Becoming more agile

I’ve been thinking a lot about “agility” lately.  “Agility” has become a new buzzword in education, business, engineering and a few other professions and I’ve been really thinking about how it applies to me as an educator and as a learner.  To be agile, one must possess the “ability to move with quick grace and ease” and “a quick resourceful and adaptable character.”  At least that’s what the Merriam-Webster dictionary says.  But what does it mean to be an “agile educator?”  Or an “agile learner?”  I did a quick search for the words “agile learner” and came across a blog by Derek Bruff, who is the director of the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University.  Bruff’s blog is called Agile Learning which he says is rooted in his professional efforts at Vanderbilt.  On the blog, he describes his decision to use the phrase “agile teaching.”

When talking to faculty about their teaching, I often use the phrase “agile teaching” to describe a certain kind of on-the-fly responsiveness to student learning needs in the classroom. In the educational development work I do, helping faculty and graduate students to become more reflective and intentional teachers, I find that I need a similar kind of agility. I never know what resources, ideas, or experiences I’ll be called upon to share with a colleague as we talk about teaching. As a result, I find myself learning about all sorts of things that might come in handy in a consultation or workshop one day.

I’m sure that most people who examine Bruff’s thoughts on agility focus on his comprehensive knowledge base. Bruff mentally collects “resources, ideas or experiences” never knowing when he’ll need to share these items.  But, agility isn’t just about knowing a bunch of stuff.  Agility, as I see it, is more about mindset than brainpower.  It’s about openness and willingness.  It’s about seeing opportunities and grabbing them.  The agile educator is open to throwing out the lesson plan on the fly if a new idea is more responsive to students’ needs and to their learning.  Sure, agile educators need to know a great deal to be agile in their classrooms.  They need to know their content well and understand their students’ learning needs.  More than that, however, the agile educator has to be open to letting student learning take center stage and dictate the days’ events.

One element that is lost in Bruff’s description of agility is “environment.”  To be an agile educator, one must work in an environment where that agility is valued and fostered.  I know teachers who work in public schools who are required to submit lesson plans weeks in advance.  I know others who are given departmental lesson plans that each instructor must follow daily.  While these examples are from K-12 settings, collegiate environments can also impede agility.  Think about how long it would take for a new idea to reach an implementation stage at your institution.  If an instructor wanted to create a new course, how long would it take?  How long would it take for a new program to be developed?  Do the structures and systems at your institution support the agility of faculty and students?  While I recognize that some of these structures and systems help to provide an institution’s foundation and governance, we must create opportunities and spaces for individuals to “move with quick grace and ease” in response to student needs or to innovate for the betterment of the institution.

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One thought on “Becoming more agile

  1. Glad you found my blog! I appreciate your comments on the constraints that environments often pose to agile teaching. I’ve been fortunate to teach at universities where I have a lot of autonomy to teach in ways that are creative and responsive to student learning needs. But not everyone teaches in those environments, and, lately, I’ve found that as I approach directing my teaching center with that same agile mindset, I’m running into constraints around autonomy and resources. It can be very frustrating!

    I’ll add that I think the kind of responsive mindset you describe is under the surface of my comments on agility. The reason I collect resources on Diigo and blog about some of the best of them is so that I can leverage those resources in my work here at Vanderbilt, responding to the needs and interests of the faculty with whom I support and consult.

    I picked up the term agile teaching from a group of physics education researchers at UMass-Amherst, who contrasted the term with “ballistic teaching,” which involves planning a lesson plan ahead of time, launching it (so to speak) during class, and not altering that plan in response to what is discovered about student learning during class. It sounds like you would agree with me that “ballistic teaching” isn’t ideal!

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