Agile, the Future of Education

John Oliver demolishes standardized testing on HBO Last Week Tonight

John Oliver demolishes standardized testing on HBO Last Week Tonight

Standardized Tests mandated to raise educational standards have resulted in U.S. education falling even further, enriched a few education companies that lobby to set state education policy, and even wreck students’ lives

By Robin Rowe

HOLLYWOOD, CA (Gosh!TV) 2016/4/10 – As a journalist and a research scientist, I often speak at conferences and sometimes at schools. I was asked by Roosevelt High School to speak at a student assembly about the joys of working in STEAM, that is Science, Technology, English, the Arts and Math. I am grateful to get paid to work in all five disciplines.

Roosevelt is located in Boyle Heights, a Mexican-American neighborhood east of downtown Los Angeles. As at many schools in America, the teachers there wish their students showed more interest in STEAM.

A teacher asked me, “Is there anything from your experience teaching computer science or from mentoring software engineers that could be helpful to high school teachers teaching science?”

Yes, actually. The Agile software process offers tremendous insights in how to teach science in a climate of rapid change. As everyone knows, the rate of advance in the software industry renders knowledge obsolete rapidly. Engineers are expected to master practices that weren’t taught when they were in school. Many are using techniques daily that aren’t taught yet at any school.

Wikipedia says: “Agile software development describes a set of principles for software development under which requirements and solutions evolve through the collaborative effort of self-organizing cross-functional teams. It advocates adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery, and continuous improvement, and it encourages rapid and flexible response to change.”

In a teaching context, two common American education practices are notably missing from Agile: rote memorization and grading people to set expectations of what they can achieve in the future.

To see how far wrong Standardized Testing has gone, watch this segment with John Oliver on HBO Last Week Tonight.

John Oliver explains what’s wrong with standardized testing and “brings in the monkey.”

Teachers are being put under increasing pressure from politicians and administrators to force students to excel on standardized tests. Does America have a fundamental misconception about how education works?

Most students don’t take the ACT college entrance test when they’re 12 years old. However, I did. I scored in the top 1%. That couldn’t be a result of my high school education, since I’d hadn’t done that yet. I was a freshman at age 12 because I had skipped a grade. How did my school feel about their 12-year-old freshman achieving the highest test score in the school and one of the highest test scores in the country? I don’t know. Nobody asked me about it. Not my principal, not my teachers, and not our school board.

As a result of my early success on the ACT test score, I was offered a series of amazing opportunities. Nobody could ever tell me I wasn’t smart enough to something. And if they did, I would laugh. With everyone telling me I’m so smart, it was easy to believe that I’m special. With hindsight, I wasn’t that special. A consistently high expectation of success from myself and everyone around me is more responsible for my success than anything else.

There’s no good science behind the faith educators and legislators place in Standardized Tests. Standardized Testing uses multiple-choice tests to grade which students are better at the 3 Rs, to label them as being smart or dumb and set expectations for their lives accordingly. Back in the 1700s, the U.S. education system taught the 4 Rs. That fourth R being Religion.

Religion may not be taught in most American schools anymore, but the religious teaching method of the catechism won’t go away. Science is being taught like religion, rather than as an evolution of knowledge that anyone can understand by thinking about fundamental principles. With science, it doesn’t matter if the answer is in the book. You can work out problems by yourself. If you work in the science of research, the book hasn’t been written yet.

As Last Week Tonight points out, Standardized Testing has many flaws in implementation, What’s worse, it may foster a lifetime expectation of failure. How do we reverse that?

Jason Silva in National Geographic Brain Games conspires with the audience to mislead blindfolded amateur basketball players regarding their free throw performance. They are told they are sinking baskets no matter where the ball actually goes. When the blindfold comes off, a psychological effect persists. They sink more baskets than those who were not told they are special. To see if it works both ways, Silva next misleads good basketball players by telling them they are bad. It ruins their game.

A good basketball player in Brain Games is psyched out by negative feedback.

Likewise, children given negative feedback from testing or teachers will increasingly fail in the future.

The American education process can’t seem to evolve beyond the brute force idea of turning up the volume. The same is not so in science education in the real world. With the rapid evolution of technology, the software development process has had to evolve. That change has been drastic.

The first software design process was no process, that is, chaos. Then Waterfall methodology emerged and now Agile. Agile has further evolved from Agile Scrum into Agile Kanban and Agile Balanced Team.

In the classic Waterfall process, each development step is completed and rigorously tested before proceeding to the next level. Change control prevents going off the original course and blocks requirements creep. While this may be better than chaos, it stifles creativity and blocks the acceptance of lessons learned in the field. Useful aspects of Waterfall, such as requirements analysis, continue today. However, on the whole, Waterfall has been abandoned across the industry. Under Waterfall, a number of big dollar, high profile software projects were years late in delivery or abandoned entirely.

Standardized Testing, with its rigor and series of tests, is a Waterfall methodology. When Waterfall failed to deliver quality software on time, Waterfall experts said it must be the managers at fault. They aren’t being sufficiently rigorous. Experts preached that the solution to the failures of Waterfall must be to add more Waterfall. A similar situation exists today in education. We may soon reach the point that children have so many tests to take that they are being tested daily, leaving no time to learn anything.

Will American education experts learn from their mistakes? Not if they follow the course of what happened in the evolution of the software industry.

The Agile process did not spring from Waterfall process experts and blue chip software companies taking lessons learned from their failures. It came from experimentation in the maverick open source community, where software was getting made without any attempt at a Waterfall process. Open source projects lacked the resources to even attempt to use Waterfall. They had to come up with a more lightweight process.

Teachers are taking the blame that our Waterfall educational process isn’t working. With the benefit of software industry hindsight, it’s clear that the process is what’s broken in education. No teacher can expect success using a process that cultivates failure. It took over a decade and some spectacular failures for the software industry to accept that Waterfall doesn’t work. Will American education learn soon?

While teaching computer science at two universities, I learned a couple useful lessons about grading students.

While I was teaching at the University of Washington, I had a student who seemed unable to understand the basic concepts of my software design course. She had tried so hard that I couldn’t bring myself to give her a failing grade. A couple years later she called me to let me know she had a good job at Microsoft. Surprised, I asked her, in software? Yes, she said. My class had been the turning point for her. It convinced her to keep trying, that she could do it. My emotion was relief that I hadn’t given her a failing grade. That could have wrecked her life.

A couple years later, while teaching at the Naval Postgraduate School, a friend of mine, a professor on the faculty, mentioned that he always gives all his students an A. I was shocked. How could he do that? He said his class was so hard that any student who got through it deserved an A. It also made him more effective as a teacher. Time that would otherwise occupy him grading papers he could use instead to mentor his students.

Agile is the future of education.

This article was edited on 2016/10/1 with a new introduction and other changes to improve readability.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *