Category Archives: Paul Magnuson

A decade ago, Paul Magnuson founded a research center at the high school level in collaboration with colleagues at Leysin American School. The center supports professional learning through a variety of programs, including year-long action research projects by faculty who receive competitive scholarships. In addition, the center works with schools and universities around the world, hosting up to 20 visiting scholars annually, and consulting and presenting internationally. Paul has created a number of tools and programs, including classroom observation schemes, language immersion summer camps, and programs supporting greater student agency. Paul is also an instructor at Moreland University for teacher licensure and international education.

The importance of context, challenge, and exploration so students find and build on their own strengths

For several years, I had the opportunity to regularly put ideas into practice during the day and debrief them after dinner with my good friend, Bill Tihen.

It turns out Bill is, as I jokingly yet seriously remind him from time to time, one of the greatest curriculum theorists I’ve ever met. Bill is unique in that he is a former AP math, computer science, and physics teacher, with additional backgrounds in electrical engineering, building industrial robots and their software, and two decades in IT at schools. He also taught experimental classes in our middle school a few years ago. 

Bill recently met Bret Thayer, a visiting scholar at our school and a fellow agilist. Bret teaches AP Seminar and other courses in Colorado, using Scrum (one of the most well-known operationalizations of agility). I invited Bill to meet Bret, and the ideas their meeting sparked led to longer conversations on several themes related to Bill’s experimental classes. We’ll start here with reflections on exploration, context, and challenge. In future blog posts we’ll look at pull vs. push, uplift, and assessment

“I like to have the students learn in short iterations that are just beyond their current knowledge or comfort level,” says Bill. “When they make that small step forward, they are ready for the next iteration, which is again just beyond their current level. Taken all together, they can move well beyond where they started.” For me, trained in second language acquisition, this is like Steve Krashen’s notion of i + 1. While it may seem obvious that we should teach just a bit beyond a student’s current level, it’s advice not always followed well. It’s also difficult with a group of students, all at different levels – at least in traditional teaching models.

Bill’s preferred model is to create teams of students which explore small aspects of a bigger objective, increasingly building their knowledge as they work and reflect, and then work and reflect some more. He places a premium on students learning from each other before coming back to him as the teacher. This is a more complex version of i + 1, perhaps a more Vygotskian notion of students learning just beyond their current level by working with a more able peer, or what we are familiar with as the zone of proximal development. 

“Smallify,” Bill says, and then those little chunks of learning just beyond a student can be worked out in collaboration with another student, or when necessary, in collaboration with the teacher. If the students and the teacher reach a point where there is no clear next step, that is simply further opportunity for authentic learning, Bill thinks. Moving into the unknown and letting students see that the teacher doesn’t know everything is important. It gives students a chance to work outside the usual space in which the teacher knows and the students don’t. In this space there is genuine exploration – and quality learning. Can the students and teacher now discover, together, the right questions to make the unknown more known?

Bill believes that teachers should do very little direct instruction. “Let kids work until they get a bit stuck, and then be patient and help them get unstuck.” I picture here a parent at the kitchen table, next to a child doing homework. The parent lets the child work until the child is stuck, The wise parent doesn’t tell the child the solution or take the pencil and write in the correct answer. Instead, the parent offers just enough encouragement to keep the learning moving forward. So, too, should the teacher behave, Bill recommends. 

To help them own their learning more, Bill suggests that students track what they learn in a project journal so each team member can know what the other team members have done. He reviews the journal with students to help them reflect on what they do well so they can do more of that, feeling successful as they go.

Bill as teacher will occasionally look at the journal and ask students in the group to explain what other students have researched. If one team member doesn’t understand what another team member is doing, then it is up to that more able team member to make sure everyone understands. Vygotsky again, though Bill just shrugs. “It’s OK by me if someone already thought of that,” Bill says, then adds, “If it’s part of teacher education, then we should probably expect to see it more often.”

“Look,” says Bill in summary, “every project needs to involve complexity. Too often we make projects so clean for students that they aren’t confronted by the necessity of making a compromise. But the complex compromises students have to make to reach a goal lead to deeper understanding. Choosing between multiple possible solutions requires a good understanding of what you are doing. Having a context for learning that creates authentic problems to be solved, with no simple Google answer, provides students those difficult choices.” I tell Bill that a current term for this is “productive struggle.”

Bill thinks that’s great. And that teachers should help guide their students into exactly that space  just a bit more often.

Next up, with inspiration from Bill: pull vs. push, a concept central to working with agility, and a remarkably tall hurdle for us in school.

Roots of Agile for Education

Not insignificantly, agility affected my personal framing of work and my thinking about how to get work done. My colleague Bill pointed this out to me one day. “You can’t go back, you know,” is what he said. So I started asking others working with agility if they had experienced something similar. They had, ranging from big Aha-moments to gradual shifts in thinking and practice that led to new ways of working. 

So what’s agility? You’ll get different answers from different people, but you’ll likely pick up on a strong leitmotif of collaborative work, completed in short iterations, with lots of feedback informing the team and the work along the way.

There’s a document describing the basic elements, written in software terms, called the Agile Manifesto. It remains an important touchstone for agility. But, of course, agility didn’t spring up out of nowhere. There are likely themes of agility since people have been people. The document stresses (and the bullets are a direct quote):

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

While obviously written for software development, it is not hard to crosswalk the ideas into an educational context. Focusing on individuals, who work collaboratively, and adapting that work as they learn more about it has direct applications for students and teachers. 

A group of agilist educators did reformulate the original manifesto into a guide for education, which they completed in 2016 and called the Agile in Education Compass. It packages agile principles more directly and in language familiar to educators. Some members of that same group are working now on a process to certify educators in agility.

And with good reason, I think. The IB PYP guidelines and the new ACE protocol for school accreditation designed by NEASC are nice examples of why. These are large organizations that are pushing for the type of mindset embedded deep in agility. So why not develop a certification, and work on expanding the network of educators, who feel at home with the agile mindset? If it can advance the agendas that include greater student self-regulation and an ability to manage one’s own workflow, in collaboration with others, in my book that’s a significant victory.

Read more in the LAS Educational Research publication, Spotlight, or follow my colleague Nic on Twitter (@agileinthealps) and visit her web page with the same name.

Getting agile at school

Almost 20 years ago, a group of software engineers published what they called the Agile Manifesto. In it they outlined how they envisioned working. They focused squarely on people, collaborating with each other and the customer, delivering pieces of the final product in short, regular intervals. 

They imagined that working this way would be more responsible. They would be more likely to produce useful software, they would work quicker, and above all, they would find work more fulfilling.

Several individuals and schools have been pulling this mindset into education. In my roles at Leysin American School and Endicott College, I’ve practiced with some agile tools, like Scrum, and with some adaptations of these tools specifically for education, like eduScrum. I’ve collaborated with consultants and business owners, as well as teachers and students. Together with school colleagues we’ve introduced agility in middle school, high school, and the university. We’ve also applied agility at the organizational level, managing our accreditation self-study, professional development, and some school change processes.

I’m convinced we are onto something big. I’m equally convinced we need to keep working small, in a bottom up sort of way, accumulating examples of successes and failures from an increasing pool of practitioners, in order to share the impact this shift in thinking can have. 

And while agility in education is not mainstream, it is popping up under different names in mainstream practice. This week a colleague shared with me the IB document “Collaborative Planning Process for Learning and Teaching.” Bullet points on the document describe what learning means for the PYP program. Here is one: “Developing students’ capacity to plan, reflect and assess, in order to self-regulate and self-adjust learning.” Parts of the new ACE protocol for school accreditation also read as if inspired directly by agility.

I’m wary of sounding too evangelical. So enough said for today. But explore a little if your interest is piqued:

Agile Classrooms – John Miller, one of the earliest proponents of agility in education;

eduScrum – Willy Wijnands, who translated Scrum into eduScrum and has spent a tremendous amount of time and effort spreading the word; and 

Scrum Alliance, “a nonprofit organization that is guiding and inspiring individuals, leaders, and organizations with agile practices, principles, and values to help create workplaces that are joyful, prosperous, and sustainable” (

Research Centers in School

Over the last decade, we have built a research and professional development center at our school. We call it LASER, as in Leysin American School (LAS) Educational Research. 

This past week I stepped back to notice how far we’ve come and how closely our center resembles research centers at the university. Here’s a quick synopsis of one day.

In a purpose built commons room for the center, a visiting scholar is working on his own project, while two faculty members debrief a design-thinking day that we hosted the previous week. Another faculty member arrives to discuss the requirements of the Institutional Review Board for his study of our new grading policy. Must he get written permission from parents before interviewing students? (The answer is yes, as well as permission from the students.) We finish our conversation by editing a survey he is going to use in his study.

On his way out a faculty member arrives to gather materials for class. He meets the visiting scholar and soon they are discussing a common interest: getting students to take greater ownership of their learning. Shortly afterwards the room clears when everyone leaves for their classes.

In the afternoon, a group of five faculty members drives to a nearby school for a demonstration of a video recording system for professional development. We learn about the system, discuss the school’s experience using it, and ask questions to determine if we might like to purchase the system ourselves. During the car ride back to our school, we agree to at least pitch it to the deans.

I make it back just in time for a meeting with a faculty member who is implementing a new curriculum in her math class. That is, she had planned to implement a new curriculum, but the pressure to cover content for the required external exam is making her change her plans. We discuss what changes can be made at this point while preserving the integrity of her project. She asks if I’d like to co-author an article about the project and I accept. 

After dinner two colleagues present a new initiative, student-staffed writing centers, in the format of a Laser Focus talk. All faculty members supported by LASER grants are required to give a Laser Focus talk. There are seven of us in the audience, including our visiting scholar. We learn about the writing centers, discuss among ourselves, and agree that this presentation is ready for submission to a conference.

And that’s one day. Visiting scholars, debriefing and planning, discussions about research, and presentations, sprinkled with class during day. There is little difference here between our activity at the high school and the activity in a research center at the university. 

And while it took us years to arrive at this place, the years we spent getting here were also productive. We are living the tagline of our first professional development website, back at the beginning of this journey: Continually becoming the professionals we already are.

Faculty in LASER are happy to assist you and your school with the development of a research center. Let us know if you’d like to start the conversation.