Monday, June 02, 2008

A First Look at "Disrupting Class" by Clayton Christensen

It took me all of about three minutes to decide to order Disrupting Class by Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn, and Curtis W. Johnson. Computers, education, and change? How fast can I get it?

But the review I read in Education Week, "Online Education Cast as ‘Disruptive Innovation’", which so intrigued me, may have gotten the main idea of the book wrong.

The caveat I need to give is that I've only read the beginning and ending portions of the book (when I'm truly engaged in a book why read it in order?!). However, there's enough meat in what I did read to do a short overview here, and to try and explain where the authors are headed and why it the message has been unique to me.

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].)

Professor Christensen is the lead author, and he acknowledges that he is not an "expert" in education, although he has a lot of practice in it (he's a professor at Harvard Business School). However that may be, he was asked to look at the problems of education through the "lens" of his body of theory about how organizational cultures react to "disruptive" change--with the hope that this study might help to frame why schools have struggled and how to solve their problems (p. v).

In beginning to discuss disruptive innovation theory, the authors break with some expectations and praise public schooling: "[A]s we will show, contrary to widespread perception, on average, public schools have a steady record of improving on the metrics by which they are judged, just like other organizations we've studied" (p. 44). But even with this positive record, there is a specific kind of innovation which almost always "trips up well-managed, improving" organizations and which defies "the abilities of even the most capable executives in the world's best companies" (p. 44-45). They believe public schools are going to experience this, since:
...two significant disruptions of this sort have swept through the U.S. public schools, marked by the Nation at Risk report and the No Child Left Behind Act. Assigning schools new jobs for which they were not built--and therefore are not necessarily doing--has meant that schools don't look as good in light of the new requirements. But given how difficult it is to negotiate these disruptive currents, as we show in the pages that follow, the schools have done remarkably well--which provides some hope that they may be able to switch to a student-centric learning mode, too, through a disruptive implementation of computer-based learning. (p. 45)
So, if I'm reading this correctly, the disruption is the switch to expectations for student-centric learning, and that online learning (or the computer) becomes the solution--not the original disruption. The use of the word "disruptive" for the implementation of the solution has me a little confused as to what the disruption is, but I'm going to leave that for now. Chapter 2 has more detail on the model of disruptive innovation, but for our purposes I want to go back to the introductory chapter.

The introduction to the book tries to define what the problems in the U.S. public school system really are, and it gave me a new framework for trying to understand the philosophical tension in my own mind (and the nation's?) between authoritative and constructivist education. The authors start with a summary of four commonly-held aspirations for our schools:
1. Maximize human potential.
2. Facilitate a vibrant, participative democracy in which we have an informed electorate...
3. Hone the skills, capabilities, and attitudes that will help our economy...
4. Nurture the understanding that people can see things differently--and that those differences merit respect...
(p. 1)
Acknowledging that we are not doing well in these areas, the authors then propose seven common theories for the lack of school improvement--and then refute each as the root cause. and even all as the main dynamic.
  1. "[S]chools are underfunded." However: "The U.S. public education system spends more per student than all but a few countries, and yet, on average, its student often perform at or below the level of those in other economically advanced countries" (p. 2).
  2. "[T]here aren't enough computers in the classroom." However: "If the addition of computers to classrooms were a cure, there would be evidence of it by now" (p. 3)
  3. Students and their parents are to blame. However: this is a serious factor (especially in the light of the increases in minority-background students, who have historically performed least well), but there are enough exceptions to believe "[t]here has to be a better answer" (p. 4).
  4. "The U.S. teaching model is simply broken." However: we often make mistakes when imagining how our teaching model is compared with other countries (see the fascinating exercise the reader goes through on p. 4 here).
  5. "[T]he teacher unions must be the problem." However: "Like all explanations, this may be true to a degree, but as the definitive explanation, it doesn't hold up."
  6. All of the above are "conspiring collectively to constrain" the U.S. However: Of course, they state. "[A]ll these issues are at work in other nations' schools as well--and yet the evidence is that many of them obtain better results than do those in the United States" (p. 5).
  7. Finally, the "way we measure schools' performance is fundamentally flawed." However: Of course, as well, but not the root cause. "Today a stunning proportion of the people in [the] offices and cubicles of [Silicon Valley] are Israeli, Indian, and Chinese. Those educated in the U.S. schools are losing share--and it's not because the United States is uniquely unable to measure true academic achievement. The United States has kept its technological edge in the world not because its public schools are sending the best potential technologists to U.S. colleges. The United States is clinging to its advantage because it has continued to be a magnet for the best talent in the world" (p. 6).
If, the authors now ask, all of the above "do not explain the problem, what is the reason for the educational woes? ...If other countries have these same factors at work in their schools, why is it that so many of their students outperform U.S. students?" (p. 6) Basically, they say, it comes down to motivation. "Unless students (and teachers, for that matter) are motivated, they will reject the rigor of any learning task and abandon it before achieving success" (p. 7).

So, when there is high "extrinsic" motivation, as is the case in societies and families that are depending on education to raise themselves from poverty, the system of education is not as important as the end result. Standardized, factory-style learning works just fine in that setting because the end goal is more important than the journey to those folks. But without extrinsic motivation, as is arguably the case for the United States, the job of schools is much harder since educators must appeal to the "intrinsic" motivation of students--and intrinsic motivation clashes with standardized learning. A dependence on intrinsic motivation means that we can no longer ignore different learning needs and styles, and the customization in learning they bring is the disruptive force we are starting to feel, and that seems will be answered by the use of "student-centric technology."

There's obviously much more to this book than I have started to explore (and maybe I'm wrong in my interpretation of its message), but hopefully this gives you a starting point for considering to read it. I'm going to keep plowing away!


  1. Anonymous1:10 PM

    There is an increasing (slowly) trend towards differentiation and much more student-centered instruction. I'm observing a student teacher this semester who is placed with a teacher that uses some of Langford's quality instruction approach. Her cooperating teacher is "veteran" and started this approach this year. He is extremely happy with it AND has a lot less out of school work (grading, planning, etc.). He also has a much better idea of what students are actually learning.

    Basically, the teacher provides students with the essential questions for the unit and a series of tasks (or task options) that students need to complete. Much of the unit is spent as work time, where the students work independently on the tasks. The teacher assesses students through oral interviews / conferences as they complete tasks. The teacher still has the flexibility to do traditional instruction (ie: a whole class lab activity), but it is within the context of what students need to finish their tasks.

    This can be done without technology, but technology does provide students with more options and resources...

  2. Thanks for the review.

  3. Anonymous3:22 PM

    Sounds like a great book and worth a read. I want to see some of there rationale for dismissing some of the 7 root causes they identify, as well as settling on the one that they do. I think the concept of motivation (especially with respect to learning) is an interesting thought. I wonder how other "1st world" nations that we are compared to in education, and who have similar or lesser poverty issues, deal with this issue of motivation (i.e. Japan, Finland, and others who score high on the international tests).

    Guess I'll have to read the book. :)

  4. brunsell: good information. I sense that the technology at core has driven a feeling of customization at large, just as the industrial revolution informed perceptions of "how things get done."

    Brett: the authors don't "dismiss" the regular arguments, they just don't feel that they are a full explanation--or maybe that they are symptoms, but what is the actual "disease." I had the same question about other affluent nations. I'm still reading... :)

  5. Anonymous11:23 PM

    Steve, thanks for sharing your thoughts so far. Motivation, or lack there of is a factor, but motivation is tied to something else. You have motivation because you want to obtain a goal or accomplish something. As a former Marine, we said we were highly motivated, but it wasn't in a vacuum, it was motivation to accomplish the mission.

    So what are our students motivated to do. It seems many may not be motivated to learn, or maybe they are not motivated to learn what we are teaching them. How would their motivation change if they knew the ability to survive and thrive actually hinged on their learning in school.

    Is it possible the United States is a victim of it's own success. What is the consequence of not learning in school? Is survival hanging in the balance. No. We will take care of them as a nation. So, maybe in some ways, we do not have motivation because there in no urgency to learn.

    I will be curios to read you thoughts on the book and read the book myself.

  6. Rob: I think you understood the authors' point on motivation very well. It's not just the students' motivation or lack thereof, it's the parents' as well. And yes, we are victims of our own success, as they point out--but with the thoughtful caveat that moving from extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation causes/allows us to study different topics, which is sometimes good. Will be enlightening to hear your comments when you've read the authors fuller explanation! Not sure I've done it justice...

  7. I've read the book and have a series of thoughts on my blog at: I think the other important point made by the authors is that for online learning to thrive that it has to develop outside the current culture/structure of "school" and "school district". Two examples would be how Florida Virtual School and VHS, Inc. developed separate from any school or school district. This is definitely a book for all educators to read!

  8. The group that wrote this book is located in the town where I live. I contacted them and recently sat down with Michael Horn to discuss disruptive innovation in education. We had a really interesting conversation that I hope we will follow up on soon. Rob's point that "for online learning to thrive that it has to develop outside the current culture/structure of 'school' and 'school district'" is definitely the message I heard from Michael, which is a little depressing. Michael believes that disruptive innovation can't happen within a system because the system's ultimate goal is to sustain itself. How then do people like me who are trying to make change work within the system to do so? He didn't have an answer for me. Maybe we just need to create our own schools. I haven't read the book yet, just some articles about it. I hope that Michael and I will be following up. I'll let you know what I learn.

  9. Anonymous1:25 AM

    Hi Liz!

    I haven't yet read the book - just ordered it on Amazon - but your mention of systems and frustration with inability to initiate change within one led me to mention Peter Senges work " Schools that Learn". On page 77 he speaks of Systems Thinking in regards to schools and their functioning. This may help in finding an answer and I am looking forward to my copy of "Disrupting Class".

    Take Care

  10. Liz: can't wait to hear more. Might be a good conversation for your BLC Edubloggercon!

  11. this is a fascinating book which we've ordered for the CUE board to discuss during our July retreat. The technologies mentioned, particularly computer-based learning, are already impacting our review work at CLRN. Last year, we reviewed six programs with more than 100 content standards, so our task at CLRN this summer is to begin to construct a process and criteria to review and annotate these large comprehensive programs. I've written a number of blog posts about the book and it's impact at:

  12. Brian: good material. The link to your blog is (slight typo in your comment) for others who want to read.

  13. Anonymous12:59 AM


    I agree with you that the disruptive innovation is personalization and that the differences in extrinsic and intrinsic motivation among students are keys to understanding why many students outside of America outperform our students and each other. Technology is important as a tool and as a means to enabling personalization and greater organization and productivity.

    I head a wonderfully diverse Catholic high school of 1200 in Oakland, Ca, where we are working hard at personalizing education in the curricular and co-curricular areas (we have a long ways to go) and using technology and student laptops to help in the academic areas.

    Our parents and students react with great motivation to new programs and initiatives that personalize what we offer. I am absolutely convinced that the future is moving rapidly in this direction. Technology will help us personalize at a reasonable cost.

  14. To quote Liz: Michael believes that disruptive innovation can't happen within a system because the system's ultimate goal is to sustain itself. How then do people like me who are trying to make change work within the system to do so?

    One thing you have to keep in mind is that this book was written so some people could make money. Please don’t be disheartened thinking you can do nothing from within just because some guy who wrote a book says so, because that simply isn’t true. Keep working, reading, learning and researching, retaining what works for you within your own classroom.

    I refuse to believe that just because I’m a teacher, I have no way to help my students become better learners. I mean seriously. That’s just crazy talk. Were it not required for a class, I’d have recycled this book a long time ago.


I hate having to moderate comments, but have to do so because of spam... :(