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Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns

reviewed by Gary Natriello - January 15, 2009

coverTitle: Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns
Author(s): Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn, and Curtis W. Johnson
Publisher: McGraw-Hill, New York
ISBN: 0071592067, Pages: 288, Year: 2008
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There has been no shortage of attempts to apply business approaches to solve the problems of the education sector in recent years. Nonetheless, for those educators, educational policy makers, and educational researchers who have grown tired of the parade of solutions marching forth from the business community, Christensen, Horn, and Johnson’s examination of the problems confronting contemporary educational systems and some possible solutions will prove both refreshing and provocative. Refreshing because unlike most advice from the business community that calls for greater standardization, direction, and control over the educational enterprise, Christensen, Horn, and Johnson draw on earlier work on innovation in organizations as they call for a transformation of schooling aimed at making school more intrinsically motivating by adopting a student-centric approach based on customization to address the needs of each individual student. Provocative because the implications of their analysis lead them to predict that computer-based learning applications responsive to students’ individual needs will grow and develop outside of schools and only after succeeding in non-school contexts make their way into schools as key instruments in the transformation of classroom instruction.   

The elegant and engaging post-hoc analyses of innovation in the business sector that undergird the authors’ approach make the transition to the education sector in fine shape and provide a useful guide for thinking about the current growing disruption confronting educators. For those who are already convinced of the inevitability of the growing role of computer applications in schooling, this volume offers a convincing scenario of future developments, arming them with new insights and arguments. For those doubtful of the contributions of computer technology to the improvement of schooling, this volume at least offers a plausible explanation of the current poor showing for the already substantial investments in technology.

The first five chapters present the core arguments of the book, and they are the strongest and most compelling part of the volume. In the first chapter the authors begin with the argument that students learn in different ways and hence require an education customized to match the way they learn. Such customized educational services require modular structures that permit flexibility. In contrast, schools as presently structured, governed by a number of interdependencies (temporal, lateral, physical, hierarchical), are best suited to dealing with groups of students in standardized ways. This factory-like structure of schooling makes it impossible (or at least uneconomical) for schools to customize education to address individual student needs. The solution, the authors suggest, lies in the new opportunities for customization presented by computer-based learning.

In the second chapter the authors introduce the theory of disruptive innovation to explain why organizations of all types struggle to accommodate certain kinds of innovation. They distinguish between “sustaining innovations” that allow organizations to improve their performance and maintain their positions in an established market with existing customers, and “disruptive innovations” that operate by bringing to the market something that is not as good as what organizations had been offering but which reaches those who had not been traditional consumers. The authors provide numerous examples from Apple Computer’s introduction of microcomputers for children to Toyota’s introduction of very low-cost automobiles to illustrate the process by which established organizations focused on traditional customers are outflanked by new entrants who reach new customers and subsequently go on to take leadership positions in a sector. After recounting the long list of established organizations that had failed to adapt and respond to the challenge of new entrants by embracing new technologies, and after stating that, “In our studies of disruptive innovation in the private sector, we are not aware of a single instance in which a for-profit company was able to implement successfully the disruptive innovation within its core business…”, Christensen, Horn, and Johnson hold out hope that schools will be able to adopt computer-based learning and transform themselves to support student-centric learning in classrooms.  

It is left to the third, fourth, and fifth chapters to take up the challenge of sketching the path by which schools will be able to incorporate the disruptive innovation of computer-based learning. The third chapter highlights the limitations of current strategies for incorporating computers into schools. The authors point out that computers have been adopted in schools in ways that fit the current model of instruction and improve it slightly, that is, computers have been used as a sustaining innovation. To capitalize on the potential of computer-based learning for individualized instruction, Christensen, Horn, and Johnson argue that computer-based learning must be applied in situations where the alternative is nothing, i.e., where there are currently no teachers available, to prevent it from being subverted to the goals of the current system.

The fourth chapter explains how schools can deploy computers so that their disruptive potential is realized.  Christensen, Horn, and Johnson observe that computer-based learning, while having limited impact on classroom instruction, is actually making substantial progress in areas where it competes against nonconsumption – where computer-based instruction competes against no instruction at all - notably for AP preparation and other specialized courses for students, in small or rural schools, and in cases where students require special instruction. By tracking recent developments in online courses for high school students and extrapolating, the authors predict half of high school courses will be delivered online by 2019, and this volume of online instruction will finally support the development of student-centric online technology. The substitution of online instruction for classroom instruction, they argue, will be accelerated by improvements in computer-based learning; by the greater choices provided to students, teachers, and parents by student-centric technology; by teacher shortages; and by falling costs of computer-based learning as it grows in scale.

The high point of the book is the vision of a student-centric learning system presented in the fifth chapter.  Here the authors outline the key elements not only of student-centric computer-based learning applications, but also of a transformed educational sector consisting of schools surrounded and supported by networks to facilitate “user-generated, collaborative learning libraries through which participants worldwide can instruct and learn from one another.” Christensen, Horn, and Johnson look for the fruits of such networks to move to the mainstream by 2014, when they predict that online courses will constitute 25% of all high school course offerings.   

The final four chapters of the book, however, disappoint at almost every turn both because they reflect overly naïve perspectives on the topics they take up, and because they fail to pursue the implications of the analyses set out so skillfully in the first five chapters. The sixth chapter recognizes the importance of development in children aged 0 to 4, but this brief chapter provides an overly narrow view of what we know in this area, citing only the findings by Risley and Hart that “language dancing” or extra talk beyond simple “business talk” with young children results in the development of greater intellectual capacity.  Christensen, Horn, and Johnson conclude that programs such as universal preschool will have limited impact without really marshalling much evidence to support their position. The authors admit that their treatment of the pre-school years is limited, and most readers will not quibble with that assessment. What is perhaps more puzzling is the recommendation offered to address the challenge of developing intellectual capacity in the preschool years. After five chapters in which they pose a vision of transformative forces that they predict will reshape the educational landscape, the authors recommend a high school course in parenting skills akin to courses like home economics, auto repair, and wood and metalworking that used to be offered in high school to prepare students for adulthood. A reader paying attention to the first five chapters, for example, might have expected proposals for computer-based tools to support parents by scaffolding interactions with their children along a number of dimensions, including the “language dancing” noted earlier. One might even conjure up a set of knowledge artifacts in the form of pre-school robotic toys that could prompt appropriate parent-child interactions. Instead the chapter disappoints by offering a parent prep course that follows a model the authors previously labeled as destined to fail at the task of educating most students.

In the seventh chapter the authors take on the task of examining and making recommendations to improve educational research. Although they do adopt some of the currently fashionable recommendations for improving educational research such as making it more causal and less correlational, more contingent and less sweeping, their exposure to educational research seems severely limited with references to only two studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Education on public and private and charter and public school comparisons. Perhaps this explains how the authors are also able to conclude that “educational research must move toward understanding what works from the perspective of individual students in different circumstances as opposed to what works best on average for groups of students or groups of schools” (p. 163). This chapter ignores the opportunities suggested by the vision set out in the first five chapters of the book. If, as Christensen, Horn, and Johnson predict, we are moving quickly to a time when instruction will be supported by computer-based learning applications developed by global networks of teachers, parents, and students and shared widely as tools for both teachers and students, a chapter on educational research could have considered the opportunities presented by such developments. Computer-based applications have the capacity to capture data on the learning interactions of particular students in particular circumstances, and such data could go a long way toward addressing the need to develop knowledge to improve the learning opportunities of individual students in diverse circumstances. Examining the development, operation, and adoption of such learning applications across the global network could herald a new era of educational research. Moreover, as such computer-based learning applications become increasingly personally adaptive, they suggest a major transformation in the connections between educational research and educational practice, as the same applications that gather knowledge along pre-defined dimensions might also adjust their behavior to optimize student learning and so reshape educational practice.  

In the eighth chapter the authors turn to the task of considering how public schools might be positioned to engage in the types of changes they see on the horizon. Christensen, Horn, and Johnson note that those involved in public schools – teachers, parents, administrators, students, policy makers – tend not to agree on the goals they are trying to achieve and tend not to agree on the cause and effect of relationships that would move schools toward such goals. With these assumptions, they conclude that there are three strategies that public schools might pursue that would allow them to change. First, a common language, such as that provided by the authors in this book, might lead to a shared framing of problems as a foundation for broader agreement on what schools need to accomplish and how they might attempt to move forward. Second, the use of coercive power by strong superintendents possibly reinforced by strong mayoral control might move all parties to embrace a shared set of goals and means. Third, creating separate units where the key parties share goals and assumptions about causation can be a successful strategy. In the case of public schools, the authors point to efforts to set up new charter schools where the parties come together around basic goals and assumptions about means to achieving them. This chapter might be more powerful if the authors had developed recommendations that were more closely connected to the vision of the future they develop in the first five chapters.

In the ninth chapter the authors consider how to structure schools to enable them to adopt innovations. They argue that established functional teams and what they term “lightweight teams” with modest coordination capacities across functional areas are suited to refinements of existing processes. In contrast, when organizations need to engage in more disruptive innovations, the authors observe that what they call “heavyweight teams” enable members to move beyond their functional units and interact in different ways to change the architecture of a product or a process and that fully autonomous teams allow managers to take on a disruptive business model innovation. Christensen, Horn, and Johnson note that schools are more likely to rely on functional teams (e.g., subject matter departments), or lightweight teams (e.g., department heads) and so are poorly positioned to make progress on disruptive innovations.  The authors identify charter schools as one structure within the educational system with the potential to operate as heavyweight teams, but again the recommended courses of action within the educational sector seem more limited than the possibilities put forth earlier in the volume. One is left wondering why the authors did not consider an alternative educational structure more aligned with their vision of individually oriented education, namely the home schooling movement, or even a source of potential innovation less subject to local politics and regulation, namely the post-secondary sector. More generally, the recommendations advanced by Christensen, Horn, and Johnson seem more rooted in the organization-dominated forms of the twentieth century than the network-dominated forms of the twenty-first.  

Overall, this volume offers some fresh perspectives on the limitations of the current educational system as a site for innovation, and it highlights emerging forces that will create new learning opportunities. Its less successful attempts at imagining how the educational system can take advantage of these new opportunities to transform itself present a challenge to the rest of us to give it all a good deal more thought.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 15, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15485, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 8:59:45 AM

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About the Author
  • Gary Natriello
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    GARY NATRIELLO is the Ruth L. Gottesman Professor of Educational Research and Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. His research interests concern the organization of learning and schooling in the post-industrial era. Recent papers include “Imagining, seeking, inventing: The future of learning and emerging discovery networks” in Learning Inquiry.
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