Org Theory Reading Reflection 1: Loose coupling of educational systems

This summer I’m taking one class, Organizational Theory, and doing an independent reading credit with my advisor. My first writing assignment is already due tomorrow (summer classes go fast!). To be honest, it feels good to write for a class again and Org Theory is one of the classes I am most excited to take while I’m in graduate school. I know I know: #edugeek. And proud of it.

Educational Organizations as Loosely Coupled Systems, by Karl E. Weick.

Prior to the readings this week, I already associated the phrase “loose coupling” with Karl Weick, but had not read much about it. After the readings this week and last, I have a better idea both what is meant by it, its origins, and its application to the current state of public K-12 education. What I find most compelling is the way a term, meant to be descriptive of organizations, was taken up as negative and used to push remedies (as described in Firestone, 2015), perhaps without full consideration of whether it was actually a bad thing to begin with.

Weick, like organizational theorists before him, are attempting to describe what happens in organizations and predict outcomes based on actions. Rational descriptions and theories, predominant at the time, of how organizations function were incomplete and didn’t help people make sense of their experiences. The idea of “loose coupling” was meant to describe a mechanism by which we can understand “events that are responsive, but that each event also preserves its own identity and some evidence of its physical and logical separateness.” (p. 3) In other words, things happen that have a relation to each other, but it is not necessarily straightforward and logical in the way that can be rationalized. I see this as similar to thinking about multiple variables or systems thinking.

Educational organizations have a long track record of interventions or reforms that don’t go as planned. Loose coupling helps explain that, since we tend to plan with the assumption that what our intentions are going to have certain results, but if the elements are not rationally connected in reality, it doesn’t work.

It is easy to feel like loose coupling is a bad thing because it thwarts reform efforts. Nonetheless, Weick attempts to describe it in ways that are neutral or might actually be beneficial to the organization. He gives seven reasons why loose coupling might exist in an organization:

  1. “allows some portions of an organization to persist”
  2. “provide a sensitive sensing mechanism”
  3. “good system for localized adaptation”
  4. “retain a greater number of mutations and novel solutions than would be the case with a tightly coupled system”
  5. breakdowns are “sealed off” from the rest of the system
  6. “more room available for self-determination by the actors”
  7. “relatively inexpensive to run because it takes time and money to coordinate people”

To me, the most interesting of these is the benefit of localized adaptation. This allows teachers to adapt their instruction and the environment of their classroom to the needs of their individual students, but this has been much reduced with the movement towards standards and accountability. Firestone (2015) elaborates on this, describing the accountability movement as largely aimed at reducing the problems of loose coupling. I find it ironic that even as testing and sanctions have been applied to reduce the loose coupling, they themselves have not been as effective as hoped, as the policies were rationally designed and applied to a loosely coupled system, perhaps without full understanding of the system itself. To me, this leads to two conclusions: one, you have to focus on the people in the organization and how they learn, not just doing interventions to them, and two, you have to pay attention to context.

I think this is what I like so much about design-based research, in which feedback on the design is integral to the process, and what I like about the Networked Improvement Communities (Bryk, Gomez, Grunow, and LeMahieu, 2015), where feedback is gathered early and often, doing small testing in context and reducing variation in implementation by paying attention to what works when and where, rather than assuming something that is well designed will work. NICs also use root cause analyses to elucidate variables that contribute to the problem and then focus action on those variables and measure results. I can see now that this is essentially a strategy for improving interventions in a loosely coupled system. In some ways, you don’t have to know the mechanism for why the improvement works if you have measurements to show that it does and pay attention to context.

Also interesting is Weick’s sixth point that loose coupling may allow individual actors more self-determination, giving them autonomy and agency over their work, thereby a sense of professionalism and internal motivation. Again, Firestone’s article helps put this in relief, where this was good and bad: teachers want the autonomy but also feel isolated. Thus, teachers might want the movement towards “professional learning communities” or other programs that provide resources for collaboration and break down the silos of individual classrooms, but this comes along with threats to professionalism. Can you have both collaboration and individual agency? I think so, but perhaps not in the traditional school set up.

Firestone concludes that after 40 years of tightening the system, it isn’t working, except in exceptional cases. So my questions is then, is whether loose coupling, this idea that Weick wrote about 40 years ago, is actually helpful in the goals of educational research to understand organizations, predict how they will react, and thus shape them? Meyer and Rowan (1977) go into more depth why systems decouple as a result of the conflict between categorical rules and efficiency: “Thus, decoupling enables organizations to maintain standardized, legitimating, formal structures while their activities vary in response to practical considerations.” (p.357) Maybe loose coupling allows us insight into why things are the way they are, but is the theoretical construct of loose coupling really valuable if the practical considerations ultimately have more control over what actually happens?

 

Byrk, A., Gomez, L., Grunow, A., LeMahieu, P. (2015). Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better. Harvard Education Publishing.

Firestone, W. (2015). Loose coupling: The “condition” and its solutions? Journal of Organizational Theory in Education. 1(1).

Meyer, J. Rowan, B. (1977). Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony. American Journal of Sociology. 83(2): 340-363.

Weick, K. (1976). Educational Organizations as Loosely Coupled Systems. Administrative Science Quarterly, 21(1): 1-19.

 

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