Agile ELT in the classroom – part 1

Having spent the last three years teaching testers and developers, I’m quite familiar with the terms ‘agile’, ‘scrum’ and ‘lean’ and how they use it (or try to use it) to design new software. When they started talking about these terms, I went and read ‘The Agile Samurai: How Agile Masters Deliver Great Software’ by Jonathan Rasmusson and I started seeing parallels immediately between Agile and ELT. Now, two years later, I’m not sure if agile simply fits how I already teach, or if I’ve changed to be more agile.

Nick Robinson recently blogged about being Agile in ELT from the point of view of a writer and publisher, here is how agile influences my planning as a teacher and conduct in the classroom.

1. Agile pushes you to continually adapt to the developing project – your initial plan is never adhered to perfectly – it should continually adapt to new developments and changes.

As a teacher, you have to adapt both inside and outside of the classroom. If you refuse to integrate technology, change how you approach a problematic student or stubbornly continue to use the same materials/lessons/tasks for 20 years, it’s likely you’ll end up a fossilised teacher.

When writing lesson plans – who really believes we will stick to them 100%? ELT teachers are like sharks – we continue to move aims, adapt to emerging needs and respond to our learners.

2. Agile pushes you to deliver something of value every week

Sometimes it’s hard to measure at the end of a lesson what has been achieved / learnt. For me, I ask my learners what they have learnt of value at the end of class – what they are taking away – what they will use again. This is sometimes a shock for learners but they get used to it. Explicitly discussing what has been of value each week gives you unique insight into what they got from the lesson (often it is not what you expect).

3. Agile breaks down big tasks into small manageable pieces

When carrying out a needs analysis with a student, you often ask what they want to achieve / what they feel they want / need to work on. Often they say they want to be C1 by June or they cannot learn vocabulary. It’s our job to break this down into little chunks, e.g. for vocabulary – start with some learner training (how to use a dictionary / how to access a corpus / how to keep a vocabulary book), then move onto commonly confused words, then maybe some false friends, and so on.

4. Agile’s most important principle is to satisfy the customer by having a working product which has been worked on by motivated and supported individuals – who also work with the customer throughout!

For us, a negotiated syllabus which is revised with learners as a course progresses manages to achieve this. Ignoring your learners’ wishes are stupid and you often deliver something which is unwanted and unexpected. Learners should be consulted at each step to empower them, motivate them, and also to hand over some responsibility.

5. Agile pushes teams to manage themselves

How lovely would it be if your learners managed you! It would save you time and share accountability. For me, these are some of the ways I try to do this:

a) They negotiate their training plan as a team – which topics, language, functions, etc.
b) They decide which part of the plan to work on as the course progresses
c) They decide if they have achieved each point on the plan – if yes, tick it off
d) They decide if more work needs to be done – no tick on the plan
e) They work together to make the vocabulary quiz each week – deciding which words are new, which should be in the quiz, etc.

My conclusions after all this time is that an agile teacher is communicative, learner-centred, and works to see learner progress in a measurable way on a regular basis.

So, my final question for you to mull over: is business only now catching up with ELT best practice?

Thanks to Nick Robinson for pushing me to put my ideas finally into print – go and read his article here:

Also, the best video for agile newbies can be found here – a funny approach to agile and training your family:


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