If, as John Ralston Saul said in his essay “In defence of Public Education,” public education is the primary foundation of any civilized society, then we had better get it right. And to get it right we need to see innovation as an obligation rather than as an opportunity.
Why must we innovate? First of all, and quite simply, we have a duty to be the best we can be. But beyond that, in our commitment to public schools as the foundation of a healthy society we had better make public schools the best in the game. Students in the 21st century have choice, and they will go to the schools that provide modern, relevant, welcoming, exciting and engaging learning experiences. To create those schools we have to be bold, to break out of old habits, to act on what we know in order to win the hearts, minds and allegiance of all of the children in our communities. No student should ever feel a need to go to a private school or to a charter school. With the exception of secondary students going across town to attend a public school academy that offers a unique program that can’t be afforded in every school (specialty athletic or otherwise), every child should attend and thrive in the neighbourhood public school.
My thesis here is that innovation is a necessary element of public schooling. Thankfully, we all, at least in British Columbia, seem committed to that notion. The BC Education Plan calls on us to personalize learning and commit ourselves to quality teaching and learning, but more importantly there is tangible momentum and enthusiasm for system reform through “ground-level” or grassroots innovation. The passion of 1200 people who came together for the 2012 Educational Leadership Conference in Vancouver BC, entitled “Partnerships for Personalization: Leading and Transforming Together” exemplified that.
The best thing about innovation in BC in 2012 is that we know what we are doing. We have been working at this strategically and purposefully, and with expert passion, for a long time. We have not just awoken to this idea and said to ourselves “let’s innovate.” Evidence of great modern practices exist throughout the province, including in my district, Saanich, because conditions and structures have been put in place over many years. This speaks to the notion of loose-tight coupling, an idea that I first encountered in the 1980s from Peters and Waterman in “In Search of Excellence.” We have to establish culture, conditions, structures, supports and expectations (the tight part) that truly enable everyone to take risks and explore new pathway, with latitude and trust (the loose part).
What does that look like in Saanich, as an example? We have had innovation supporting structures and conditions in place for a long time. The professional growth council, a partnership between the school district and the teachers union, brings people from all schools together three or four times a year to co-explore, share and report on new practices ranging from universal design for learning to assessment for learning to restitution to technological innovation. On a larger scale we have been into our community with large-scale appreciative inquiry processes to clarify values, beliefs, priorities and vision, we have seeded innovation to activate reform and most recently we have worked in community to develop a five year strategic plan. We have also created innovation research partnerships with the University of Victoria. And just this year we created a district innovation team, six teachers and administrators provided with release time to seed, lead and support innovation. That team of six has blossomed to fifteen people, all of whom lead their colleagues in new sustainable and scalable directions. All that is to say that we are purposeful in laying foundations for growth; again, that’s the tight part.
The loose part is way more fun and is making a huge difference. Teachers are working in teams, with support, to explore new opportunities and directions that engage students in relevant and engaging experiences. Examples abound, and include:
- Staffs that have pulled professional development and staff meeting times into weekly collaboration time in order to inquire and experiment in teams;
- Inquiry-based learning projects in our elementary schools;
- Multi-aged interactive classrooms in elementary and middle schools;
- Our highly advanced and successful technology plan;
- Our very strong programs in environmental responsibility and sustainability;
- Leading edge projects in our secondary schools including the PL10 project at Stelly’s, the Institute for Global Solutions at Claremont, the Marine Institute programs at Parkland and the TASK trades program at ILC;
- Our ongoing leadership in distributed learning at SIDES;
- The K-3 reading initiatives and pedagogical narrative projects in our elementary schools;
- Continued focus on and implementation of Universal Design for Learning, Assessment for Learning, Restitution, Restorative Practices and the Comprehensive Model of Student Support Services;
- The great successes, at the program level and in terms of student achievement, of the implantation of strategies captured in our W’SANEC, Other First Nations, Inuit and Metis Education Enhancement Agreement; and
- Critical to our success in the world of innovation, our strong partnership with the University of Victoria and faculty members who work alongside our teachers and administrators to support and research our innovative practices.
To summarize, there are no magic simple solutions to creating the best possible education system, but it’s not a bad start to say that we must:
- Consider innovation as an obligation, not an opportunity, and
- Be purposeful in how our supports and our enablers provide loose-tight coupling when it comes to our key leadership work in innovation.