Disruptive Innovation in Education

By Michael Edmonds 28/04/2013

I’ve just finished reading “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation will Change the Way the World Learns” by Clayton M. Christensen. It contains some very interesting ideas, ones will definitely referring to again, although I did find this ideas quite disjointed.

The basic premise I extracted from this book is that significant improvements in the United States education system will only come through disruptive innovation which will involve computer based technologies.

Disruptive innovation is an innovation which creates a new market and set of values that eventually goes on to disrupt (and replace) an existing market. An example of a disruptive innovation would be digital cameras – at first these cameras had much lower resolution and technical difficulties that did not threaten conventional cameras and occupied a different market – however, as the technology rapidly developed they overtook and largely replaced conventional cameras.

In discussing the issues with the current US education system, Christensen points out that for students to succeed this is largely dependent on their motivation. Referring to Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, he discusses how learning can be intrinsically motivating if educational approaches align well with a student’s stronger intelligences and aptitudes.

He then describes how this is not often the case, as each subject often self selects for teachers with specific intelligences, for example logical-mathematical skills in mathematics and bodily-kinaesthetic in sport. There is little opportunity to tailor information to students needs and to work with them one on one.

Computer technology has the opportunity to start to fill this gap, by offering students computer software which will allow them to work at their own pace, working through material. This would then allow teachers to take on the role of facilitators to work with students as they need it. At the moment such technologies might be considered inferior to classroom teaching (see, for example, previous discussions on MOOC’S (here and here), however, as this technology develops it will improve, including incorporating approaches that addressing different learning preferences and needs. Indeed, with the right platform, Christensen sees the opportunity for teachers/students/parents to develop and share their own learning tools. He has suggested that by 2019, over 50% of students will be learning using  student-centric computer technologies. Given the apparent successes of computer based learning technologies such as Khan Academy, Udacity and Coursera, such a prediction certainly seems possible (probable).

Christensen also emphasises a modular approach to education (something which I guess reflects his interest in students/teachers/parents developing small programmes/exercises that might eventually all fit together into individualised learning programmes for each student. It is an interesting idea, but I would be a little wary of how this is done, as students also need to be able to synthesise what they know into a larger picture (this is constantly something that comes up in discussions with teachers – that many students find it difficult to pull together information from different subjects (e.g. not recognising that mathematics and chemistry have significant overlaps – something which can help reinforce learning in both subjects).

The book also includes some discussion of the political and social aspects of disruptive innovation, including how it might best be implemented, something a little unusual for such a book, until you realise the author is a Professor in the Harvard Business School. And it was quite interesting considering this aspect of the education sector.

A very interesting read, one that I will be drawing on in future – it has already given me a few ideas for the classroom.



0 Responses to “Disruptive Innovation in Education”

    • Frederik,
      Thanks for the Herald link.
      Yes, the book does mention charter schools, though the author prefers to call them chartered schools as he feels this is more accurate. I think charter schools have received bad press because in NZ they have been linked to business or religious interests, but after reading this book I can appreciate, under the right conditions, charter schools might have a place.
      Lately I have heard rumours that secondary schools in Christchurch are going to be divided into specialist areas – some that are strong on the arts, on science, on sport etc. I’m trying to find out more as I think this will have many consequences.

  • Michael,

    I should not have added (in brackets) the reference to charter schools; the connection between your post and the piece in the NZH is really what it is (or should have been) about. My apologies.

    • Frederik,
      Not quite sure I follow – do you want me to remove the brackets or the content of the brackets? More than happy to leave it as is, asI have no issues with a discussion about charter(ed) schools.

  • “… I think this will have many consequences.”

    Yes indeed. I’m not sure that I like the idea of students ‘specialising’ early on, as it runs the risk of closing future doors to them. Also, what happens if everyone wants to ‘major’ in sports, for example?

  • It’s fine as is; it is just that charter schools are such a hot potato. The gist of your blog is about Disruptive Innovation in Education.

    • Ewan,
      You might want to read blogs more carefully before critiquing them, because I certainly did not advocate “wholeheartedly adopt(ing) the philosophy” of disruptive innovation.