Students are not software

Students are not software
Photo by Markus Spiske / Unsplash

Recently I have been hearing more about teaching sprints. For those who are unfamiliar, a teaching sprint is a process where a team of teachers pick a focus, something they would like to work on improving as a team. They spend two to four weeks practicing a strategy or technique in their classrooms, and then reflect on the process with each other as a way to seek improvement. The process has received attention in Manitoba, with facilitators having presented to MASS in early 2020.

When I considered what topics I might focus on if I were to do a teaching sprint, I got stuck. As an English teacher, one goal I'm interested in pursuing is improving my students' attitudes towards reading. For some students, reading is something they view as a chore. There are many reasons this might be the case, although I suspect that the stressors of learning during a pandemic over the last few years have not helped. I wanted to shift this attitude, to help them rediscover joy in reading texts that capture their interests and imagination. However, a two to four week sprint doesn't seem like the appropriate approach for a problem like this, particularly if it has potentially been years in the making.

Authentic learning is not something that should be rushed, which made me question this approach. But the idea of teaching sprints didn't originate in education or with teachers. Instead, the concept of sprints comes from software development. At the beginning of a project, a software development team meets with a client to detail the necessary features of the desired product. They break the project down into smaller pieces, and work on a part for one to four weeks. Afterwards, they review their progress with the client, receive feedback, and return to working on a new sprint. The concept of a design sprint has since migrated to the business world, and eventually to education.

The allure of a teaching sprint is understandable. It offers a framework for staff collaboration and improvement. As well, it aims to increase the efficiency of the teaching and learning process, an appealing prospect for many school leaders. However, knowing this process originated with software development, it is important to ask questions. First of all, in this framework do students take the place of software? What does that metaphor say about students and their place in school? It definitely is in line with a factory model of education, where students (or rather workers) are the product schools must produce. What does this say about student agency in the learning process?

Secondly, teachers should consider what is prioritized in the sprint process and what is missing. Since a sprint lasts a few weeks, it is more likely to be oriented towards outcomes and competencies that are easily measurable within that time frame. This reflects a neoliberal view of education that values measurable outcomes, pursuing efficiencies, and often job-oriented skills. However, what about learning that is not so easy to measure? For instance, Claudia Ruitenberg (2019) identified friendship as something that cannot be reduced to discrete social and moral competencies. If someone were to try to reduce it to measurable competencies, "they [would] end up leaving behind crucial aspects of some of these qualities and actions that are not and cannot be captured by the concept of competency" (p. 131). Arguably, learning to be a good friend or to be empathetic are essential goals, but difficult to measure authentically.

As well, lots of important learning does not happen quickly or in a short time frame. If I want to teach a student to be curious about the world or to be confident in their own abilities, I can lay the ground work, but they might not be ready to demonstrate this learning for quite some time. It is a similar situation for educators who want to see deep changes in a school culture. Sometimes our efforts need more time in order to bear fruit. Some learning is slow and not immediately obvious, but that doesn't make it any less important.

Teaching sprints are a tool that can be useful for some purposes, and I can appreciate the opportunity for collaboration they offer. However, I worry if our professional collaboration is too focused on sprints, or pursuing efficiencies, we miss out on other important conversations regarding our professional practice. This year I have been thinking a lot about the deeper and slower learning that will help my students become good people and curious learners. I want my students to go far in these areas, and I'm not convinced that sprints are the way for us to move there.