Innovation as an Obligation and the Need for Loose – Tight Coupling

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:

  1. Consider innovation as an obligation, not an opportunity, and
  2. Be purposeful in how our supports and our enablers provide loose-tight coupling when it comes to our key leadership work in innovation.

7 responses to “Innovation as an Obligation and the Need for Loose – Tight Coupling

  1. This is a great post Dr. Elder and I couldn’t agree more about the need to innovate. I have found though, that innovation in any endeavor is not always easy. Innovation tends to be disruptive and unsettling to many people. It takes them out of their comfort zone and usually involves hard work, lots of communication, great leadership and community involvement.

    The Saanich School district has been enormously successful, in my opinion, primarily because you recognize innovation as a key element for education. In my experience, innovation not only stimulates the innovator but it can enliven the entire community once they embrace it. Innovators are often viewed with skepticism when these new ideas are introduced but it seems to become harder and harder to ignore as ideas are turned into practical application and eventually become the norm.

    Although not a large district, Saanich is truly a lighthouse, due to strong leadership which which encourages and embraces innovation, collaboration, community and communication.

    • Thank you for this Gregg. Your leadership in bringing open source foundations to our district technology program (Linux, thin client, libre office and the like) and in co-leading in the creation of an open-source community-built made-in-BC student information system ( is key to our success as well.

  2. A very thought-provoking post Dr. Elder. One sentiment that I completely agree with is that “No student should ever feel a need to go to a private school or to a charter school.” As long as public schools are taking risks, breaking away from old habits and being bold as you say, they can offer modern, stimulating learning environments.

    As a graduate of the Saanich district I have experienced a fulfilling education that I am proud of. This is a result of the a) amazing teachers and b) the innovation the district promotes effecting academics, technology and community. While I did not recognize the efforts and support required to achieve this level of innovation I can now appreciate that it is achieved through the philosophy of the district and incorporating it into all decision making. As a current Education student at UVic I have been interested in observing the structure and framework utilized to support innovation within the Saanich district. There are so many excellent teachers that have engaging ideas for innovation in the classroom. Building a community of like minded individuals to support innovation in the schools is an excellent way to not only meet the obligation of innovation but continue to be a leader in this area. I believe that the district is so successful because the power for innovation comes from collaboration within and is something that is celebrated not reprimanded.

    • Great to hear from a Saanich grad. I am moved by the notion that you appreciated the innovation you experienced during your school years but only now appreciate that it is achieved through the philosophy and strategic work of the district and school leaders. This speaks to the natural and transparent nature of innovation in schools — not a “big deal”, just the way we do business. Looking forward to seeing you in the profession.

  3. Thanks Keven! I enjoyed reading your thoughts.
    John Phipps, VIU Faculty of Education

  4. I must say that I was very moved by this post and appreciate the way you have woven together the projects that are currently taking place in classrooms around our district with a philosophy that speaks to allowing individuals to find their own path to make a difference for learners. I am proud to say that I have been fortunate enough to be part of a community of learners, teachers and leaders that encourage and inspire innnovation for all. I am particularly excited to see how the path of the Innovation Team weaves its way through this year and the years to come to provide individualized learning and opportunities for children to receive powerful learning in the 21st century.

  5. I was very fortunate to be one of the 1200 at the 2012 Educational Leadership Conference this year. I truly felt swept up in the historic momentum around change that we find ourselves in. What was particularly exciting to me was the way that we were all able to participate in conference culture. Amazing, participatory conversations were circulating around each of the presentations as they were occurring. These were wonderfully diverse and deep collections of comments that invariably led me to even further investigations of innovative practices from around the province. I learned a great deal about the BC Ed plan and its potential to support the type of growth needed if we are to develop our students into the citizens they need to be as they move forward. I must admit that I was beginning to feel somewhat overwhelmed by the magnitude of my role in bringing change to the learning community I support. I have, however, come away with a renewed energy and optimism. I now have more interesting and, I think, very accessible ideas on how to help teachers grapple with “loose-tight coupling” and its effect on their roles within their classrooms. I will continue to encourage that these occur in alternate teaching spaces, as well as the greater community using the many diverse resources we have right in front of us. Saanich is the perfect place to do this because of the rich array of projects we are engaged in and the ongoing and knowledgeable shared dialogues between teachers, support staff, administrators and district staff.

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