Disrupting Class

I don't read very many books about education, and when I do I am often disappointed.  There are too many snake-oil salesmen offering simplistic solutions.

"Disrupting Class" by Clayton M. Christensen is different.  It provides the perfect balance between moments of "yes - that's what I think", "oh wow, I hadn't thought of that, but it makes sense" and "hmm, not sure about that at all."

The central tenet of the book is that the success of schools has been measured in many different ways, and that the transformations required to succeed in terms of these successive measures require disruptions the magnitude of which would kill any business - to be replaced by new businesses that introduce disruptive innovations.

Christensen argues that every disruptive innovation in business begins by selling to non-consumers of the current product.  Apple began by selling their personal computers to children, whereas DEC were selliing mainframes to huge corporate clients.  Disruptive innovation has to start in this way, because in the early days the disruptive product is not as good as the established one!

The parallels with innovation in education are obvious.  We are able to be innovative much more easily in settings where our customers are currently not consuming.  This has definitely been the case for me, where I have felt much more free to try innovative approaches with classes that have histories of low achievement and low motivation - classes in which many pupils are simply not consuming the education on offer.

I haven't finished the book, but am having trouble putting it down!

As usual, I came across this book via my personal learning network - @alexragone on twitter to be precise.  Thanks Alex :-)


  1. I'm pretty familiar with Christiansen's work, but I haven't read this one, and I have a hard time figuring out how it could apply to the parts of education I'm interested in -- specifically urban secondary education.

    I can very much see "disruptive innovation" applies to US post-secondary education -- there is a clear opportunity and need for a cheaper, more broadly accessible "worse is better" solution than our expensive four year colleges with fancy dorms, gyms, activities, etc.

    OTOH, the interesting/difficult parts of primary and secondary education already have to do with serving the least desirable parts of the market (a hallmark of disruptive education) and doing it cheaply (ditto). These things are already (in the US at least) already as much "worse" as they are going to get, if you know what I mean. The overwhelming design constraint is already about doing it cheaply, and just about any innovation you can think of is more expensive.

    Anyhow, I don't feel like reading this book myself, because I imagine he's just talking about other parts of education. Am I right?

  2. I think it does apply exactly to the area you interested in Tom. I'm not sure if Christiansen has a solution, mind you!

    His analysis is that the current leaders of "successful" schools will tend to try to improve education in terms of the current model of success - standardised test results. Meanwhile the world has moved on, and schools should be measured by the extent to which they develop the essential skills for the 21st century (ability to be innovative and creative, work collaboratively etc etc as well as numeracy and literacy skills).

    He argues that the change towards schooling which performs better in terms of the new measures will begin in places which are failing miserably in terms of the old measures. These places have less to lose by changing!

    This makes some sense to me, although I don't see any real clarity of thinking anywhere about exactly what the important skills for the future might be.

    To give you a more concrete example from Christiansen, schools might consider using computer based learning resources as an alternative to face-to-face teaching. This seems like a terrible idea to me, but that's perhaps because I teach at a middle class school with a good reputation for getting kids through exams. If I were teaching at a school where very few students seem to gain anything from their schooling, I might see more merit in the idea, on the basis that it couldn't make things any worse.

    It's not the particular solutions that Christiansen is suggesting (mainly computer based learning) that interest me, it's his analysis of where and why real innovation is most likely to take root.

  3. Thanks for the mention, Robert.

    My take on the book was not that the solution was specifically online (although that is critical here) but that it's personalized to the individual learner. In the Differentiated Instruction model you can see schools trying to do this, but unfortunately, in the old warehouse model of education, it's very difficulty. With a computer mediated environment though, specific content delivery and interaction can be done for the individual learner. I always think of Clarence Fisher (Remote Access) having his kids play Sim City before he teaches them about building cities in the ancient world. It's using technology tools to engage students and have them work on higher order thinking skills.

    For me, school is about the relationships and the network building. It's about teaching students to be skeptical, questioning, global citizens. I never want to see the loss of school as community center.

    When I was in school, I learned my life lessons in the extra curricular activities. This is true for many students. The school of the future is the one where life lessons are learned during the school day. In order to do this, we must take some risks.

    Some disruptive innovation in education would be a good thing right now.

  4. I never read Christensen - but the concept of "disruptive innovation" seems to be interesting. I will grab a copy of this book.

    - David.

  5. Thanks for blogging about the book and thanks to the readers from some interesting comments/questions. I'm glad you've enjoyed the analysis as a way of thinking through the problems at the very least and for giving us a common language to frame the problems--something that is all-too-often missing in education. If you're interested in more, you and your readers should feel free to check out our blog -- http://www.disruptingclass.com. Tom is correct that most education disruptions have occurred in post-secondary, but we see the online learning really taking hold in the high school segment currently, too. It's growing by leaps and bounds.

  6. Thanks for stopping to comment Michael - I'm honoured! I don't mean to be dismissive of the latter sections of the book - it's just that the notion of disruptive innovation seems timeless, whereas any discussion about the future of technology and education is doomed to be somewhat out-dated before the book hits the shelf. LAMS is surely worth a mention, for example. Oh - and while I have your attention - the bits about Linux Kernels are toe curlingly ill-informed. A Linux operating system has one Kernel. "Linux is a modular system composed of 'kernels' that fit together" is gibberish.


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