Sunday, August 02, 2009

Thoughts on Disrupting Class, part 1

I recently read the book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns by Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn, and Curtis W. Johnson. As someone who is interested in public education and its relationship to technology, this was a must-read for me, but after reading it, I'd say that anyone interested in the future of public education should read it.

This series of blog posts will summarize the book, chapter by chapter, with my questions and comments interspersed in another color.

The lead author of Disrupting Class is a Harvard Business School professor whose research has been on disruptive technologies (e.g., the personal computer or the budget airline) in various industries. The book attempts to apply his theory of disruption to public education.

The thesis is that the disruptive technology that will rock the education world is "student-centric" learning, which the book describes as education that tailors itself to the student's unique learning style and interests. The teacher in this model shifts from being an instructor to being a coach and research librarian, helping each student identify his interests and pulling together an appropriate set of computerized lessons for him to use. The book goes on to argue that charter schools and other structures outside of mainstream schools will be a key part of ensuring this disruption is successful in transforming education.

Chapter 1: Why Schools Struggle to Teach Differently When Each Student Learns Differently

Different students have different learning styles.

A student learns best when the teaching is tailored to her particular learning style.

Schools traditionally are limited in tailoring education to students' styles: uniform classrooms, standardized textbooks, necessity to prepare students for next year's class, etc.

"The students who succeed in schools do so largely because their intelligence happens to match the dominant paradigm in use in a particular classroom--or somehow they have found ways to adapt to it."

Efforts to train teachers to teach to multiple intelligences are "noble" but are limited, both by teachers themselves (any given teacher is only strong in a limited number of styles) and by the factory-like system of the schools.

We need a student-centric model. Computer-based learning is the disruptive technology that will get us there. Why is this the only approach to student-centric learning that is considered? What about new schools that have teacher-led classrooms organized around learning style instead of around subject or perceived ability level?

Chapter 2: Making the Shift: Schools Meet Society's Needs

A "disruptive innovation" is when a new innovation shakes up an industry. The disruption is typically lower quality and less expensive than the established industry standard, which causes it to be ignored by the mainstream players in the industry while being embraced by former "non-consumers." Think of the PC in the days of the mainframe: the mainframe companies laughed at the cheap, underpowered computers, while individuals and small businesses that could never afford a mainframe embraced the new computers.

Typically, existing industry players are unable and/or unwilling to participate in the new disruptive market, because everything about the supply chain, the customer base, and so on are fundamentally different.

Disruption has been forced on the public schools over the years by changing societal expectations of what schools are supposed to deliver and how they're measured. For example, in the mid-20th century, schools were asked to expand their offerings and broaden their scope. In the late 20th century, with No Child Left Behind, they were asked to ensure proficiency by every student.

Schools have been unusually successful in adapting to disruption in a way that traditional industries typically are not. Schools have often improved along the new metrics for success, despite decades of history following an old model. However, the process is often slow and painful. Also, it's not clear that they will be able to navigate this newest disruption (computer-based, student-centric learning) without new structures. I wish the authors provided more explanation here of why the schools have been able to navigate past disruptions but aren't prepared to navigate this one.



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