Disrupting Class by Harvard’s Clayton Christensen

Disrupting Class

From the Robert and Jane Cizik Professor of Business Administration at The Harvard Business School and author of the NYT bestsellers The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution (Clayton Christensen) comes this uniquely important work. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi  has written that “Creative thoughts evolve in this gap filled with tension – holding on to what is known and accepted while tending toward a still ill defined truth that is barely glimpsed on the other side of the chasm.”[i] This book has engineered the architecture to span that chasm.

Along with writer and consultant Curtis Johnson and Executive Director of The Innosight Institute Michael Horn, Christensen and his co-authors demonstrate the sheer beauty of applying the current scholarship we understand about innovation in other domains (business et al) – to a domain that precariously occupies that space in American society that can accurately be characterized as a “gap filled with tension – holding on to what is known and accepted.” The latter domain would be the field of U.S. public education. Why? Why is this cross-disciplinary approach so important? Molecular Biologist Kary Mullis nails it when she writes: “Important inventions almost always cross the lines of disciplines. Moving between fields is the way to be creative.”[ii]

What motivates these authors? In the first half-dozen pages you acquire the distinct impression that these fellows care deeply about improving the U.S. public education system….they’ve studied it…exhaustively – all the excuses, criticisms, rationalizations, performance data and the like.

After the introductory chapter, the authors use vignettes to set the context for the discussion contained in each respective chapter.

The first chapter struggles with the issue of why we are teaching in a standardized approach when we are all “differently-abled” – we learn differently. Chapter two introduces the concept of disruptive innovation, which the authors define as follows: The disruptive innovation theory explains why organizations struggle with certain kinds of innovation and how organizations can predictably succeed in innovation.” (p.45). Disruptive innovation is not a breakthrough improvement. { Instead of sustaining the traditional improvement trajectory in the established plane of competition, it disrupts that trajectory by bringing to the market a product or service that actually is. Not as good as what companies historically had been selling.”(p.47). There’s much more to the scholarship that supports the authors thesis regarding disruptive innovation. The charts are also very helpful in conceptualizing the points they are making.

Why haven’t we seen disruptive innovation in the U.S. public education system? Listen to these authors: “People did not create new disruptive business models in public education, however. Why not? Almost all disruptions take root among non consumers.  In education, there was little opportunity to do that. Public education is set up as a public utility, and state laws mandate attendance for virtually  everyone. There was no large, untapped pool of non consumers  that new school models could target.” p.60. Note that one of the central points the authors make is that the targeting on non-consumers is the arena where disruptive innovation takes place, in other domains. (The way Apple targeted listeners of music with the iPod versus the recording industry creating a similar sort of innovation).

The authors go to great lengths to explain why technology has not transformed how we do what we do in public education (and the results derived therefrom) in the following: In the language of disruption, here is what this means: Unless top managers actively manage this process, their organization will shape every disruptive innovation into a sustaining innovation -one that fits the processes, values, and economic model of the existing business – because organizations cannot naturally disrupt themselves. This is a core reason why incumbent firms are at a disadvantage relative to entrant companies when disruptive innovations emerge. And it explains why computers haven’t changed schools. P.75.

The authors go on to detail how to disruptively deploy computers in the classroom and embrace a vastly more student-centric approach to teaching, learning and assessment. They characterize this as an “opportunity” when they state: Maurice Maeterlinck, the Belgian Nobel Laureate in literature once observed, “ At every crossway on the road that leads to the future each progressive spirit is opposed by a thousand men appointed to guard the past.” ‘Educators, like the rest of us, tend to resist major change. But this shift in the learning platform, if managed correctly – which means disruptively is not a threat. It is an opportunity. Students will be able to work in the way that comes naturally for them. Teachers can be learning leaders with time to pay attention to each student. And school organizations can navigate the impending financial maelstrom without abdicating their mission.” P.112.

Chapters five and six delve into the recommendations of these scholars regarding how disruptive innovation evolves within a highly regulated system akin to public education, using examples from the private sector. The address the importance of the knowledge being derived out of the field of neuroscience as it relates to the importance of language dancing during very early, formative years of infancy. They also advocate for user-generated content, platforms that empower non-technical folks to create powerful learning tools – sharing the same in our connected world. Their treatment of the public education system as a value-chain commercial system is fascinating – a system whose production and distribution of learning materials can and must change, along with disruptive innovations in the current marketing and distribution model.

Chapter 7 legitimately and methodically lampoons the “quality” of social research produced in and around public education – a fact that remains an incredible handicap to the system, teachers, administrators, students, community and country. Chapter 8 is a clarion call for a “common language” in addressing the challenges inherent within the current system. What do the authors mean by “common language?” Consider this excerpt for clarity: providing a common language is a “mechanism of movement,” in that, when done well, it can shift a group’s location in the matrix to the point that other tools of cooperation can be effective. With a common language and a common framing of the problem, tools like strategic planning, measurement systems, and salesmanship can be effective. An important reason why we have gone to such lengths to identify the root causes of the problems plaguing public schools is our hope that this book might serve this role for our readers. While we may not have gotten all of our diagnoses and solutions correct, we hope that the understanding we have summarized here might – create a common language and a common way to frame these problems so that there is broader agreement on what is needed and how to achieve it.” (pp. 192-193). If that’s the impact of this book, we should all be deeply grateful.

Chapter 9 addresses suggestions for structuring schools so they are encouraged to innovate. In the conclusion to this work, the authors, once again, emphasize that their recommendations must not be viewed as threats, but as distinct opportunities to be explored.

This review is not intended to be a substitute for reading and discussing this work. On the contrary – It is my hope that it encourages many to do just that.

It is an incredible body of knowledge that contains the engineering know-how (from both a theoretical and practical standpoint) to Span the Current Chasm in U.S. Public Education.

Devour it. Discuss it with friends and colleagues. Then do something disruptively innovative with that discussion. As the authors use of a quote from Einstein clearly illustrates: “The significant problems we have cannot be solved with the same level of thinking we were using when we created them.”


[i] Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly Creativity – Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Harper Perrenial, HarperCollinsPublishers, New York, New York Copyright © 1996 by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, p.103.

[ii] Barron, Frank Montuori, Alfonso & Barron, Anthea Creators on Creating – Awakening and Cultivating the Imaginative Mind, Penguin Group (USA) Inc. New York, NY Copyright © 1997 by Frank Barron, Alfonso Montuori and Anthea Barron – quote by Kary Mullis – p.70 & 73. Chapter entitled The Screwdriver.

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