Mar 3, 2013

Self-Organizing Classroom: Big Picture

The Self-Organizing Classroom ...The Big Picture

The Self-Organizing Classroom Big Picture - John Miller

My experiences with with Agile in the classroom and deep thinking about why and how it works in K12 has led me to these insights. I am backing away from Agile as the key name or model. There is too much debate and noise about what Agile is and is not. I have come to realize that for this to truly take root, it can not be an adoption of Agile by educators, but, a cross-pollination of the Agile with education.  Agile approaches are borrowed and adapted to the unique context of the classroom and education. Agile provides a helpful scaffolding to building something new and uniquely valuable for a 21st Century learning environment, but, does not imprison its adaptation in schools. The diagram is a big picture overview of the Self-Organizing Classroom and it's interdisciplinary approach.

The 5 C's of Flow (The Outer Circle)

The 5C's to Evoke Flow
In my pursuit of why Agile worked so well in a classroom to evoke self-organization, engagement, love of learning, collaboration, self-directness, and positive behavior from 3rd graders to high school seniors, I have discovered it is because it provides the right conditions for the state of flow to occur. You enter flow when you match one's perceived skill level with the perceived challenge. Flow is the psychological state of

"being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost." - Csikszentmihaly

I argue that the Flow State what student engagement is. According to Csikzensmihaly , the environment should provide 5 characteristics to evoke flow,  The Self-Organizing Classroom intentionally builds these characteristics in throughout the entire learning experience.  
  1. Centering - centering on the student's present interests, emotional state, and concrete experience in the present, not focusing on consequences of completing the goal.  In other words, focus on the dynamically changing intrinsic motivations and states of the student not the extrinsic motivators and engaging in the learning activity for its own sake.
  2. Clarity - unambiguous goals, feedback, expectations, and norms of working together
  3. Challenge - set and negotiate meaningful challenges within students' perceived skill levels.
  4. Choice - students have choice in how they accomplish learning goals.
  5. Commitment - students can fully commit to the goal, without anxiety and distractions. They feel they have the support to be confident in completing the activities.

The Self-Organizing Classroom model intentionally designs learning so that these characteristics permeate throughout the entire learning experience, to help evoke radical engagement of the entire classroom.


The  Engagement Cycle (The Second Ring )

The SOC Engagement Loop

The Engagement Cycle is inspired directly from the Scrum framework, a highly collaborative Agile approach to innovative product development. The Engagement Cycle provides an iterative and incremental approach to learning, allowing learners to inspect and adapt their own learning. The Engagement Cycle is short time box, usually a week, where learners commit to learning goals to be demonstrate by the end of time-box, and then inspect and adapt the results and process for self-improvement.  It is the key enabling constraint for rapid learning and collaboration.

1. Plan - The teacher presents learning challenges, usually in the form of  learning outcomes or project outcomes, and provides a forum for discussion to center on the learners and ensure clarity on the outcomes. Learners have choice in what they commit  to achieve in the Engagement Cycle. Learners break down the challenges into activities and tasks, with choice in how they achieve the challenge.

2. Huddle - as the learners are self-organizing, they coordinate their activities with one another in a huddle, usually daily. They state what chose to do yesterday, what they choose to do today, and what problems they may need help in overcoming. This provides clarity on the progress of learning.

3. Demo - At the end of the Engagement Cycle is a formal demonstration of learning. Although demonstration of learning happens throughout the Engagement Cycle, this is the formal finish line to demonstrate the learning challenges were met. It provides clarity through immediate and relevant feedback on if the learning challenge was met. It provides valuable insight on how to adapt learning to the differentiated needs of the classroom.

4. Reflect - Learners reflect on their collaboration, their individual performance, the learning process, and the learning environment to celebrate their strengths, achievements, and to commit to a clear improvement challenge in the next Engagement Loop. Whereas the Demo is about  providing clarity on the outcomes of the learning, Reflect is about evoking clarity of the current process and self-improving it together. A self-organing classroom is a self-improving classroom. This formally happens at the end of the Engagement Loop, but, I have seen classrooms Reflect daily with amazing results.

Characteristics of a Self-Organing Classroom 

A Self-Organzing Classroom has unique characteristics that serve as scaffolding structures to support and evoke self-organization, self-improvement, and the achievement of learning challenges. These are also characteristics of an Agile environment that enable self-organzing teams to develop innovative products.

1. Visual - the learning environment provides radical clarity through providing highly visual learning radiators. Learning radiators provide unambiguous clarity on the learning challenges, expectations, progress, issues, and norms on how the classroom self-organizes, protecting against chaos that ambiguity can cause. It makes often invisible collaboration and meta-cognition activities transparent, so that the classroom can inspect and adapt their own learning.

2. Rapid Feedback - Throughout the framework, rapid and relevant feedback is provided at many levels, for individuals, for the interactions between learners and the environment, realtime feedback of learning and collaboration in progress, and the outcomes of learning. It enables the classroom to inspect and adapt quickly to differentiate their own learning. It does not wait for a test or a grade, it happens throughout the learning experience, and empowers learners to sense and respond themselves to the feedback when it is relevant.

3. Pull - The Self-Organzing Classroom moves towards more "Pull" and less "Push".  Learners have incrementally increase the choice they have, pulling in challenges and activities at their own rate at their own level. Although students may or may not develop their own goals, they should at a minimum have the structures and empowerment to pull the challenges and activities in at their own rate. By centering on the learners present and intrinsic motivation, the challenges "pull" them in,  versus being "pushed" onto them as something to comply to.

4. Self-Organzing  Is a specific form of self-directed learning combined with collaboration. Self-organized learners work without out direct supervision, released from command and control style of instruction, to accomplish clear goals.. This does not mean self-organized learners do not have rules, to the contrary, it is essential to provide enabling constraints for self-organization to emerge. Self-organization emerges within simple scaffolding structures, which is what this framework provide. This framework provides just enough rules to provide guard rails against chaos, while enough space to empower learners to choose and adapt their own learning path together.

The Empowerment Dial

The Empowerment Dial is a visual information radiator unique to this framework. It is the lever to provide gradual release of control from the teacher to the learners, from just individual learning to collaborative learning. It incrementally builds and stretches the self-organzing capacity of the classroom, from the teacher's capacity to empower as well as the learners capacity to take on more responsibility. This is the safety dial to protect against the perceived and real risks of a classroom spilling into the chaotic classroom. It provides a visible and incremental path, through 5 discrete stages of empowering learners and and transforming the teacher from the traditional "sage on the stage" to the coveted "guide on the side".  From Level 1, on-boarding the classroom by acclimating them to the engagement loop and visualizing learning through learning radiators, without changing the current level of  empowerment, to Level 5, where the classroom is fully self-organized and perhaps even developing their own learning outcomes and learning activities in full collaboration. The Empowerment Dial provides highly visible and explicit expectations on the roles and responsibilities, so that delegation of authority is unambiguous and can be respected by all. The 5C's of Flow is instilled in the Empowerment Dial as it is throughout the entire learning framework.


Through real experience of applying this model in classrooms, I believe this provides the right approach to a classroom of extreme engagement, empowerment, while providing the 21st Century skills in to thrive in the present and in the future. Be aware that this post is not a step by step guide, but, the overarching structure and characteristics the Self-Organzing Classroom guide will follow. With that said, as the real experiences of provide real feedback, this model will change, as it is still in it's infancy. We will inspect and adapt the model as we learn more.  I invite your feedback and contribution.

Your Help

I aslo ask for your advice on naming the framework and to participate in it's continued development and application with me. I am considering dropping the name of The Agile Based Learning Environment (ABLE) upon the recent insights that it is a cross-pollination of Agile, not an Agile adoption into education. I have used the term the Self-Organzing Classroom (SOC) throughout, and in writing the guide, but, I am not sure if that will stick. There is a another great educational approach out there urge you to explore, called the Self-Organzied Learning Environment (SOLE), which I actually started to use until I discovered their site. It is a very different model, but, I believe complimentary to this one. Thanks for you help!

John Miller PMP, CSP

John Miller

P.S. I am short on time to write and my quality suffers, so, if you see any typos, please let me know.

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John Miller