A view into the future – using Scrum as teaching tool in high school (and prior?)

A few weeks ago I visited the Ashram College (high school) in Alphen a/d Rijn in The Netherlands. A friend pointed out that they have a teacher there, who is using Scrum with high school students. They call it eduScrum, but what’s in a name. The results are astonishing: student teams that are focused and motivated and that score a full point higher in their exams!

So, on a dreary Wednesday morning I take my car and drive to Alphen aan den Rijn, to visit this high school. I live in Zoetermeer, so it’s practically around the corner. When entering the school, I get the feeling I am making a journey in time. First I feel like going back in time, because all those swarming “children” (oops: young adults) remind me of my time in high school…. That’s long ago…. I’m getting old.

Secondly, I am seeing the future. They are really on to something here!!

Willy Wijnands is a lecturer in engineering, physics and chemistry and uses Scrum in all his classes. Willy has made a fundamental shift in teaching. Namely: he as a teacher is no longer responsible for the learning process of his students, but he has delegated that responsibility to the students.

You might think that such young people can’t deal with such self-responsibility but practice shows differently. They are even good at it. They do work in teams to motivate each other. Logically; this is the basis of Scrum. Willy works with teams of four students. He has discovered that this works best. [Note: I once spoke with Redmond O'Hanlon, the famous biologist, world traveler and book author. Redmond explained to me that the army prefers teams of four. According to him, because: "It is impossible to get four men agree on a lie ...".].

These teams of four, work for several weeks together to achieve a specific goal. This learning objective is subject-specific. The responsibility to define and set the learning goal remains with Willy (the what and why), but how students get there they decide with their own team! Willy is, as such, the Product Owner. The students are the teams. In the classes I visited the learning goals were:

  • give a presentation about the phenomenon: light,
  • determine the amount of copper in a mobile phone (and filter out all the gold from the phone in the lab!), and
  • make a bridge using only paper sheets and glue. The team with the bridge that carries the most weight – wins.

These teams are also “cross-functional“, but slightly different than in Scrum. Every students writes and maintains a personal profile. What are your skills and improvements areas (… teamwork, planning, management, explaining…). Subdividing themselves in teams of four, all students in the class make well-balanced teams that address skills and development areas. [Note: why do managers in companies not delegate this responsibility to their people?? Even first year high school students are doing this successfully!]

So you have a class divided into teams of four with all required “competencies” on board. And what now? Well, the first time that a class works using eduScrum, Willy spends two class hours to explain the eduScrum process. This is necessary, but it needs to be done only once. In these two class hours, Willy explains precisely to the students how eduScrum works.

It works roughly like this:

  • At the beginning of each period (usually 7 weeks) Willy gives the teams a goal. “Within seven weeks you must be able to do XYZ and this will be tested in the 6th week. In the 8th week you have to hand in a retrospective report“. These are great goals. Above I have given a few examples. He also points the teams to the chapters in the book on this topic. In some cases, he explains what the test will be. For example, with the mobile phone. When I visited them Willy was actually handing out an old phone to each team. He asked them to determine the amount of metal in the phone and to literally extract the gold from that phone. In other cases Willy does not tell what the evaluative assignment will be. He does point to an example assignment so the team can practice in advance. He also clearly explains to the students that if they really understand the topic, they will be able to pass the test. If they do not understand it, it won’t work. They get the goal to: understand the topic. Not to achieve a certain grade. The ‘getting it‘ is the goal: this is education!
  • The next two class hours each group makes its’ own schedule for the work in the coming period. When will we study the book chapters? When will we make the assignment? When do we make the (online) quizzes, when do we do the exercises? Each student team makes their own plan, which is written on sticky notes that are put on a large sheet (they call this sheet the “flap“). The planning is made with sticky notes, because practice shows that planning should be continuously adjusted based on progressing insights (sounds familiar?).
  • The flap, is divided in weeks from top to bottom, with three vertical columns. Yes, how surprising: ‘To Do‘, ‘Busy‘ and ‘Done‘. One of the students is responsible for keeping the flap of the team with him/her, so it is always available in the class room. They still have no name for this pupil. Have an idea? eduScrum master maybe? The complete team is responsible for maintaining the flap, however. This is logical. After all, planning and replanning is a team effort, not an individual one of the eduScrum master. 

 


 

 

 

Pictures: Example ‘Flaps

  • At the beginning of each class hour all students run into the classroom (the teacher has no own classroom neither do the students, so in between class hours it is a real chaos in the school building). Each team puts their flap on the wall. The students hold a stand-up meeting in front of the flap for a few minutes. They exchange work status, reschedule the work, make arrangements for the work until the next lesson, agree on who does what and what is done in class and what they will take home as homework. Then they just get to work. Students deciding on their own homework! Sounds innovative, doesn’t it?
  • Willy walks through the class room to assist the teams, if needed. Willy, in his role as teacher, is really a Scrum Product Owner. The teams do the work and decide on their own process. The product owner is called in by the teams when they have questions or when they are blocked. In general, they’re rarely completely stuck. Mostly there is a team member that understand things better so explains it within the team. And if they really don’t know how to move on, they understand where and how they are stuck. So, they understand what they don’t understand. As a teacher/product owner it is much easier to give them a a little push in the right direction. Knowing what you do not understand, and why you do not understand this, is already quite some knowledge. This is teaching! Besides helping the teams, Willy glances at each teams’ flap as to monitor their progress. This is easy to see, because the flap indicates the status clearly. Transparency above all.
  • At the end of the class hour the teams folds the flap. The responsible student takes it with him/her and the teams wait for the buzzer, after which they may move on to the next classroom.
    Agile teams finish early! This is demonstrated, during my visit. They manage their own time, so by the time the buzzer sounds, the teams are ready to leave the classroom. Willy hates it to squeeze himself through the student mob during the change time. He (and I) peep out already a few minutes before the buzzer (to the dismay of some of his colleagues). Walking through the school building, just before all hell breaks loose…nice and quiet! I’m also wondering if the next step could be to give each group their own classroom and let the teachers only change classrooms. Just as with Scrum teams in practice: a working area for the team, while the work and the product owner go to the team.
  • At the end of each period the teams do the final assignment, and receive a grade. The performance of this final assignment is shown (Sprint Review) and reviewed. The goal for the teams is to achieve a score higher than a 6.7 score (on a scale of 1-10; 10 being the best and 5.5 being just on the good side of sufficient). Students ask Willy quite often, why. After all, they are used to strive for a 5.5, which is fine to pass to the next year. Willy explains this very simple: “The goal is to understand the subject matter and for that you need a score of 6.7 or higher. A lower grade means you do not understand it sufficiently. For sure you will make it to the next year if you reach just a 5.5, but it still means you do not really understand it. So, please strive for a score higher than 6.7“. Again, the ‘getting it‘ is the goal, the grade is just a derivative of understanding. Doesn’t that remind us of grade scoring in business (shareholder value…)?
  • After the test each team writes a retrospective report on their achievement, their methods used, how to do things better next time in their collaboration. Also each student evaluates the other team mates on their qualities and weaknesses and also do that for themselves. The central question in the teams is as such: how can I improve myself and how can we become better as a team? Fine question, don’t you think? Becoming better as an individual and as a team, becomes the main objective in school. Sounds great, doesn’t it?
  • The next class hour, the new sprint starts. Willy explains the goal of this next period, and the whole process is repeated from the beginning.

 

 

 

 

 

Pictures: Examples of Review (demo) and Retrospective

Is this eduScrum teaching process easier for Willy? Firstly, yes it seems. It is easier for him to maintain a focused group, keep each student in the class working and keep a steady pace. Furthermore, it is easier to motivate the students to do homework, etc., because all these responsibilities are with the students themselves. And shouldn’t that be always? After all, it’s their education.
Secondly, the challenge for Willy is, however, to design powerful periodic learning objectives and assignments. What will be the goal for the next period? These goals must be ambitious, yet attainable, and they need to match with the overall education program and program learning goals. In the end, all students must meet certain levels by the end of each year. So, Willy has to groom these goals into attainable ‘teaching stories‘. This is not easy.

Furthermore, Willy in his role of Product Owner must be able to switch fast to answer the specific questions of teams. He needs to find the best way in a split second to help each team best. This requires extensive didactic qualities and teaching experience. This is much harder than teaching one single group program. The teams are also able to help each other, however, in practice they hardly do. They prefer to ask Willy first, before asking their fellow student teams. To solve this, Willy experiments with ‘question vouchers‘, they call them ‘joker cards‘. Each team has 5 joker cards that they can give to other teams to get advise and help. Joker collecting becomes the challenge. Helping each other is turned into a game!

I loved to see how this works in these student groups. You can see and feel their energy. You see the enthusiasm. I remember how it was in my high school years. ‘Different‘ so to speak … and then I am putting it mildly. In my years most energy was with the lecturer and usually this was negative energy to keep a group of 30 students just quiet.

But, what are the benefits? What does eduScrum bring? The first graduating groups have now finished their examinations. And guess what? On average they scored between 0.7 and 1.5 points higher on tests and school examinations. A full point higher!! No 6 but a 7, not a 7 but an 8, not an 8 but a 9. How much more indications that Willy is on to something, is needed?

And what about Willy? What are his next steps?

Willy travels our country promoting eduScrum whenever he can. He has even founded his own small company for this. He teaches eduScrum to other teachers and is very busy in his own high school to assist his colleagues in using eduScrum too.

And I? I leave the Ashram building full of energy. On my way to a customer. I think about a follow-up book. Perhaps: The Power of eduScrum ??. Let me consult my publisher first. Maybe they are interested to discuss a complete new line of educational products: teaching packages for eduScrum ….

But above all, I realize that Willy has found a solution to a structural problem in current education. A solution by using Scrum as teaching method. Because, what do we really need in practice? Professionals who have learned that a 5.5 is sufficient to pass and that are afraid to make mistakes? Or do we need professionals who are able to collaborate in teams to solve new and complex problems, and that fully understand that making mistakes is the only way to understanding and learning?

I know my answer. And why should we limit this to high school education only? Why not apply this also in primary school and junior high school? I am waiting to discuss this further with some experts in this field. Please, let me know your thoughts and ideas.

We might be able to make the world just a little bit better!

 

Picture: Willy Wijnands – working hard…