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Adaptive and agile teacher enables continuous learning


Olli Laintila

lehtori, yrittäjyys
Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Maria Haukka

lehtori, HR ja johtaminen
Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Monica Åberg

johtamisen lehtori
Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Julkaistu : 02.11.2019

Every once in a while teachers have the exciting opportunity to implement a new curriculum in practice. For many experienced professionals this means activating the adaptive and agile skills that might have been on holiday for few months or sometimes even years (!). But what does it really mean to be an agile and adaptive teacher?

Agile teaching (suom. opetusketteryys, ketterä opetustapa), among other things, gets things done through teamwork. Agile teams are both dynamic and stable: continuous sensing, open learning and communication platforms require quick reactions on new challenges and opportunities. On the other hand, agile teams have standardized and stable practices, such as how to run meetings, cultivate reliability and efficiency. Usually this happens by establishing guiding principles as a backbone of elements that won’t change frequently. In addition to teamwork, the typical characteristics of agile teaching include also entrepreneurial drive, resources and role mobility, rapid experimentation, iterations and continuous learning.

However, sometimes the agile way of teaching can cause stress and grow gray hair. This happens, if the above mentioned structures, processes or the guiding principles of actions are not agreed with and bought by all team members. – The gray-haired days are ahead pretty soon – and not only with teachers but students as well.

We had the opportunity to experiment the agile process of teaching on our Master level course focusing on Entrepreneurship and Business Design. In this subject, we can teach as we preach: If we ask the students to iterate, we need to do that too. Iteration is a key skill for entrepreneurs and business designers in innovation processes. Those processes require iterative loops that enable the design of profitable business solutions (products, services, processes, etc). When we adjust rapidly and guide the students through the loops, they learn to cope with uncertainty and focus on the relevant. We as teachers, learn to do the same. However, our challenge relates to how well we manage to sustain the common thread between the loops and students’ learning sessions. The moment the common thread breaks, we have to be ready to cope with chaos.

From a teacher’s perspective this means that we must resist the will to plan things well ahead. We need to be ready to understand the chaos and to react quickly to manage the chaos. We want to ensure that we provide enough space for adjustments and students’ needs and wishes. Therefore, our teacher team plans with short notice, adjusts and tests new arising ideas of pedagogy, reflects and learns from the experiments. Most of all, we do this together as a team.

Agile teaching method can seem chaotic from a student’s perspective. Teachers answers are not set in stone and planning keeps changing as the process keeps going on. Student must be alert all the time and they cannot rely on what has been planned on day one. The process demands skill of coping with uncertainty, and the student must learn to trust in the process, give up the need to control things and knowing all in advance. To keep up with the agile teachers, the students must learn to be proactive: to ask advice when needed and give us feedback when they feel lost. Being taught in agile way changes the student’s mindset. This can be challenging to people who approach things from a detailed perspective and form the holistic picture only after they have gone through the whole process. This is not wrong at all, it is just a different way of thinking that the process tends to turn the other way around.

Related to mindset changes, one already mentioned entrepreneurial skill rises above others: coping with uncertainty. Grounding yourself repeatedly to the present moment helps you to see clearly and furthers response instead of reaction. This helps you to hang on with the unknown and mindfulness practice creates space for it. More practice, even in small quantities, brings most likely restrictive thoughts and feelings on the surface and makes them visible to you. These restrictive thoughts & feelings are often a hindrance for letting go – and going with the flow. Learning to be with them, accepting them as a part of your personality and putting your focus mindfully on possibilities, are skills that can be learned. Vulnerability and trust go hand in hand. Sometimes the unexpected and surprising feeling of being carried by the process itself, by your team members or students is highly rewarding. Learning to make mistakes, and still proceed in a kind but at the same time alert manner, is the key.

To summarize, here are six tips to adapt and apply agile teaching:

  1.  Consider whether the agile and adapt way of teaching fits to your subject.
  2. Think about the group size, usually the agile teaching works best with smaller groups like 10-20 students.
  3. Resist the urge to plan the course contents and materials months ahead.
  4. Reserve 2-3 hours for planning and reflecting approximately 3 days before the next teaching session.
  5. Be ready to adapt and adjust in the class, based on the students’ wishes.
  6. Trust your team members and contribute to your team input to ensure solid decisions.

Further readings

10 Key Principles of Agile Software Development

How to create an agile organization