In Good to Great, Jim Collins suggests that organizations must clarify protocols and expectations, creating a balance between structure and autonomy that he refers to as, “tight-loose-tight.” Employees, participants, members, etc. of all groups need to know what: What do I need to do (tight #1) and How will I be evaluated (tight #2). The loose is the expectation of how I accomplish what I need to do.
If we apply this concept of tight-loose-tight specifically to the field of education and curriculum, the questions become: What do I want students to know? What is the best way to teach this? and How will I know they’ve learned it? Tight-loose-tight.
Do the questions look familiar? They should. Essentially, the bookends are the first two questions we ask ourselves when following a PLC process in a meeting. And, those first two questions are really what education is all about: teaching and learning. The tight in tight-loose-tight are the bookends; they are the science of teaching. They must be firm, and they must remain similar to identical.
In my previous post, Similar to Identical: Creating Systems that Cultivate Equitable Practice, I describe similar to identical as, “a belief that two or more aspects...are monitored inside of a system that promotes commonalities over individualism. To be similar to identical is to adhere to a collective drive to make decisions in groups and then follow-through with the expectations that are set.”
In regards to expectations for PLCs, common curriculum and common assessments must be identical if we want to ensure equitable access to content for all students. This expectation is tight. This is the “science” of teaching if you will, while the loose is the “art.”
And what do we mean by the art of teaching? Teacher personality, classroom culture, lesson design, question processes, and more. Some educators are cautious of the idea of professional learning communities because they don’t want to be in a community; they are much safer and happier without the burden of expected collaboration. They are also honestly afraid that they’ll be told exactly what to teach and how to teach it every single day.
This simply is not true (and I sincerely hope this isn’t how your school utilizes the process). Highly effective PLC systems ensure that a philosophy and common understanding exists around tight-loose-tight. Leaders relentlessly clarify what must be common (curriculum, timing in maps, assessments--formative, summative--and how often) and what can be open (personality, lesson design, activities, etc.) to each individual teacher. If leaders fail to get involved in the conversations had by PLCs, they will fail to notice conflict when it’s about to surface. They’ll fail to notice when a teacher, or grade level, veers from the map and “goes rogue” as I like to say.
And what’s the issue with going rogue? It’s not what was agreed upon by the collective group, it dismantles equitable access to curriculum and content, and it puts into question the power of collective teacher efficacy. Why would I want to collaborate with someone who was just going to do what they wanted to do to begin with? I wouldn’t! And then, the meeting would feel like a waste of time.
Even worse? The refusal to follow common curriculum and assessment expectations will make me, the teacher who followed the plan, resentful. I might question my value and sense of belonging (since I can’t even be a part of a small team that works together). I might not trust that my leadership has students’ best interests at heart, since they won’t hold my colleagues accountable for providing inequitable experiences to the students.
Leaders need to create the balance of structure and autonomy, and make sure they stay on the same page about their collective understanding, too. When two principals have two different interpretations of what’s expected, frustration occurs. When the curriculum director looks to a principal to make a call, and the principal looks to the curriculum director to do likewise--inaction occurs. Rather than look to someone else to set and hold the expectations, work together as an administration team to create and uphold the clarity. The narrative transforms from “Because they said so” into “Because we agreed.”
And finally: teachers must be a part of that we. Empower your PLC leaders to teach the tight-loose-tight approach to curriculum and assessment. If our teachers don’t embrace the why behind a guaranteed and viable curriculum, the system will fail every single time.