Case Study: Scrummy School: Learners Successfully Self-Organize

The University of Wolverhampton teams with local school students

One of the best things about Scrum successes is that they sometimes occur in environments where Scrum is not the obvious choice. Nowhere is that more evident than in the case of the University of Wolverhampton in England. Karl Royle, principal lecturer in Curriculum Innovation within the Faculty of Education, Health & Well-Being, helped launch a remarkable initiative that demonstrates just how flexible Scrum can be.

This is a story with a number of different heroes (like any good suspense novel, it includes both the police and students), and it demonstrates what can be achieved when people come together without any preconceived notions about what will and won't work.

It begins in the city of Wolverhampton in central England. There, at the University, Royle was developing a new pedagogical approach to be used in problem- and project-based learning. The initiative was called "Scrummy School" and was designed to offer a combination of Open Space Technology, Scrum, and Kanban to schoolchildren.

A few miles outside of Wolverhampton is the community of Dudley, home to St. Michael's School. The school staff was looking for ways to strengthen relationships between students ages 12 to 15 and the local community -- in particular, with the local police service. Staff at the school wanted the students to work on designing an application that would allow teenagers and the police to work more effectively together to improve relationships. For the police, the attraction was in working with a medium that the children were familiar and comfortable with -- their phones -- and in reducing the crime rate.

The problem was that the school staff didn't know how to go about making it happen . . . until they heard about Royle and his Scrummy School initiative. Royle was looking for an opportunity to trial the initiative in a school; it seemed like a perfect match to him, and also to Wayne Hill, the deputy head of St. Michael's. So the two decided to try to make it happen. One of their first tasks was to reach out to the local police service -- the West Mercia Police, and to Police Constable (PC) Hughie Treasure, a community liaison officer. PC Treasure was fully supportive, and the initiative was ready to start.

How and why

But how do you start a Scrum-based project in a school environment? The people on the team will likely have no problems empowering themselves to do the work, but there is the small matter of the rest of the school day to take into account. Royle said that in most initiatives like this, the students would be asked to brainstorm ideas and then present them. But he wanted to provide them with a more immersive experience: "We wanted to take students through the experience of idea generation, codesign, and development, using paper prototyping."

The process started in early 2013 with a half-day Open Space meeting to generate the ideas with the police, students, and university staff. Actual development came next, over the space of one full day. Royle decided to use a "rapid version" of Scrum that could work within the structured and diverse school day and incorporate 20-minute sprints. There were a total of five sprints during the day, and after the first one the students were self-managing. The end result was an app design and paper prototype along with an "elevator pitch" presentation for the police.

It's worth understanding why Royle and his team felt Scrum was a good fit for this project in particular. Obviously there were a number of different motivations -- unlike a commercial implementation of Scrum, the actual project outcomes were secondary to the benefits the students would receive during development. However, there was still a desire to deliver a quality product, and Royle felt that Scrum could make an important contribution within the restrictions of the limited time and diverse skill sets the project faced.

From an education standpoint, Royle was interested in Scrum because it could help create an environment where the students could work together in teams, and it would allow them to work things out for themselves -- much as a more traditional Scrum team is empowered to own its work. This would help them feel more engaged in the project. Royle explains this further using the Scrummy School concept the university developed.

"Using an Agile learning philosophy with Scrum is about developing what team members can do rather than what they can't," he says. "Rather than assessing what children cannot do, the Scrum framework allows them the opportunity to use their inherent capabilities and to develop new skills in a safe environment."

This is not so different from the reason why many organizations embrace Scrum: They want the opportunity to have self-managed teams with the freedom to work as they think best. In a school environment, this freedom is obviously less common and days tend to be much more structured; but Royle points out there were a number of distinct advantages when it came to the students' personal development.

"In Agile learning with Scrum, the team solve issues and organize themselves to achieve the tasks required. These mechanisms place the emphasis on self-help within the team in order to achieve the set tasks and for pupils to learn about themselves, the way they learn, and the skills they have and need to develop.

"If an individual highlights a difficulty, even in terms of personal skills and abilities, then the team (and the teacher) must help them solve it. By working together, learners develop the collaboration, communication, and negotiation skills necessary for productive teamwork."

Royle sums up the benefits he felt would be achieved by using Scrum for this project with St. Michael's School. "Using Scrum in classes, you can treat every learning project like a real-world project and use authentic skills. You can provide a mechanism for autonomous working, monitor the quality of outputs or learning outcomes, and monitor and assess both team performance and individual contributions."

Royle feels it's important to emphasize that educators in many countries are exploring the use of Scrum in schools. "The Scrummy School concept was developed in collaboration with Jasmina Nikolic at the University of Belgrade, who is a pioneer in the use of Scrum, Kanban, and Open Space in different contexts, particularly in education," he explains. "It was her original thinking that first got us going on ways to use Scrum in education."

Despite all of the strong arguments in favor of using Scrum for this initiative, was there any resistance to what was clearly a nontraditional approach? What Royle describes is something that many organizations can relate to, given their own early experiments with Scrum: "There was some resistance in terms of giving up control to learners." However, he added, this "was overcome as the learners successfully self-organized into teams and carried out tasks." So it would seem that no matter what the environment, there is some reluctance to the idea of self-managed teams -- but once the benefits become clear, this quickly dissipates.

Royle also points out that because this was a rather artificial environment, where the project had to fit around all of the other school commitments the students had, there was a little more structure than might be placed on a similar initiative in a corporate setting. the product backlog was planned in advance, and the individual sprint backlogs were negotiated with the students as part of their role as members of a project team (the students were broken out into two Scrum teams, one focused on marketing and one on design and prototyping). What remained common with more typical Scrum projects is that the teams had to plan and distribute their work for each of the 20-minute sprints.

Reasons for success

When organizations implement Scrum, there's an expectation of tangible benefits to customers, to the organization, or to both. Even if the measures of success with a school-based initiative were somewhat different, Scrum would still need to prove its worth with some tangible results. Royle confirms that not only were those results delivered but that they occurred remarkably quickly: "The students were able to design a paper prototype and create an elevator pitch to the police in one day."

That simple statement underplays just how remarkable an achievement this was for all involved. The St. Michael's students were asked to embrace a completely new way of working in a school environment, using a technique unlike anything they had experienced before, and to deliver a project unlike most of their school studies. They were also placed in an environment with much less formal structure than usual, and they had to rely more on one another to achieve their goals than on the typical teacher/student relationship.

Furthermore, Royle notes that all of the participants were fully engaged throughout the entire initiative, and there were no disciplinary challenges. He says this was likely because all of the participants were able to leverage their individual strengths, something that doesn't always occur in a traditional school environment (or, indeed, in many workplaces).

Royle states that the project's best result was the sense of achievement the students enjoyed: "The benefit was really in giving the students the experience of working in highly structured teams, working with a specialist designer, and getting the feeling of creating something from idea to possible product in a school day. Normally this might take weeks to achieve." Web designer Russell Goffe-Wood, with the local firm Horbury & Goffe, was the specialist who collaborated with this initiative. By involving real commercial enterprises in the project, Royle provided the students with first-hand experience of how the Web design industry operates.

At the risk of stereotyping, this short-term delivery of benefits (the "quick payoff") was likely a major reason why the project was so successful -- teenagers sometimes have short attention spans. It should also be noted that this team wasn't carefully selected to maximize the chances of success; it was simply a team formed from a fortunate connection between St. Michael's School and the University of Wolverhampton. Of course, the university provided experts and a framework for the students to work within, but the team members were typical school kids from various grades within the school, and with varying abilities, for whom this was "just" another school project, at least at first.

The success the project delivered helped the university recognize that the Scrummy School program worked. In Royle's words, "For the University, it allowed us the opportunity to trial Scrum in schools and realize that we had a viable alternative to normal project-based working that gave learners real-world skills."

Scrum is only one part of the Scrummy School structure, which also includes Kanban and Open Space sessions, but Royle feels that Scrum is an important element. He explains, "The same results would not have been achieved [without Scrum]; Scrum harnessed the energy and ideas of the Open Space session into productive collaborative effort."


Royle says that another benefit Scrum delivered was the use of digital tools for work-related processes. It won't come as a surprise to anyone that the students all had access to devices such as phones and tablets, but they are frequently forbidden in a school environment. In this case, those devices became the tools the students used for research, as well as the planned hosts of the ultimate product proposal. As Royle points out, "This means that the task responsibility in Scrum motivates learners to use digital tools naturally for work-related purposes, rather than just for social purposes. Learners also use actual 'real-world' project management skills, such as Kanban, that support this way of working. By focusing on project-based learning, learners can use digital tools in a meaningful way to support their work."

While the St. Michael's experiment was a stand-alone project, it validated the Scrummy School program that the University of Wolverhampton had developed. Royle says ten additional schools have signed up to be a part of the program as a result of the success of this project, starting in September 2014. Scrummy School will be used in those secondary (high) schools in a number of different curriculum areas, from design and technology to modern history. Royle explains that this will "give us a test bed for the Scrummy School approach, and also several case studies about how it impacts on learner motivation, resilience skills, and performance. In this project we will train ten key teachers in how to use Scrum for lesson delivery, using the Scrummy School materials, and they will then act as 'product owners' and develop Scrum teams in their classes to complete projects. They will also use Kanban and Trello to track individual contributions to projects."

Not surprisingly, Royle encourages any school to embrace the concept, whether through Scrummy School or another program. However, he also wants to ensure that people understand that a school environment requires special consideration.

Final thoughts

When asked what advice he would give to anyone considering using Scrum in schools, Royle's advice is: "Do it. But think carefully about how it applies to people who are developing skills rather than already possessing them. Using Scrum as a pedagogical approach in formal schooling, there is much to be adapted and developed to ensure that it energizes both teachers and learners. The dilemma of schools is one of risk and control. New methods are high risk but worth it."

For those for whom school is but a distant memory, Royle also points out something that will likely resonate strongly: "Can you remember the bits that you really enjoyed in school, or out of school, when by individual or collective endeavor you created something or organized something? When you were so motivated by the task and the sense of achievement that time slipped by and nothing felt like work, even though it was harder than you had worked before? This was usually part of some initiative or event that required project-based learning, whether self-organized or deliberately set up by a school or organization -- you had to do it yourself."

It's hard to argue with that logic.