Agile Education

From birth onwards, at every point in our lives, we’re fully-formed human beings; neither too young or too old. There’s nothing else we need to be and no more we need to learn.

In this respect, the notion that people have “potential” is a false one. The idea of potential automatically implies that it’s unfulfilled. It’s like saying someone isn’t good enough yet.

Two of the most well-known methodologies of software development are Waterfall and Agile; and, with apologies to software developers, I’m going to summarise them here.

Waterfall involves developing a full specification for a piece of software, based on the most complete understanding of its final use we can possibly gain. Then, each component of that software is built, often in separate teams, and generally in stages. At any point up to completion it’s highly unlikely there will be any kind of usable product.

Agile, on the other hand, aims to build a workable (however crudely) product at every iteration. It assumes that the final specification cannot be fully understood. It also generally involves more people working together, across departments.

With those two massive over-simplifications in mind it seems to me that our current education system is the worst kind of Waterfall methodology. We teach abstract components based on some, at best, future specification of what a fully-assembled human being should look like. At worst we’re using a past specification.

The reality is that we can’t predict that future specification. We can’t guess at what will make a person most useful in ten years time. And it does seem to me that most of the talk is around usefulness.

Instead we need more Agile education. We should respect the fact that a person is a finished product at every stage of their life. We’re not building something for the future, we’re helping someone be as good as they can be right now.

And the outcome of this is that they will provide the specification for the future, not vice versa.

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8 comments
  1. very interesting post Simon, a question from a friend on facebook where i shared this earlier today

    “Would love to see a suggested application for this method – what would this education system look like?”

    Do you have any views on what this might look like in reality or are you aware of any examples of this?

    • Thanks for the comment. With regard to the Facebook question: firstly, I’m not aware of any system that works precisely like this. There are elements of it in unschooling (which is our approach with our children) and some elements of it in the Summerhill School approach, which is more democratic.

      I see what I’ve talked about here as having a number of key elements:

      1. There are no subjects. Subjects, as far as I’m concerned, make no sense in the real world. They map onto very little in the world of work and are generally arbitrary. Project-based learning would be central to the Agile approach. Project-based learning also fits with the idea of making knowledge useful and complete at every stage.

      2. There is no concept of difficulty. If a child wants to learn about astrophysics and philosophy then that is supported. If you follow point 1. above then that knowledge will just be part of the project that is being undertaken. Outside of school, if children ask questions, a parent does their best to answer them, whatever they are about. This follows the idea that it is better to have a crude knowledge of something in its entirety rather than a full knowledge of an abstract component of it.

      3. There are no classes. Children are free to mix with any other children based on projects rather than age of subjects. This also improves socialisation.

      4. There are no teachers. Teaching, in its current form, assumes that knowledge is being fed down to people (to some extent). In a Agile system the assumption would be that no one person had a complete understanding of what was being learned. The relationship would be more of a facilitated one with highly specialised knowledge being sought according to need.

      5. And this is a really important one: everything is related to the real world, as it happens. In an Agile system the learners would be engaged in an ongoing dialogue with whatever was going outside. And this would be two-way. They would work on real projects, learn from them and feed into them. Business / public sector / voluntary / local / global / etc.

      6. Accreditation would be built-in and simultaneous rather than retrospective. Accreditation would also not be entirely individual. There are enough studies showing that rewarding teams is better than rewarding individuals to warrant some sort of hybrid system here. Accreditation could be specifically tied to delivery of a project rather than just understanding.

      There are many more I’m sure…

  2. I don’t agree with the first two sentences of your post, so I guess I shouldn’t expect to agree with the rest. If you take the notion of time out of human existence, you miss the journey, you miss the dynamic, you miss the growth. So I can see why you wouldn’t find any joy in potential.

    I can’t comment on your notion of a fully-assembled human being should look like, but I don’t think they should look like a newborn baby, lovely as babies are. That sounds more like The Matrix.

    I draw a lot of comfort from feeling that tomorrow need not be like today. I intend to be different tomorrow, and I hope not merely to change the world, but shape it, the better to fulfil human purposes, that are not just personal but shared, not just innate but shared and acquired, not just abstract but embodied, and not stationary but evolving and growing.

  3. Thanks for the comment. You say you disagree, but your point seems to be the same as mine. It’s exactly the fact that it’s about the journey, who we are at every stage of our lives, that matters. Potential, and learning towards some future goal, negates this. It says that you are incomplete until you get to the end. I’m not suggesting people remain like babies, just that babies are perfect at the time they’re babies. And so we are at every age.

    Tomorrow is absolutely not like today, hence the madness of building education around some perceived future requirement.

  4. Louise said:

    I’m glad you wrote that reply Simon as I’ve been trying to articulate why I think you’re both saying (kind of) the same thing all day.

  5. I do not agree entirely with your dismissal of the importance of time. But I like your description of agile education, and this approach is much more likely to be effective than in software development, which is an unmitigated engineering disaster area.

    The biggest problem with most of the education system in the UK is that is it self-serving; it pays little attention to its actual purpose. And the main cause is that most teachers have no experience of anything other than education.

    People go to school, then university, some of them undergo teacher training and go back into schools to teach more people. Others of them study further and some of those become university lecturers remaining in universties to teach more people.

    It’s no wonder that, unless you end up as a professor at a world class university, at some point you must (according to the educational view) have failed or dropped out. The education that we got was a side effect of the false purpose that the education profession pursues.

    Hence, many of the most successful businesses are run by “drop outs”!

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