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.

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” (scrumalliance.org).

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.