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How Agile Can Help You Learn Anything

Cuddles found out that agile also equals snacks and slaloms.

“Agile” is a term I used to love to hate. Now I see that it’s actually a useful way of working, and I learn more about agile management every day. But can agile techniques be used in lifelong learning? And how can something as corporate as agile management help a person learn a skill?

0. What is Agile?

If you’ve never heard of this term before – “agile” is a name for a flexible, interactive way of managing how things are designed, built, coded, or produced. You can read more about the Agile philosophy on its Wikipedia page or head over to the document that started it all, the Agile manifesto. The four steps below will refer to the four statements of the manifesto, and help you see its value in individual, lifelong learning.

1. Individuals & interactions > processes and tools

The first principle starts with people and how they connect. There is a lot to be said for tools and processes (what’s the best note-taking style? How to find a good flashcard app?), but what matters more is the people who learn and the human connection that results from learning.
Two examples:
Alice decided to stop using the books donated by her former teacher, because she found that it’s easier for her to search for information online and keep a digital note folder. The tools were useful, but she worked out her individual style and there was more value in playing to her strengths.
Bob finds that the conversation workshops offered by his language school are the best time for him to learn a language: he remembers more, his confidence is high, and he performs better. He decides to switch to a course that maximises the time spent in workshops and minimises book and classroom study. There’s resistance from school management, but Bob knows that school processes are less important than the interactions that help him thrive.

2. Things that work > things that are well-documented

This refers to software in the original manifesto, but over time, the statement was revised to fit management in other areas. So why not use it to work out your learning?
To put it simply – things that work for you when you’re learning are more valuable than producing a good record of what you’ve been doing. Your time and effort should go towards finding how to make your learning work – not towards showing off what you’ve done.
For Charles, this can mean deciding to save money on a sports watch, choosing two more sports coaching sessions instead (since he’s more focused on effective technique than on showing off his runs on Facebook). For Dorando, this can lead to quitting his exam preparation class and using the time to learn some real-life language (since he’s planning to use his foreign language every day, and has no need for certificates).

3. Working with customers > negotiating contracts

This one looks like it’s harder to “translate” into personal learning, but let’s think about it for a while. Originally, Agile manifesto authors seemed to mean that when you’re designing something for your customers (software, hardware…anything) it’s more valuable to frequently check that you’re working on building what they really, really want – instead of sticking to a formal, strict contract and refusing to change what was originally agreed. The key terms here are openness and flexibility.
In practical learning, this can take many forms. Elena decides to spend one afternoon every month going through freelance job boards – to see what skills her potential customers value, and to help her decide what to learn next. Fiona’s choice of the next song to learn depends on what her school children like to listen to – and her guitar teacher is flexible enough to accommodate that on short notice.

4. Responding to change > following a plan

Once we got the above principle out of the way, this should be simple to understand. Change can come from many places, not just “customers” (or listeners, employers, other language speakers…). And it’s more useful to react to unpredictable situations when you’re learning, rather than trying to stick to a plan that no longer works in reality.
Ghanim, for example, faces a choice between paying more for access to his coding website which suddenly raised its prices – and looking elsewhere for similar materials. The plan and budget he had in mind didn’t cover this expense, but Ghanim decides to pay – because the website really works for him.
Hannah learns about her new partner’s gluten intolerance halfway through her one-year baking course. She spends an hour on the phone with the community centre, but it’s worth it in the end: they agree to switch her to a gluten-free baking and cooking course instead, and waive any extra fees. She was looking forward to some recipes, but now the plan no longer makes sense and she can enjoy the results more.

If you have any good agile tricks or methods that helped you in your learning, we’d love to hear them! Share the ideas on Facebook or Twitter.

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