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Zen and the art of teaching

By Steve Voisey

“The pencil is mightier than the pen.” ― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

The purpose of this article is to show how an important industrial tool can be useful in the classroom.

It’s my sincere belief that teaching is an art. The interactions with students are personal and genuine. Students are the centre of what we do. I guess you might call me “a gardener.” I am in good company, as most teachers hold a similar opinion.

What I’m hinting at is this: There are two models of education: the factory, and the garden. This article will illustrate how an industrial tool can be useful in your garden. I want to write about an industrial tool, but I’m not an industrialist educator.

What was broken in industry?

During the 1990s software development was in crisis. ICT Projects were always late and over budget. It took about 3 years for changes to be made to software. Developers were weighed down with documentation requirements and project plans.

What changed?

A group of engineers wrote the following statement in 2001:

  • Individuals and Interactions over processes and tools
  • Working Software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer Collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to Change over following a plan

That is to say, the items on the left are valued more than the items on the right.

One of the key elements of this philosophy is the Sprint. A Sprint is a short period of time for people to create something that works. In industry, this is typically 1 – 4 weeks. In the classroom, this is typically 5 – 20 minutes.

What does the Sprint fix?

Students (or engineers) that work in a sprint have a bite-sized task, with clear goals and limited resources. They know that at the end of the sprint they will show their work to others and be accountable. If they have strayed off course, only a short amount of time has been lost and then can make amends in the next sprint.

What is broken in the classroom?

Students spend large amounts of time working on projects that don’t amount to much. They don’t have enough direction and they get stuck in details.
Teachers often spend 10-20 minutes demonstrating a series of skills and describing how students will use them in the “practice time.”

How does this work day-to-day?

  1. START: A quick 3 minute presentation from the teacher about the task, the resources and 1 skill
  2. 5 MINUTE SPRINT: Students work in groups or pairs. Agile always has a team element, and Pair Programming is a recognised 1:2 method, where two engineers use one computer. The teacher circulates, focusing on students who are having trouble getting started.
  3. SHARING: work from some or all groups is displayed. Work is praised and areas needed development identified. Experts are recognised and made available to the whole class. There may be a need to teach another skill.
  4. 10 MINUTE SPRINT: Students work with new motivation. They are working towards the next sharing time and they want to show their learning at the next opportunity. The teacher circulates, swapping members if necessary and referring students to experts as needed.
  5. SHARING: Student output will be of a very different quality than during the first share.

I use this methodology with new entrants through to year 13s. The main variable is the sprint length. 5 minutes for new entrants, closer to 30 minutes for year 13s.

Is there anything else of value in Agile Methodology?

Individuals and Interactions over processes and tools

Agile teams typically don’t use email very often. Face to face interactions are more important. What is said is more important that how it is said. Transparency is valued. This has implications for management as well as for the classroom.

Working Software over comprehensive documentation

For students, this might mean having the bones of a project in place from the very start. This is relevant whether or not they are working on a Digital Outcome.

Customer Collaboration over contract negotiation

At the end of a sprint, there is an opportunity for sharing. Other groups will give feedback that will influence student work.

Responding to Change over following a plan

This is very close to the Inquiry Model. Teachers need to be responsive to student needs.

“It's the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top.”
― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

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