video Footage Uncovered!

Publication: The Daily Scrum
Date: 13th July 2035

15 years ago this week, at 19:00 on the evening of Monday 13th July 2020, a group of 16 progressive thinkers and educators met in cyberspace. Their mission was to consider how they could revolutionise the education systems of the UK and the world from the ground up, by exploring and promoting the adoption of agile thinking and practices within schools and colleges.

This is a well known tale, but what really happened on that famous night, when the community that was to become so influential was born?

Legend has it that self-confessed geek and agile fanatic, Andy Bleach, hogged the microphone, refusing to allow anyone else to talk – but was that true?

What was the real story behind the creation of the now famous Pressure Parsnip Theory of Education that some claim was first revealed at this meeting?

What was said that was so profound it spurred the creation of a community and a movement that slowly but steadily spread the progressive mind-set into the educational establishments of the UK and the world?

Well we here at The Daily Scrum are now able to reveal, exclusively, exactly what took place. After many months of dedicated investigation, we have uncovered the long-lost video recording of the entire event.

The session began with a short introduction from Andy about why he decided to start the community, followed by an exercise that allowed the members of the group to get to know one another a little.

Then, it is clear that Andy did indeed hog the microphone for half an hour, in which he revealed, in detail, his view of education and how he believed agile thinking could make a big difference to the education of young people.

Here are the key points from his talk:

Education

Observations on the current education system
  • the roots of the education system lie in the time of the industrial revolution
  • the world is a radically different place now and yet education remains unchanged
  • are the current methods the most effective ways of preparing our young people for the modern world? For example:
    • formal classroom layout supporting teacher led learning
    • knowledge transfer from expert to pupil
    • subject based; segregated subjects
    • school years organised by ‘Manufactured Date’ (ref: Sir Ken Robinson)
    • intelligence measured solely by academic success
    • remedial action to ‘repair’ children who are ‘broken academically’
    • focus on exams – major source of stress
    • when was the last time you used something you learned to pass an exam?
    • when did you last have to take an exam?
  • the UK, and other countries have a fear of failure
  • but failure is good – it is how we learn and become better people; modern, successful, agile businesses recognise this
  • the current system generates pressure on young people, sometimes with fatal consequences
  • the system creates two types of person – academically competent and ‘the rest’
  • are either group prepared effectively for functioning in the modern world?
  • the problem is with the system rather than the teachers
  • but that should not stop us all from questioning every aspect of education to see if there is a better way

Agile

The origins of the Agile 'movement'
  • in the 1970s and beyond, most software products were built using the waterfall method – this has many inherent weaknesses including:
    • identification of bugs and design issues are primarily identified during the test phase requiring rewind of the process
    • value is only delivered at the end of the project – often months or years after the start
    • there are many unknowns that make planning inherently inaccurate and unreliable
    • the approach generates numerous pressure points, great stress and often results in overrun, overspend or even cancellation
  • something had to be done – in 2001, 17 IT professionals gathered to create an agile manifesto
  • from many inputs and ideas, Scrum has emerged as the dominant framework
  • much of agile thinking is based on empiricism – the theory that knowledge comes only from sensory experience
  • frameworks such as Scrum replace the waterfall approach with a combination of evolutionary delivery and continuous improvement using small, self-organising, multi-disciplined teams to deliver increments of useable product in short 1-4 week ‘Sprint’ cycles

Progressive Mind-set

A selection of progressive thinking frameworks, techniques and concepts
  • there are many ‘progressive’ techniques and approaches that could have far reaching benefits in education, including:
    • Scrum/eduScrum
    • Kanban
    • Lean
    • Visual Thinking
    • Design Thinking
    • Liberating Structures
  • we also need to consider nurturing of the appropriate mind-set and values to ensure success
  • these are not easy, tick-box solutions – progress will be challenging

Opportunities

A vision of what we might achieve through agile, progressive thinking in education
  • if introduction of agile, progressive thinking is successful, the benefits are far reaching – young people will potentially become:
    • engaged and motivated to learn
    • natural collaborators
    • less stressed
    • able to reach their full potential
    • courageous enough to give and receive feedback
    • in possession of a healthy attitude to failure
    • comfortable with change
    • creative thinkers
    • happy
  • teachers will be able to focus on supporting their pupils to unlock their full potential, through mentoring, coaching, facilitating
  • families will be less stressed and happier
  • schools will have the flexibility and mind-set to fail fast – becoming better equipped to serve their students, businesses and their local communities in a rapidly changing world
  • businesses will be served by a pool of young people who have the skills and confidence to contribute effectively from the start, already comfortable with agile approaches

An International Challenge – Already Underway

A sample of the spread of agile thinking in education around the world
  • Scrum is a generic framework which has been applied in many situations other than software development
  • eduScrum is an education friendly version of Scrum developed in the Netherlands by Science Teacher, Willy Wijnands
  • interest in eduScrum is exploding, having reached 30 countries to date, including China, India and the USA
  • almost 1000 teachers have been trained to use eduScrum in Russia
  • another Agile approach has been introduced into 200 schools in Australia
  • there are one or two agile based initiatives in the UK

Then Andy finished with the now famous statement that summarises the ethos of the community so well:

I believe:
  • we need to update our education system to make it suitable for the modern world
  • we should explore the potential of embracing an agile or progressive mind-set within education
  • we don’t need to wait for a directive from above
  • we can take small steps ourselves… and see what happens…

The final part if the session gave attendees a brief chance to discuss what they thought the community could achieve over the coming months. The discussions were promising and it was agreed that the debate would continue in subsequent meetings, the first of which was held on Monday 17th August 2020 (reference: https://www.meetup.com/agile-in-education-uk/events/271923929)

If you wish to re-live the experience in its entirety – and discover the origins of the Pressure Parsnip Theory of Education – the video recording of the entire event can be viewed here:
https://tinyurl.com/agileined001-recording

So what is ‘Scrum’? Part 1 – The Origins of Scrum

So what is ‘Scrum’? Part 1 – The Origins of Scrum

In this first post of three looking at the basics of Scrum, I introduce the Scrum Framework and where it came from.

Origins

Scrum, according to the official guide, is “…a framework for developing, delivering, and sustaining complex products.”

It was created specifically for software development teams as an alternative to the more traditional waterfall development methodology but it is increasingly being used within the wider business world and beyond – including in education.

Scrum was developed by Jeff Sutherland and formalised, with Ken Schwaber, in 1995.  It was built upon a wide range of ideas and influences, not least of all on a paper written in 1986 by two Japanese academics, Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka, while they were Visiting Professors at Harvard Business School. They inspired the choice of name for the framework when they likened recent trends in development practices in Japan and the US to the game of rugby and the scrum formation in particular.

Empiricism

The core philosophy behind Scrum is the theory of empiricism – that is, making decisions based upon what is known.  To explain this a little further, let’s take a look at one of the key issues with the old way of doing things.

At the start of a large and complex project there are many unknowns, for example:

  • What is the real-world capacity of the teams involved in delivering the product?
  • How will that vary over time as team members get used to working with one another?
  • How will it be impacted when individuals join and leave?
  • What will be the impact of unforeseen technical challenges, which inevitably occur in any complex project?
  • How will delays and issues in one area of the project impact other areas?
  • How well does the customer understand what they need from the product during the initial planning stage?
  • In what ways will the world and consequently the customer’s requirements change during the life of the project?
  • What overheads are required to manage the many different parts of the project?
  • What is the most efficient way to communicate between the different areas of the project?

In the old-fashioned waterfall approach, the project planners either ignore the potential issues or they attempt to estimate their impact. Because every project is different, these estimations are effectively guesses, leading to a plan that fails to predict anything useful. Consequently, projects, if they are delivered at all, are frequently delivered late and over budget – often failing to provide anywhere near the value that was promised at the start.

Rather than trying to understand the entire mountain up-front, Scrum minimises the impact of the unknowns by taking on the challenge in small chunks (called ‘sprints’ – lasting between 1 and 4 weeks). After every sprint, the team, the customer and other stakeholders learn something new about the product, the environment and the performance of the team, allowing for corrective adjustments to be made. This leads to a cycle of continuous improvement.

Realisation of Value

Another big advantage with Scrum is that it’s capable of delivering a working, useable product to the customer almost immediately or soon after the start, whereas waterfall projects typically only deliver something at the end, which can be many months – even years after the project begins. During these long projects, investment becomes tied up and only turned into value for the business when everything has been completed. Scrum allows the business and its customers to realise the value of their investments much sooner.

Also, if a ‘wrong turn’ is taken during a Scrum sprint, the impact is small (typically no bigger than the sprint size) and the resolution quick to apply. In waterfall, errors can go unnoticed for long periods of time and their correction can have significant negative impact on the plan and the budget.  

In the next blog I look at the main elements of the framework as defined in The Scrum Guide.

References:

Origins: https://www.scruminc.com/origins-of-scrum/
scrum.org: https://www.scrum.org/
Comparison to Rugby: https://medium.com/serious-scrum/scrum-s-connection-to-rugby-597405fed5ec
Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka’s Harvard article: https://hbr.org/1986/01/the-new-new-product-development-game

Ski Lift

So what is ‘agile’?

In this post I take a not entirely serious look at the origins and catalyst of the agile ‘movement’, born in the exciting and daredevil world of software development.

Ski LiftIt was deep into the evening of February 13th 2001. The wind pummelled the cables and towers of the ski-lift, creating an eerie, semi-musical cacophony of creaking metal and whirling wires. The icy snow rattled against the shutters. Behind them, inside ‘The Lodge’, the debate – which at times had raged almost as violently as the storm outside – came to an abrupt halt. The silence lasted a full minute as each of those present grappled with the implications of what they had created. One by one, they realised that the world would never be the same again…

Well I’ve no idea if this was how it really happened, but the date and location and possibly the bit about the raging debate are true, for it was on this day (or thereabouts) that 17 representatives (or “organizational anarchists” as they describe themselves) from a variety of technical disciplines and backgrounds created a “Manifesto for Agile Software Development”. And yes – it has changed the world.

A great many threads, influences and elements were fed into the cauldron during that meeting but probably two things, rightly or wrongly, have emerged from it to dominate first the world of software development and increasingly the wider world of business, over the subsequent two decades: the word ‘agile’ and the framework known as ‘Scrum’.

I will defer the debate about the word ‘agile’ until another post perhaps, but it is worth pointing out that for some at least, agile and Scrum are the same thing.

They aren’t – the former is a state of mind; a way of viewing the world and the latter is a framework – but it is easy to see how that belief persists due to the dominance of Scrum, which I will cover in another post. Throughout my blogs and other activities I consider ‘agile’ in its widest sense, as an umbrella covering a collection of varied principles, practices, philosophies, frameworks and techniques that fit in with the agile mind-set.

To understand this mind-set, and specifically why it has had such a significant impact on the business world, we need to delve a little further back in time to the bad old days of missed deadlines, blown budgets, disappointed customers and… waterfalls.

Once upon a time – before agile – most software products were developed in a sequence of phases using a methodology known as ‘Waterfall’. It went something like this:

Phase 1 – Requirements Analysis

The customer for whom the software is to be built is interrogated under the glare of powerful arc lights to reveal their inner most desires, which are written down in infinite detail to form the sacred “requirements document” – a tome often so large that entire forests are culled to supply the paper.

At the end of this phase, the customer is whisked away to a secret location until the start of phase 4, typically two or three years later, without any means of communication with the team developing their software.

Phase 2 – System Design

The analysts who conducted phase 1, pass the sacred document to a new group of analysts and return to their basement, for their job is done. This new team pore lovingly over the texts, extracting meaning from it all and writing new documents; sometimes embellishing their words with diagrams of great complexity and inner beauty.

When done, they too retire to their corner of the basement, leaving the new sacred ‘design document’ behind. The original sacred requirements document is carried carefully via a trusted cohort of anointed interns to a secure storage facility deep underground and is never looked at again.

Phase 3 – Implementation/Coding

In phase 3 the magicians are summoned. It is their job to mysteriously transform the sacred design document into code. Millions upon millions of lines of code. In fact it is believed that the greater the number of lines of code, the greater the quality of the finished product.

When the entire sacred design document has been transformed, the code is transferred to a special environment for the grand ceremony of User Acceptance Testing. Tradition has it that this milestone in the project should always happen at least 2 months behind schedule – often considerably more. By this stage the budget for the entire project should already have been spent. Twice.

Phase 4 – User Acceptance Testing

At this stage, the customer is brought back from their exile and presented with a partially functioning system. They are expected to remember what it was that they wanted at the start of the project all those years ago and to be wise enough to know how they should test it. Often they cannot remember the original intent, but either way, they have changed their mind anyway. The world is a different place now.

There is no time or budget to fix anything so the things that are most broken are ripped out.

Phase 5 – Operations

In this phase, a new group of technicians with no prior knowledge of the product attempt to install it (in whatever state it is in), into a new ‘production environment’.

The end users for whom it was built are then told of its existence for the first time. They play with it for a short while then spend the next six months generating a long list of suggestions about how it could be made into something useful, after which the machines upon which it runs are turned off and the process begins again.

Ok – to be fair, I am of course exaggerating – many will argue that in some situations a waterfall approach is a sound and effective way to develop software. It does have some great benefits at least on paper but joking aside, there are significant flaws in the concept.

The group of techno-anarchists who met at the Ski Lodge in Utah during the winter of 2001 managed to distil the essence of a new way of thinking that had been bubbling away in various places. They called it ‘agile’.

This essence is about many things but at the core is a set of values and principles that encourage flexibility, reflection, honesty, courage, trust and above all an in-built obsession with continuous improvement. All these things are achieved by replacing the huge, complex, heavily documented monolithic projects with a continuous stream of small steps, each of which deliver something of value to the end user.

These deliverables are released quicky and frequently so that everyone involved can learn about the product, therefore improving the effectiveness of the next small step (or increment) and ultimately delivering a more effective product or service. Due to the small steps, when things go wrong – and they do – the cost is small and the resolution is rapid.

When executed ‘properly’ this process has benefits for everyone concerned. The customer sees value almost immediately and receives a product that meets their real needs even when those needs are changing on a day to day basis. The timescales for delivering significant value are reduced considerably as are the budgets. The developers are empowered and trusted to ‘do what is best’ and to continually improve in all dimensions of their role, resulting in an improved quality of working life.

The only downside is that achieving the necessary agile mind-set, especially in larger organisations that are still organised with an industrial, ‘command and control’ mentality, is challenging and especially difficult to sustain. But the rewards are immense. I believe there are similar challenges facing adoption of an agile way of life in education but there is a similar scale of potential benefits. Potentially even greater.

I will explore this educational potential in further posts – but until then, why not join the Agile In Education UK Meet-up Group at https://www.meetup.com/agile-in-education-uk? You will be most welcome.

References:
The Manifesto for Agile Software Development: https://agilemanifesto.org/