Tight to Loose - A Reflection on Prince

The passing of Prince has put my mind on creativity quite a bit. Those who know me well know that I am a serious fan of Prince, and also that I am a serious fan of creativity in schools. I’ve been thinking a great deal about both this week.


In Big Picture schools, you’ll often hear the expression “tight to loose” used to describe the way that schools build their culture, and the way that advisors build their classroom experiences for kids. As I’ve done work in schools establishing advisory programs, I’ve often noticed a misconception that advisory is a loose thing, that an educator can show up and just roll with some kind of impromptu discussion group or let the kids use the time to do classwork. There’s a sense that improvisation means just “going with the flow,” when it comes to progressive schools. This is the idea of starting “loose,” instead of understanding that you have to start “tight.” It’s by building systems, structures, relationships and resources that you can establish the kind of foundation (tight) that allows real learning and creativity to bloom.


My first year as an advisor in a new Big Picture school was also my first year as a Teach for America corps member. This made for a very rich, yet very fraught learning experience for me, but ultimately one that would help to crystalize my understanding of what makes personalized learning work. Through a process of breaking down learning goals (personal and academic), setting clear expectations for work quality, and helping students to craft their own visions for their work, set their own goals, and build systems to support reaching those goals, I learned alongside my students. It was a collaborative and organic process, but a process built on an undergirding of systems. We started tight, and got looser over time.


If you were fortunate enough to see Prince in concert, you may have heard that he often would have up to 300 songs he and his band were prepared to play, and that they would follow his lead onstage, with no set list, from one song to the next. No one would accuse Prince and his band of not being tight. But this kind of flow is only possible when there’s clear preparation, communication and systems. They trained, they rehearsed, which is what made them ready to cut loose. In Elliot Washor & Charlie Mojkowski’s book Leaving to Learn, the 10 Expectations include play, as well as practice.


For educators, the work that’s required to approach personalization in a meaningful way include deep analysis of learning goals, careful scaffolding of opportunities for learning, making connections with real world partners, and collaboratively building products with students that have authentic audiences and users. This work also includes collaborative leadership in schools—educators working together to establish shared vision and values, to continually question the efficacy of tools like learning plans and project proposals, to collectively assess learning, and to always continue focusing on improving outcomes.

I was on a panel (Re-Designing Education) recently at the Yale School of Management’s Education Leadership Conference, with some incredibly smart people, including Mary Harrison from Nellie Mae Education Foundation, Ross Wilson from BPS, and Katie Potochney, from SYPartners. One of the questions that came to the group from the audience had to do with motivating teachers to take more risks in the classroom. My response was that teaching, in itself, is a risky proposition. There is a great deal of risk every day, in working with a sometimes confounding and often unstable system, and embracing the chaos and love and challenge of working with groups of young people. Moving schools toward more progressive, creative, open ways of learning do not ask teachers to take more risk on, they ask them to think more deeply about the choices they make in the classroom, and to take different risks. The biggest risk that teachers need to take in Big Picture schools is not removing structure from the classroom—it is instead about becoming a learner with students. These models for education ask teachers to engage in practice and in play alongside students, and also alongside colleagues. The message of the panel on the topic of Re-Designing Education was one that was focused on carving out opportunities for meaningful learning that were also tied to structures of support, thoughtful planning, and resources.


In Ken Robinson’s new book, Creative Schools, he writes about ideal teacher training involving both “extensive practice,” and also “the study of the practice and ideological history of education… [including] the serious study of theories of learning and research in psychology and … cognitive sciences.” Indeed, you can only improvise well when you’ve developed serious chops! Good teachers should be as hungry to learn as their students are.


Prince was quoted as saying, later in his career: “I used to be more involved with every aspect of everything onstage. I'm way more relaxed now. It feels like anything can happen.” This is the way a good advisory works. Teachers who are thinking about creating structures for learning, who are engaged in thoughtful pedagogical dialogue with their colleagues, who are building opportunities for learning, plan out their time with students. They focus on exposure to new ideas, new skills. They map out learning goals. As their students become engaged, as they experience authentic and creative learning, as they learn the value of learning, the students will take over more and more leadership of the classroom. This is going from tight to loose. It’s only through building those practices of learning together that we can hit our groove.