How to innovate in education

disrupting class

Book review
Disrupting class: How disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns.
Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn, Curtis W. Johnson.
McGraw-Hill, 2008. 238 p.

Last month a group of educators, government leaders, and corporate and foundation representatives huddled to brainstorm about how technology might drive innovation in the nation’s schools. Kathleen Kennedy Manzo reported on the educational technology forum held at Google Inc’s headquarters, where many “acknowledged the challenges of equipping schools and teachers with new equipment and instructional strategies, gauging the progress of new teaching approaches, and scaling up proven strategies” (Education Week, 4 Nov.).

Clayton Christensen and colleagues addressed these concerns in their 2008 book Disrupting Class. The authors reached their conclusions not by studying schools, but rather by studying innovation in business. They stood outside the public education industry to examine its problems from a different perspective.

The five major messages in this book:
1. Few education reforms have addressed the root cause of students’ inability to learn. Most attempts have not been guided by an understanding of the root reasons for why the system functions as it does, or how to predictably introduce innovation into it.
2. School reformers have repeatedly tried to confront the status quo head-on. The authors’ previous studies of innovation showed that direct attacks on existing systems do not lead to effective disruptive innovation. Instead, innovation must go around and underneath the system.
3. We know that all children learn differently, but the way schooling is currently arranged discourages educating children in customized ways. We need a modular system.
4. Emerging online user networks offer a model for circumventing the education system and creating a new, modular system that facilitates customization. Decentralized user networks democratize development and purchase decisions to the end users in the system—in this case students, parents, and teachers.
5. To facilitate innovation administrators will have to use the tools of power and separation. Using these tools is easiest in the chartered and private school sectors.

Online courses offer the kind of customized, student-centric instruction that students most need, Christensen and colleagues argue. They propose that each school designate one person whose sole job is to implement online courses. He or she should not be the chief information officer or info technologies officer. She or he should report directly to the principal or district superintendent. She or he should not have responsibilities for the rest of instruction in the school, but instead should be free to take any steps necessary to import online courses to meet students’ needs.

Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, calls for philanthropies and foundations to fund the kind of research that helps us learn how different people learn, how to identify those differences, and how different students can best educate themselves and each other.

Teacher training colleges take note: Future teachers will need skills to work one-on-one with different types of learners as they study in a student-centric way. Graduate schools of education must train researchers to go beyond doing descriptive research that seeks average tendencies. Instead, they should study the anomalies and outliers, where the richest insight often is found.

Teachers and parents: When your school does not offer a course students need, seek them online and demand that their schools accept them for credit.

“Schooling can and should be an intrinsically motivating experience,” Christensen says. Why has this often not been the case? How to resolve these problems? Explaining why and how is the purpose of this book.

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