Disruptive Innovation in Education part 1

I just got my copy of the book, Disrupting Class, by Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson delivered to my doorstep. The timing was perfect since I had a three-day weekend! I was interested in reading this book because of the article entitled “Online Education Cast as a Disruptive Innovation” published in EdWeek earlier in May. When I blogged about this earlier this month, I thought it was interesting that this article appeared on the front page of Ed Week. I have now started reading the 238 page book and discovered in the author’s acknowledgments, that one of their advisors on this project was Ron Wolk, the retired founding editor of Education Week. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m happy that this article appeared on the front page of Ed Week, but I was a bit curious how an article about online education as compared to recent assessment scores or NCLB proficiency was front and center of Ed Week. I also learned that Michael B. Horn was a student of Clayton Christensen at the Harvard Business School and that Curtis W. Johnson was one of the early proponents of the chartered school movement. (In the book, they explain that they prefer the term “chartered school” rather than “charter school” because, as a verb, it more accurately characterizes the shift in public policy that began in the early 1990s. Many charter schools simply reflect the traditional practices in schools, while others such as student-centered or online schools are not as traditional).

Christensen, Horn and Johnson open the book suggesting that we have high hopes for our schools and these aspirations can be summarized in the following four:

  • 1. Maximize human potential
  • 2. Facilitate a vibrant, participative democracy in which we have an informed electorate…
  • 3. Hone the sills, capabilities and attitudes that will help our economy remain prosperous and economically competitive.
  • 4. Nurture the understanding that people can see things differently – and that those differences merit respect rather than persecution.

They characterize schools as continuing to improve based on the metrics that continue to change. They suggest that everyone has a theory about why schools struggle to improve. These include: a) schools are underfunded; b) there aren’t enough computers in the classroom; c) the problem is with the students and the parents; d) the U.S. teaching model is broken; e) the problem is the teachers unions; f) the way we measure schools’ performance is fundamentally flawed. They then discuss the importance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and suggest that many students in schools are extrinsically motivated. And then they state, “Schools need to create intrinsically engaging methods for learning.”

The theory and term, disruptive innovation was originated by Christensen and applied to the business world. His previous works, The Innovator’s Dilemma (1997) and The Innovator’s Solution (2003) received positive reviews throughout the business community. He is now a sought-after speaker to discuss how a company can innovatively disrupt their services and products which results in better products and profits. As a professor in the Harvard Business School, his focus has been on business until, as he explains in the book, he was encouraged by others to “stand next to the world of public education and examine it through the lenses of your research on innovation…”

In the first part of the book, the first major assertion is that schools need to move away from the “monolithic” instructional structure where instruction is standardized for all students to modular, customized and student-centric approaches.

The above assertion is based on the dominant model of public education and its current interdependencies:

  • temporal: you can’t study this in ninth grade if you didn’t cover that in seventh.
  • lateral: you can’t teach foreign language in more efficient ways because you’d have to change the way English grammar is taught.
  • physical: the layout of buildings limits widespread adoption of project-based learning, even though there is strong evidence that project-based learning is highly motivating for student learning.
  • hierarchical: well intentioned local, state and federal policies that influence what happens in schools from textbook and curriculum decisions to union negotiated work rules.

More tomorrow.


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  1. 1 Online Reviews » Blog Archive » Disrutive Innovation in Education part 1 Trackback on May 26, 2008 at 9:47 am
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