Book review: Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation will Change the Way the World Learns, Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson. McGraw-Hill: New York, 2008.
(To be published in Education World magazine, March 2009)
One of the greatest virtues of this book is that it has not been authored by Education professors. This may appear a particularly uncharitable way to begin a book review so, rather than lodge a “some-of-my-best-friends-are-Education-faculty” defence, let me quickly explain that this is really what the theory of disruptive innovation is all about.
According to Christensen (1997), paradigmatic change is often the product of an outsider looking in – someone with the temerity to declare that ‘the emperor is wearing no clothes’. In the context of this book, the ‘emperor’ is the US public education system, but it might just as easily be the British, the Australian, or the Indian education system (to name just a few). The empire is crumbling, but imperial power continues unabated so long as there is a critical mass of satisfied subjects; that is, a sufficient number of individuals who benefit materially from the system. From time to time, the emperor will act upon the requests of these loyal subjects to improve the system and, in so doing, the system is sustained – something Christensen refers to as ‘sustaining innovation’.
Over time, however, without any fundamental change to the imperial system, the number of disgruntled subjects grows as they become increasingly poorly served (or not served at all). This is where the outsider comes in and exerts a disruptive influence, not by challenging the imperial power head-to-head, but by servicing the ‘unserved’. At first, the emperor perceives this to be little more than a minor skirmish in the outer reaches of the empire. After a while, however, the standing of the impostor may grow to the point where erstwhile loyal subjects defect to the new regime. When this happens then, in Christensen’s terms, there has been disruptive innovation.
The book is chock full of examples from other industries illustrating the power of disruptive innovation. Steam ships disrupted sailing ships, the telephone disrupted the telegraph, mini-computers disrupted mainframes, digital photography disrupted chemically-produced photography, and so the list goes on. In the process, seemingly quite invincible companies lost their markets and were forced to close or undergo major restructuring. Christensen et al thus pose the same question in relation to the education industry. Specifically, how is it that in an era when a vast array of information and communication technologies (ICTs) is at our fingertips (literally and metaphorically!), so many of our schools deliver courses in a manner that has changed very little in a century or more?
Woodrow Wilson is once supposed to have said that ‘changing the curriculum is like moving a graveyard’, you never know how many friends the dead have until you try to move them. However, while it is true that some of the fiercest debates in educational institutions over the years have been over what content should and should not appear in a course syllabus, there has been far less anxiety about how those same courses might be delivered. Herein lies the problem because as Christensen et al demonstrate, it is pedagogy rather than the curriculum that is the source of crisis in our schools.
The key message early on in the book is that schools are typically quite mono-dimensional in their approach. Drawing on the theory of multiple intelligences (Gardner, 2006), Christensen et al comment on the importance of catering for different learning styles, the implication being that not doing so will create disaffected learners as a matter of course. With the judicious employment of ICTs, on the other hand, it is possible to take a learner-centric approach, with each student having individualised learning paths (ILPs). The authors point out, however, that, to date, larger IT budgets in education do not necessarily correspond with superior learning outcomes. In other words, there is little point in throwing technology at the existing system in an attempt to make it work harder. Indeed, as the title of the book suggests, if technology is effectively harnessed, it will disrupt class, or at least one’s traditional conception of a class.
The ramifications of this for a teacher are considerable. First of all, what does it mean to ‘teach’? Is it still appropriate to use the word ‘teach’ if the disruptive innovation means that the person who once stood at the front of the classroom charged with the job of information transmission is now a learning facilitator, who mentors and guides students on how they might best acquire the knowledge and skills they are seeking?
This point is adroitly illustrated in the book through the use of a running fictional narrative that appears at the beginning of each chapter telling the story of a newly appointed principal at a high school grappling with the challenges of catering to the needs of a socially and culturally diverse student population. The dramatisation of the ideas being discussed in the book is a useful device for getting the authors’ message across, not least because anyone in the public education sector will likely find the story to be quite authentic. For example, a girl with an interest in learning Arabic (the ‘unserved consumer’) can do so by enrolling for a course offered online, while the star soccer player struggling in his chemistry class (the ‘poorly served consumer’) finally gets to understand a concept when he has the opportunity to draw on his ‘spatial intelligence’ (Gardner, 2006).
The authors predict that, by 2013, 25% of K-12 education in the US will be computer based, and that this number will have risen to 50% by 2020. These projections might appear optimistic if it were not for the ‘Web 2.0’ revolution and the burgeoning number of applications that facilitate learner-centric pedagogies. This phenomenon provides an ever-increasing number of engaging ways to learn that will ultimately render the current ‘industrial model’ of schooling obsolete. Significantly, many of the Web 2.0 platforms thrive on user-generated content where students are able to both consume and produce information that assists with the acquisition of knowledge for themselves and their peers.
In summary, Disrupting Class is a book that ought to be of interest to all teachers, parents, school principals, school boards, and local education authority administrators. It is an important harbinger of the shape of things to come.
Christensen, C.M. (1997), The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Gardner, H. (2006), Multiple Intelligences, New York: Basic Books.