Case Study: College Prep School Uses Agile Practices to Improve Student Engagement
About Grandview Prep
Founded in 1997, Grandview Preparatory School is an independent, college preparatory, nonsectarian co-ed day school.
Location: Boca Raton, Florida
Number of students: 275+
Number of faculty: 35
Unique approach: Grandview Prep follows a design-thinking model. Design thinking in education is a student-centered approach in which teachers help students learn in innovative ways.
Grandview Preparatory School is a private K–12 school in Florida that offers an innovative learning environment for its 275+ students. It's committed to increasing student engagement, but the faculty initially lacked practical steps to achieve that goal.
As defined by Grandview, student engagement means letting students have a bigger say in their learning, including what they learn, how they learn it, and when they learn it.
"Grandview is a school dedicated to teaching our students 21st-century skills, such as collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and empathy," said Jacqueline Westerfield, head of the school and an English teacher. "Encouraging our students to take more control of their learning is one way to help them master these skills."
Student engagement is a hot button in education. A recent Gallup survey of U.S. school superintendents shows that student engagement is almost as important to them as the percentage of kids who graduate.
To get a baseline on student engagement at Grandview, faculty surveyed 138 high school–age students working on group projects in fall 2016. The results reflected the faculty's concerns.
Students said they didn't have enough time to complete their projects; they had trouble planning and organizing; and collaboration with their colleagues was difficult, particularly in determining who was doing their part and who wasn't.
Teachers at Grandview were eager to find a solution to these problems that would also support student-centered learning and deeper engagement. They just didn't know how.
After researching different options, the school decided to implement Agile principles and practices in the classroom.
The Agile mission originated in software development and is practiced in multiple industries globally. It fosters critical thinking, communication, collaboration, iteration, and empathy among self-organizing teams — the same skills that Grandview has always wanted to teach its students.
Support from Scrum Alliance
Scrum Alliance sponsored the three-day training session at Grandview Preparatory School in November 2016. The training was facilitated by John Miller, a Scrum Alliance Certified Enterprise Coach and founder of Agile Classrooms.
It seemed like a great fit, so Grandview brought in John Miller, a Scrum Alliance® Certified Enterprise Coach, and Certified Scrum Trainer® Michael Vizdos for a three-day Agile training session in November 2016. More than 70 students from grades 3 through 12 participated, along with 18 faculty.
An essential part of the training included coaching students and teachers on how to use Learning Canvases, also known as Scrum boards.
At Grandview, these are whiteboards or large sheets of paper that break down weekly tasks into columns labeled Doing or Learning, Blocked, and Done. Each task is tracked with sticky notes, and teachers facilitate the assigning of each task to the students. For accountability, the Learning Canvas is displayed on the wall for everyone to view, interact with, and comment on. This encourages collaboration, communication, and transparency among the students.
A 2017 Grandview survey of 16 teachers showed that all but one had started using Learning Canvases in the classroom. These instructors represent grades 3 through 12 and teach about 200 students total.
In the survey, teachers indicated that they used Learning Canvases as a visual tool to help students plan events, divide up tasks, track their weekly progress, and review objectives.
Most of the teachers said the Learning Canvases helped them organize and stay on track. They also said the Agile practice had a significant impact on the students. Teacher comments from the survey include the following:
"The kids like the idea of being responsible for themselves and they love to give and receive feedback — it gives them concrete information."
"I feel the students are working better with each other. They are being more productive and feel more confident about what they can do. I feel like I can step back more and observe their actual learning."
"The Agile framework has helped tremendously. The students are able to see, and refer back to, our learning objective and goals for the day. This takes out the 'Why do we need to do this?' questions, because they can see what tasks we need to complete in order to reach our goals. This also helps my organization."
"It has been helpful in the Student Government Association because it has allowed us to lay out goals and tasks for planning large events on campus. It also took the guesswork out of whose task was what, as students placed their names on different tasks."
Susan Rose, the school's student achievement coordinator, explained that the Learning Canvas is proving an effective tool for student engagement in subjects as diverse as English, math, and art.
The Learning Canvas, Rose says, is "the heart of it for us. It gives the organization and the clarity that we need."
Learning Canvases ensure that students are taking a more active role in their learning.
For example, students in an English class use it to verify that everyone has a chance to participate in class discussions before moving on to the next task. Third graders in a group project about the states point to sticky notes to remind their classmates who's working on which task.
Students also create their own personal Learning Canvases. In one fifth-grade math class, each child breaks down the weekly math goal into tasks. This may include completing a worksheet, getting extra help, using resources at the library/media center, working with a buddy, redoing a lesson, and so on. Each week's tasks change based on the lesson and how well the student has mastered it.
"Implementing Agile practices has had a huge impact on the students," Westerfield said. "Students now have a greater say in how they learn and at what pace they learn it. They are learning to collaborate with each other and more easily tackle difficult problems with critical thinking. At the same time, our teachers realize that giving more control to students improves the students' ability to absorb the material. This is exactly what we were looking for. Agile has given us the tools to achieve our goals of increasing student engagement."
Sidebar: Students and Agile: In their own words
Student Spotlight: Vicky
Vicky, a freshman at Grandview Preparatory School, says Agile has helped her stay organized, assist classmates in group projects, and have a stronger say in her learning.
Already a motivated student who describes herself as a leader, Vicky found the Learning Canvas particularly useful in keeping her on track. In one class, it allowed her and her project partner to break down tasks and understand the size of the project they were dealing with.
"Before, we had an idea of what we needed to do, but seeing it all planned out, we realized we had a lot more to do that we actually thought."
But that didn't make her feel overwhelmed. Instead, the visual aid reduced the stress, because the tasks were transparent.
Learning Canvases also proved valuable to Vicky when collaborating with other students on a group project. "It helped me really stay on top of what I was going to do to help them. It was easier for me to see which people I had to talk to."
Lastly, Vicky noticed her interest in learning increased when teachers gave her more choice in how to master the subject matter. For a biology class project, for example, she focused on how DNA is used to solve crime. This engrossed her far more than being assigned a general report on how DNA works.
While she observed an uptick in her own engagement, Vicky perceived it among her peers, too. This had a positive impact on her, because she could "see everyone is involved with what we're doing, we can all participate, and we're gaining from the experience."
Student Spotlight: Denis
When Denis, a freshman, participated in the Agile training at Grandview Preparatory School, the Learning Canvas hooked him immediately.
"I thought, 'Wow, this is the cool way to get organized, because that's the one thing I struggle with.'"
Even though he says he's a good learner, he's not so good with time management. The Learning Canvas gives Denis an opportunity to enhance his organizational skills by breaking down tasks and tracking their completion.
He calls it the best engagement tool Grandview uses and the most efficient, because it shows students where they are in their learning by giving them a physical and mental road map to follow.
He has found it so beneficial, he'd like a more personalized, individual Learning Canvas, one he can use for classes throughout the day as well as at home, outside of school.
Denis has seen other benefits of Agile in the classroom since the training took place in November 2016, particularly in terms of student engagement. Before, it was "the iconic way of learning," he said. "You walk in the classroom, put your stuff down, and the teacher would start lecturing." It wasn't adapted to the students, and not all of his classmates felt comfortable asking questions.
Now, some of his teachers are trying other approaches. In math, for example, his teacher had Denis and another student work together to design a project – comparing different methods of purchasing cars. Then they had to help their classmates learn and grasp the material.
In the same class, he has noticed greater openness and confidence among students.
"They're more engaged, more honest. They're not afraid to say something's wrong, and maybe we need to go over this again. There's more freedom to say what you want and not feel embarrassed."
Agile, particularly the Learning Canvas, "makes it easier to understand, in the long run, when they finish the project, what they did, what they did not get done, and what they struggled with.
Moving on will make them not doubt themselves anymore."
Get more information on Grandview Prep and its use of Agile by accessing the following resources online:
Video: Agile Classrooms Now at Grandview Preparatory School
Magazine: AgileVox, Florida School Launches Agile Classrooms, p. 40