School & District Management

Schools Take a Page From Silicon Valley With ‘Scrum’ Approach

By Liana Loewus — November 01, 2017 8 min read
A completed “Scrum board” displays tasks 8th graders have completed for a classroom project in Jonathan Kutis’ class at Swift Creek Middle School in Midlothian, Va.
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Midlothian, Va.

Words like “product,” “artifact,” and “backlog"—these are not education terms.

And yet they cover the walls at the school system’s central office here in Chesterfield County, where district leaders are infusing project-management strategies from the world of software development into the daily work of running a 60,000-student school system.

The lingo stems from a management approach for developing software that is known as Agile, and a specific process within that framework called Scrum. The structure is trickling into classrooms here as well, with some middle school teachers using Scrum meetings and Agile processes to keep students on track as they do project-based learning.

Agile has spread like wildfire through the business world during the past decade, with companies such as CarMax, Spotify, and McKinsey all adopting it in the last few years. And while hundreds of schools in Canada, Australia, and the Netherlands are using the approach, it’s only just now starting to breach the U.S. education realm.

Virginia is proving to be somewhat of a hotspot for this work: In addition to what’s going on in Chesterfield, handfuls of teachers and school leaders in the nearby Goochland, Hanover, and Norfolk districts are delving into using Agile and Scrum with students.

Chesterfield is distinct in its use of Agile and Scrum to manage central-office work. The district has received some pro bono training from Agile coaches at the nearby Capital One campus during the past year, and some Chesterfield higher-ups say the process is already paying off.

“Everybody’s getting a ton more work done, and they’re not burning out,” said Thomas Taylor, the district’s chief academic officer.

Capital One team members hold a “Scrum” or “stand-up” meeting called by project owner Kelly Slicker (center) at the corporation’s West Creek Campus in Richmond, Va. Capital One helped bring such techniques to nearby school systems.

Iterative software-development processes have been around since the 1970s, though their roots seem to go back several decades further to manufacturing models first used by Toyota. This sort of approach reached a tipping point in 2001, when a small group of software engineers came together at the Snowbird resort outside Salt Lake City to write the Agile Manifesto.

As the document says, Agile is about continually improving the product you’re working on by frequently coming together as a team to reflect and adjust.

Within Agile, Scrum offers a formula for doing that: To put it simply, a team divides a project into tasks, everyone takes pieces and works on them over a sprint cycle (generally a couple of weeks), and then everyone reconvenes to compare what they’ve done to the vision, re-tune, and dole out more tasks. Throughout, the team holds 15-minute daily Scrum meetings to check in. Scrum teams are meant to be cross-functional, involving people from different departments and up and down the hierarchy. The term borrows from rugby; in a scrum formation, players interlock their bodies to try to gain possession of the ball.

Jim Frago, a 6th grade history and science teacher at Goochland County Middle School, first heard about Agile a couple years ago from his wife, who works at Capital One. He had helped start a summer computer-coding program in the 2,500-student district, and 5th graders in his program were struggling with figuring out how to work together.

Frago did some online research and queried experts at Capital One. In his class, he started with a modified Scrum process. Students used stand-up meetings and Scrum boards—organizing tools with “to-do,” “doing,” and “done” columns, where students place sticky notes with their tasks.

Using the Scrum “ceremonies,” as the meetings are called, and tools, “it was jaw-dropping what [students] were able to do in that 30-minute time period,” said Frago.

James Lane, the then-superintendent in Goochland, saw potential in what Frago’s students were doing. He liked that Agile emphasized such skills as collaboration, communication, and critical thinking. “That’s what I think employers are really going to be looking for in the next generation of students,” he said.

When Lane took over as superintendent of the much-larger Chesterfield district in 2016, he posed the idea of using Agile to his central-office staff and got some pickup. Several district leaders visited Capital One to observe Agile in action, and the bank sent volunteer coaches to the district to provide more formal training. As of now, about 70 of the 250 central-office employees are using the approach.

One of the first projects district staff members took on using Scrum was to analyze how Chesterfield had done on its 10-year strategic plan.

Sharon Pope, the director of organizational development, who led the small team working on that analysis (making her what’s known as the “product owner” for the plan), expected that work to be done in January. The team finished three months early.

Traditionally, that kind of task would have been “siloed, contractual, do-it-yourself work,” Pope said. “We’re really pushing back against a work style and mindset that has been so ingrained in public education.”

At a recent Scrum meeting, the team members took time to celebrate, offering each other “hip, hip hoorays” for well-done work. Celebration of accomplishments, as Scrum and Agile experts emphasize, is crucial to the process.

Group Learning Meets ‘Scrum’

The tables in Jonathan Kutis’ classroom at Chesterfield’s Swift Creek Middle School were covered in paint cans and recycled materials—popsicle sticks, cardboard pieces, aluminum foil, and plastic bottles. Teams of 8th graders were building model cities for a national competition—and they were using Scrum to do so.

“Get your boards out, open them up, and please have your first stand-up of the day,” said Kutis as the students filed in.

Kutis heard about Scrum from his fiancee, who was working as a project manager at a software company, and became interested in using it as a way to get his students organized while they did group work. He visited Goochland with a few other Chesterfield employees to see how teachers there were using it and attended a Capital One training through the district last summer.

The approach has completely changed his teaching, he said.

“I love doing this,” he said. “I’m more hands-off, in a good way.”

Typically when students are working on a project, they all work on the same piece at the same time, Kutis said. “At the end of the period, you’ve had … 50 million alterations and none of them producing anything of quality,” he said. But with Scrum, each student knows exactly what he or she is responsible for.

Seventh graders, from left, Conner Lawson, Charlotte Lindsey, and Kimberly Gonzalez, work on building model cities at Swift Creek.

Savannah Cheatham, an 8th grader in his class, said Scrum can help keep distractible team members on track. She’s started using Scrum tools to keep herself organized, for instance, in yearbook class. “I obviously don’t have a stand-up meeting with myself, but I’ll be like, this is what I want to accomplish for today, this is what I have accomplished, and this is what I need to do.”

Kutis, like the Goochland teacher, has simplified the process substantially to make it work for students.

“You could watch like a four-hour lecture and listen to CEOs and use all this crazy terminology, but when you boil it down, it’s a basic project-management workflow,” he said.

That said, some students admit to fudging the process—rushing through their stand-up meeting or failing to move their sticky notes along the Scrum board.

Ajai Upadhyaya, an 8th grader in Kutis’ class, said the board can be helpful if used correctly, but that it can also feel limiting. “Sometimes you can be more creative without the Scrum,” he said, especially if someone else is working on a piece of the project you might have an idea for.

Frago, the Goochland teacher, has solved that problem by adding a bit more of the formal Scrum process this year—a piece called “user stories.” Now, instead of giving students the grading criteria from which they grab their tasks for the project, he lets students essentially come up with the tasks on their own.

In both districts, the teachers agree that the process builds students’ self-efficacy. “They’re really, really independent when you do this workflow,” Kutis said. “I think it prepares them a lot for the adult work space.”

Link for Learning Communities?

An Australia-based organization is making quite a bit of headway bringing Scrum to schools in a different capacity: for teacher professional learning.

Simon Breakspear, a former high school teacher and educational researcher, founded Agile Schools after spending time in Silicon Valley five years ago and seeing how technology companies were using the approach.

His organization trains teams of teachers to do up to monthlong “learning sprints,” during which they home in on a specific concept or skill they’re teaching. “We are using student-learning outcomes as the focus of what we’re trying to improve,” said Breakspear.

It’s akin to how professional learning communities were meant to be used—but Scrum provides a process and set of protocols for the work and the meetings.

“PLCs often became a discussion about what students aren’t doing or a general discussion about learning and planning,” Breakspear said. “Learning sprints have this incredible intentionality. … There’s an emphasis on speed and delivery, and teachers are getting a dopamine hit every one to four weeks.”

His group is working with more than 300 schools in Australia and Canada and inching into U.S. schools. The Ross district, north of San Francisco, will begin getting training from the group this spring.

As for the Chesterfield district leaders, they see innumerable opportunities for using Agile, including for teacher professional development. But they recognize that pushing people too hard too fast on the method is likely to backfire.

“There will be teacher teams that jump in right away and move forward taking on Agile projects,” said Lane, the superintendent. “But I want them to choose that for themselves.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 2017 edition of Education Week as Va. Schools Borrow ‘Scrum’ Approach From Software World


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