Thursday, July 16, 2009

Clayton Christensen's disrupting school thesis

I haven't read Clayton Christensen's books but I have listened to some of his talks and read some reviews of his books. I see his theory as helpful for understanding the reasons how some businesses boom then bust but less helpful when he transfers it to education.

My understanding of his disrupting schools (Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns) thesis is taken from these reviews:

June Ahn
(1) Children learn in different ways (2) Disruptive innovations gain a foothold and revolutionize a market because they target a niche audience who normally could not consume a good (3) Online learning is a disruptive technology (4) Computers in schools are not disruptive technology (5) Computers “can” be a disruptive innovation, when used to create new learning situations
- Disruptive Innovation in Education
Steve Hargadon:
From my reading, the disruptive innovation is not online education, but the increasing expectation that our children/students will have a customized educational experience. This makes a lot of sense to me, since having watched the ed tech world for some years now, it's hard to imagine a "technology" (even one as compelling as online education) motivating educators or parents to dramatic change. There are just too many practical daily concerns to make it believable that the unfulfilled promise of computing would "disrupt" our current system. On the other hand, a shift from the industrial model of schooling to one that is more responsive to our individual children does seem like an unstoppable force, since increasing parents' expectations for the education of their own children carries huge motivation and power (the authors' claim that in many school districts already over a third of their spending is on special education students [p. 34].)
- A First Look at "Disrupting Class" by Clayton Christensen
I also note that Christensen has been criticised for overstating the case about the extent to which school is a factory model. Andy Zucker writes:
Readers may learn something about the process of innovation from Disrupting Class, but they will not learn how creative school systems for years have been applying technology in precisely the ways that Disrupting Class recommends, namely to individualize learning, to make it more effective for greater numbers of students, and to offer alternatives to students who are not being served well by existing schools
- Lost in Cyberspace: A Review of Disrupting Class
I then watched this video:

where Christensen promotes his book and noticed a couple of straw men in there, one of them identified by Andy Zucker above. He does stress too much that school is like an assembly line. He takes a partial truth and turns it into an absolute. Christensen also subscribes uncritically to the multiple intelligences model. This, of course, suits his theory of the urgent need for more individualised instruction. However, the fly in the ointment here is that multiple intelligences is pretty much discredited as a theory of cognitive development. See Dan Willingham's Learning Styles Don't Exist

I have the impression that Christensen lacks detailed knowledge of where schools are at and is not up to date with learning theories. The purpose of the business world where Christensen initially developed his theories is to make money. A disruptive innovation which ends up making money is a success in these terms. School is far more complex than this.I'm wondering whether Christensen appreciates the complexity and multifaceted nature of schools. At this stage I'm thinking that I won't buy his book because I suspect I will be disappointed in this regard. I'd be interested in hearing from people who have read the book about this.

Nevertheless, the big idea of Christensen's theory - that digital online learning can meet unmet individual learning needs to the point that this will disrupt school significantly - is plausible and well worth thinking and talking about. Education reform has a long, long history and often people ask why reform proceeds at a snails pace. In other posts I have been critical of sections of the web2.0 movement for shallowness. The Christensen thesis, despite flaws, opens a new door here because it is concrete enough and tangible enough to transcend much of the complexity of school as an institution. In a sense, it's good because it is written by an outsider who doesn't know all the complexity of real school. This fits into the general Christensen thesis that incumbents are too bogged down in their own processes to undergo significant transformation.

I also wanted to say something about theories of disruption but will leave that to another post. That is another bonus from Christensen, he puts the whole notion of disruption as a concept onto the agenda.


Michael B. Horn said...

Interesting thoughts up-front before you do or don't end up reading the book. The book is a good starting point for discussion I'd say. We have learned a ton in the year and a month since it has been out in print. We set up Innosight Institute, a not-for-profit think tank, because we recognized that this would be a conversation; by no means would we get it all right or something unattainable like that in the book. Instead, Disrupting Class would kick start this important conversation and then we would move forward to improve our understandings from there as we learned from others and did further research. For example, in the book (and even more so since given how much we've learned--including the essay you cite about learning styles as a misleading paradigm), we use Howard Gardner's theory not as the definitive explanation for learning differences, but as an illustration of the point that is understood, which is that we do learn differently--be that at different paces, sparked by different motivations or interests, needing different interventions, and so forth. The work of CAST and All Kinds of Mind are quite valuable in this regard, too. We've also learned a lot more about the evolving online learning movement--and begun to understand its exciting potential in far more nuanced ways since the book came out as well as its potential pitfalls. We blog regularly and will begin to publish our case studies on the topic to start to flesh out the story in the book as well as to correct other points.

Bill Kerr said...

hi Michael,

Thanks for the comment and sorry that I did not acknowledge you as a co-author of the book

I have read some Gardner and he has interesting things to say about the "intelligences" but overall his theory seems wrong. This might be a general problem, taking one aspect of education, becoming over enthusiastic about it and promoting it too much.

At Tom Hoffman's suggestion I read the pdf at the end of Andy Zucker's review. As Tom says the pdf is a more critical account than the shorter web article. That review and your own comment here confirm my impression that your book is more about planting a flag than a fully researched account of how to reform school. eg. the Zucker review (amongst other cogent criticisms) points to your omission of well known authors such as Seymour Papert, a long term advocate of mega-change using computers in education. I would be interested in reading a response by you and your co-authors to the Zucker review.

Unknown said...

Funny how we equate "today's" internet with its disruptive force.

Educational disruption will occur with virtual "learning tutor" programs that adjust to our learning speed, skills and background develops and changes. The learning will be available whenever we have the time or desire to participate. We will learn for our entire lives more formally.

And yes our school system is subpar and lacks innovation generally. However, check out Basis Tucson and Basis Scottsdale (charter schools) for push, expectations, success. As well, Gladwell's Outliers makes excellent points about our rediculous and counter productive summer vacations...

When was the last time any of you took a course? Podcasts, class notes, presentations, discussions, file sharing, soon video recordings...they are already ONLINE at any and every upper school.

It is less an issue of where online learning is today, and more where learning and ubiquitous online access will evolve to tomorrow. Learning + virtual access + intelligent automated tutor + gaming = High School 2030.

PragmaticChangeForEducation said...

In a vacuum, Danoo, your utopian vision makes good sense, but these changes do not happen in a vacuum, or just because people will suddenly wake-up and see the virtue of your vision. This system has different payers and end-users, with distinctly different motivations. The student of tomorrow may or may not be better served by virtual augmentation of the classroom experience to various extents, but getting the public to pay for this is a pipe dream. And cleanly navigating it through the concerns of teachers, administrators, unions, and politicians will more than stymie this well past 2030.

rob said...

i'm reading the book at the moment - downloaded a ecopy since a colleague of mine was so enthusiastic and my boss had read it as well

i think the book is onto something with the promise of tech unlocking self directed learning .. starting with the under served market (home users; school kids at home etc etc - not in direct competition with the system - but creating a new market on the edges)

re Gardner ...i don't know that his theories of multiple intelligences are discredited as much as misrepresented

that is, the average teacher 'using multiple intelligences' probably hasn't read his books, or Bloom's either for that matter, but know how to make 'Blooms - Gardners' grid of activities that classifies a range of tasks into both categories at once

i've done it myself - and i liked the result ... but on reflection i think it has very little to do with actually classifying tasks like that ... and more about giving students a lot more choice (i would leave a column for activities they might propose etc)

(which is more the Disrupting Class thesis - IT can support and deliver choice and variation and self directed approaches and generally thats a good thing)

Gardner is one record about being uncomfortable with some of the ways his theories are used in education

"I learned that an entire state had adapted an education programme based in part on MI theory," he says. "The more I learned about this programme, the less comfortable I was. Much of it was a mishmash of practices - left brain and right brain contrasts, sensory learning styles, neurolinguistic programming and multiple intelligences approaches, all mixed with dazzling promiscuity."

i don't know which state he refers to ... QLD? SA?

anyway, i just think we shouldn't 'disprove' a version he didn't actually affirm

in one of his books he comments about this in a more positive manner - how the education community etc will take the idea in different directions ..

the idea that we need more than a single IQ measure is really what many were looking for and ran with .. even though (like Bill here :) most of us didn't read the book :) ... and some of it probably ended up being flaky

re the 'It delivers self directed learning' idea, short of us all becoming much more technically proficient (the Logo thesis) i think this is the best hope for ICT in changing education - and more likely than the 'Logo pathway' .. and they're careful to say that disruptive change occurs initially somewhat off the radar - not competing head to head with the established incumbent to start with - providing service where there had been none - refining and improving it there ... which is where we are with the relattively small % of virtual courses and high schools and home schooling and distance ed etc - incubating the new thing