An AGILE Approach to School Improvement

Posted on December 2, 2012

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A few months back I met up with an ex-student, @lizardfti for coffee. It isn’t something I make a habit of, to be honest. I’m just not that kind of teacher. I love working with students but always prioritise respect over warmth and don’t ever conceive of students as friends, however friendly we are with each other. But Elizabeth found me on Twitter and we’ve had a number of interactions there (a few before I even realised who she was). She was also a unique student with views I respected and a maturity beyond her years and, in all truth, probably beyond mine.

When we met I found out more about her work in the area of software development and in particular I found out about an approach to the process called AGILE which immediately resonated with me as an approach that I try to use in education and which I would like go develop further, given the opportunity. It was testament to Elizabeth’s enthusiasm for the approach that as I travelled home I began googling AGILE to find out more. And the more I found out the more I liked it. This post is my attempt to think out how I would like to see it used in planning for school and teacher improvement.

The AGILE manifesto (which you can find here) was written in 2001 by a group of 17 software developers in opposition to ‘heavyweight’ or ‘waterfall’ approaches to software development which were perceived to be very top-down in nature, over-regulated and unresponsive to the developing needs of clients and of software.

In thinking about education generally, and school/staff improvement specifically, this ‘heavyweight’ approach can be found in the cumbersome and obsolescent annual school improvement and performance management or appraisal cycles. In these cycles objectives (or all too often targets) are set at the very end or very beginning of an academic year, with box after box on action plan after action plan filled in with numerical indicators, lists of activities, support needs, timescales, observation schedules and lead staff amongst other things. Following this there is usually expected to be a mid-year review sometime in February or March, a couple of lesson observations and an end of cycle review apropos of the start of the next cycle (usually at the same meeting). And then we have the audacity to say that we are setting SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound) targets.

Everybody is complicit in this poor model for school improvement. Governments tinker at the edges depending upon their political persuasion but don’t question its effectiveness at delivering system-wide improvement. Unions fight confusedly for members rights within the given parameters, trying to reduce prescriptiveness and managerial controls, but don’t question its effectiveness at developing people. School Leaders implement it somewhere on a scale from institution-centred to person-centred, but don’t question its effectiveness as a model underpinning CPD. Teachers get closest to questioning its effectiveness, and some see it as a distraction from their real work, but are happy to play the game if it keeps school leaders and the government at bay and the upper pay spine within reach.

So, what might an AGILE manifesto for School/Teacher improvement look like? Below is an educational rewrite of the AGILE manifesto for software.

We are uncovering better ways of developing schools and teachers by doing it and helping others do it.

I love this first statement. It recognises school/teacher improvement as being what we do inherently, not an additional process to serve the needs of an accountability framework. And it makes a mockery of the idea of school improvement or performance management as a process distinct from the day-to-day workings of the school.

Through this work we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

Effective teaching over comprehensive documentation

Collaborating with students and parents over responding to them.

Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

The importance of these statements to me is that they don’t demonstrate a false dichotomy. Instead they acknowledge the value of the ‘heavyweight’ ways of doing things, but the prioritise the ‘lightweight’, or agile ways instead. For example I’ve replaced ‘working software’ with ‘effective teaching’ in contrast to ‘comprehensive documentation’. I do honestly believe that effective teaching is facilitated and empowered by comprehensive policies, good practice guides and written schemes of learning, but I think that none of those documents will of themselves lead to effective teaching and I know with certainty that effective teaching can occur without them.

By far the most important of these statements, in terms of bringing greater agility to school/teacher improvement is the prioritisation of ‘responding to change over following a plan’ because this is the thing that I think we get systematically wrong in the year-long improvement cycle we prioritise in schools and the school system. How can we possibly predict with any accuracy how genuinely transformative changes to our schools (and ourselves as teachers or school leaders) will look in three weeks, let alone three terms? We can’t, and if we can then the change we are planning is not genuinely transformative at all and is managerialism masquerading as school improvement. In which case why are we bothering at all? It’s like making a car journey to somewhere entirely new based on a thirty year old route map and expecting not to come across any obstacles and roadworks. Every turn is scripted and any diversion (perhaps out of necessity, perhaps out of curiosity, perhaps out of expediency) is seen as a distraction and, completely illogically, as some kind of failure if the initial plan.

The other reason for a move towards AGILE methods in school/teacher improvement is found in its prioritisation of ‘individuals and interactions over processes and tools’. Too often in recent years the road to improvement has been conceived of almost entirely of curriculum change and assessment design, sometimes with great success in terms of headline attainment figures but sometimes at the expense of effective pedagogy and at the sometimes at the expense of human relationships and individual well being.

This following principles of AGILE should, I believe, hold sway in schools.

Our highest priority is to satisfy students through early and continuous delivery of valuable pedagogy.

Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the students’ competitive advantage.

Deliver working pedagogy frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.

Teachers and school leaders must work together daily throughout the project.

Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.

The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a school is face-to-face conversation.

Working pedagogy is the primary measure of progress.

Agile processes promote sustainable development. School leaders, teachers and students should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.

Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.

Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential.

The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.

At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behaviour accordingly.

And here’s what I think this might mean in terms of the school/teacher improvement cycle.

A simple, single-sided sheet of A4 paper with school improvement priorities rather than a massive, dense managerial plan for its implementation. No follow up team improvement plans designed purely to mimic the school improvement plan.

Ideally no individual improvement plans, but instead ongoing and continual recognition of contributions to team achievements at departmental, pastoral and whole-school levels. Appraisal processes to become real-time through blogging rather than predictive-then-summative as is usually the case at present.

Daily meeting time for teachers and teams built into the working timetable of schools, rather than the cycled calendar of set-piece meetings that currently prevails in most schools. A focus on iterative, responsive gatherings that start with the questions ‘where are we now?’ and ‘what next steps do we need to take?’

An end to showcase observation programmes, Mocksteds and Insteds that confound our pedagogic effectiveness, our moral purpose and our mutually supportive relationships and consign us to the ranks of Ofsted-lite: food critics rather than the chefs we were trained to be. Instead, we need to have faith in our colleague’s willingness and ability to constantly improve and in our willingness and ability to put in place the systematic support for ongoing, incremental and reflective self- and peer-evaluation. And feeding into this we need to consider how much any teacher learns from a graded lesson, be it outstanding or inadequate, and whether or not such learning is worth it given the casualties of such grading: narrowing of pedagogy, shattering of self-esteem, management-phobia, risk-averse behaviours.

Self-evaluation mechanisms that are small-scale, continual, not necessarily written in nature and which form the basis of immediate action rather than exist as objects in themselves. I understand the need for schools to keep an up-to-date self evaluation form (SEF) for external scrutiny in times of high accountability, but why on earth do so many pass this burden onto their middle leaders and force them to write a massive document a the start of an academic year to ‘prove’ past improvement rather than letting them simply get on and continue their ongoing improvement processes unhindered?

School leaders to focus on building relationships and conducting ongoing dialogue with the middle leaders or teachers they line manage and the teams they represent on an almost daily basis through face-to-face contact rather than management by email and fortnightly or, heaven forbid, half-termly line management meetings. Accompanying this an increased awareness that skilfully asked questions in a coaching conversation can unlock more improvement than a didactic, mentoring approach can.

A realisation on the part of all within schools that examination success for students is an output that is highly dependent on a range of context-specific inputs on the part of schools, teachers, students and their families (the most important variable of all), And as such improved attainment cannot be wished into being by a target or objective. Schools need to place the inputs, especially the quality of teaching and learning, at the heart of what they do and ensure that data is used purely for its ability to ask questions because qualitative feedback will always help students (and teachers) to develop more than quantitative feedback ever will.

I could go on. Agility is an exciting concept for me to consider and I thank Elizabeth for introducing me to it. It is something I will continue to research and apply to my work in education.

But is it all ‘pie in the sky’ thinking given the embeddedness of ‘heavyweight’ methods in the minds of teachers, the practices of schools and the expectations of Ofsted and the DfE? Is it too trusting of the inherent goodness of people within education and their motives for being there? Is it too unpredictable and too much like a leap of faith to be applied across a whole institution?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, and I may fall flat on my face in trying to implement them but the evidence I have of them on a smaller scale, in my line management of a highly successful department an in my work on developing a bottom-up approach to pedagogic development, is persuasive. So for me it’s time to tear up the route map and focus on the road immediately ahead of me, enjoying the sights and sounds along the way to…. well…. to wherever I’m headed.

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