An EDgile Practice

We have two “extra” practices of EDgility that we added at the end of our book chapter, Getting Agile at School. Slack is one of them.

Slack is unprogrammed, non-directed time during which students go through the struggle of identifying a worthwhile project, determining a logical starting point and developing a workplan, getting feedback from others about their plan, and drawing their own conclusions. Often we miss giving students the opportunity to go through this process, which unfortunately blocks the opportunity for them to learn self-regulation.

Slack is time which might look wasted to someone with a traditional mindset, because students are likely to flounder a bit when they have to make decisions and plan on their own. We should expect them to flounder, since we rarely give them real freedom in school to develop self-regulation skills. One learns, after all, what one practices. And unfortunately, we haven’t traditionally given students a lot of practice with figuring out the steps of learning themselves. We’re actually trained as teachers to give students each learning step. A not so nice way to say that is we hold their hands. We need to let go.

Without slack, or without time to flounder, students aren’t getting practice working through their own floundering. We step in with neat projects, checklists, and our own answers to their problems. Our goal with slack is to suggest we let students practice getting themselves ready to work, we let students choose between options they have developed themselves, and we give them the time to pursue the wrong path. After all, if they never take the wrong path (because we are holding their hands), they do not learn to identify the wrong path nor do they learn what to do if they are on the wrong path.

Slack takes patience for us - and to be very clear: it’s going to look like wasted time to a traditional thinker. It is not wasted time. It is practice in self-regulation.

For a time I worked with school improvement for the State of Minnesota during No Child Left Behind. I often heard presenters encourage teachers not to waste a single instructional minute. I used to interpret that as “keep the students busy every minute of class.” Make every minute count. I believed it.

The issue with that sentiment, and my acceptance of it back then before my personal agile transformation got underway, is that I never stopped to consider that there are also instructional minutes defined by the concept of slack. What I took to mean keep ‘em busy - and I suspect I’m not alone in that - completely missed the notion that slack is important, maybe critical, to developing a self-regulated learner. And slack looks, well, slacky. Like students aren’t getting anything done. Like goof off time, sometimes. But if you embrace slack as necessary, it becomes useful instructional minutes, not wasted time, despite appearances. In summary: You have to build in the important instructional minutes of slack.

All this can seem a bit convoluted. I’ll be very clear. Am I suggesting we need to let students flounder? The unequivocal answer is yes. We must let them flounder if we want them to become self-guided, self-directed, self-regulated learners. Part of our job is to provide them a safe, trust-filled space to flounder. Absolutely.

If you want good followers, well, keep them dependent on your planning, your schedule, and your expertise, by all means.

I’m reminded of a professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, Peter Shaw, who told us how he let his students of Spanish not speak (because of the language teaching methodology he was using). His students did, in fact, not speak for a long time and Peter, with his wry smile, made the story very funny as he started to wonder if he should intervene, and when, and oh my gosh will they ever start speaking?!

Pero si, empezaron a hablar. They did, of course. When they were ready.

I had the same feeling in the first year of our alternative program called Edge. I was ready for it, though, because I had been giving students in our middle school and in after-school activities, long before Edge came along, the same sort of slack. It made me just as nervous as Peter pretended to be when he talked about his mute Spanish class. Were the students we worked with ever going to pick up the work themselves, in a self-regulated sort of way?

Most did. Some in the second semester. Does it take so long because our students are slow? Absolutely not. It takes that long because they have to unlearn years of adapting to classroom environments where following along, avoiding unprogrammed time, filling every minute, and pleasing the teacher are considered hallmarks of success.


Magnuson, P., Tihen, B. Cosgrove, N, & Patton, D. (2019). Getting Agile at School. In Agile and Lean Concepts for Teaching and Learning. Parsons, D. & MacCallum, K. (Eds.). Singapore: Springer.

Paul Magnuson
Paul Magnuson
Educational Thought Leader

We can do school better by supporting authentic learning.