Disrupting Class: A Book Review

In Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns (2011), Clayton Christensen aims to unpack why it is schools struggle to improve and reform and methods of solving the current cycle. The way that the American school system teaches is not the way all, or most, students learn. Christensen makes this distinction and theorizes that disruptive innovation may help resolve the cycle. Christensen’s primary thesis in this book is just this: We know that students do not learn in a monolithic system, so why don’t we try to incorporate disruptive innovation? Within the book, Christensen achieves this purpose as he examines why it is that schools have not been successful in reform and how disruptive innovation may resolve this.

Throughout the book, rather than simply providing a critique of the American school system and everything wrong with it, Christensen examines how our school system came to become the way it did. Christensen provides a historical analysis, dating back to single room school houses of mixed ages and levels and how schooling has shifted from towards a standardized approach. Christensen makes the observation that there was a higher level of personalized learning occurring in the original school model and we have shifted further and further from that. Now, American schools follow a monolithic model that has statistically proven ineffective for a majority of the students in the United States, as we are not teaching in the way that students learn. Christensen asserts that disruptive innovation is the way to combat this shift towards standardization and help provide students with methods of teaching and learning that meet their academic strengths and needs.

Christensen explains that disruptive innovation is a business tactic for reform that, instead of getting rid of an entire new system and “starting from scratch,” inserts a new, disruptive change to a pre-existing system in order to catalyze change and reform from there. Technology has been a means of instigating this change within school systems, however Christensen continues to explain that not much has occurred with the integration of computers to change the teacher as the “gatekeeper” model that current exists in schools. Much hesitation towards implementing greater reform and disruption with this is resources, money, and training. Christensen offers a number of business models in which he believes may apply to schools in order for leadership to combat these limitations. Christensen discusses that in order for integration of technology to be a truly disruptive innovation, we need to push for more than the current model towards a more student-centered learning approach. This will better account for multiple intelligences, varying student strengths, and push students to be in greater control of their learning in order to increase investment and performance. It is particularly important, Christensen asserts, that this begins as early as possible. Younger students need greater access to knowledge and language in order to set them up for future success in school.

In order to achieve these lofty goals, Christensen discusses the importance of re-evaluating and placing a greater value on education research. Our best practices are often formed from research around the “average.” However, Christensen challenges that in order for us to make effective changes, research needs to search beyond the average and find a way to address the varying, individual needs of students. Based on the research conducted, Christensen provided a model of gaining institutional consensus for change, as well as management techniques to gain consensus and create a school structure that allows for success to occur.

A strength of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns (2011) is how Christensen examines how schools reached the point they are at now and traces it throughout history, rather than just providing an overarching critique that the system is “bad.” Christensen provides an in depth analysis that provides readers with a strong context of how we got to where we are. Beyond this, Christensen also does a good job at explaining the complex interdependencies that exist within schools. Christensen explains that within a school, different aspects of the system and different departments rely on one another; It is near impossible to cause change in one area without causing change in another. Christensen explains the complexities and interconnectedness of the public school system in a clear and effective way.

A weakness of the book is how in which Christensen explains the applications of these concepts and processes. Christensen never goes into too much detail how it is schools are to successfully implement these systems. Christensen throughout the book makes comparisons to different business models and how systems have been effective there. However, as Christensen acknowledged, schools are very complex systems that can be difficult to compare to a traditional business model. By comparing schools to businesses like Toyota or Apple, Christensen oversimplifies the differences and never truly acknowledges how the private and public sector differ in these areas. Because of this lack of clarity, it is then difficult for Christensen to effective explain how it is that schools can begin to implement these changes within a system. Throughout the book, Christensen argues for singular disruptive innovations to start the ripple in the system. However, towards the end of the book, he implies that offering varying types of school structures and implementing school choice is the best and easiest solution, as we see may not always be the best fix to the root problem. While Christensen explained the context and foundational concepts and processes well, it is difficult to determine how these are applicable to schools with his explanations.

Reading this book, I had difficulty following Christensen’s arguments clearly and supporting the validity of what he was saying in practice due to the aforementioned weaknesses. I agreed with much of the theory and structures he presented, however as I read more into his explanations, I couldn’t help but think, “but how would this work in a school?” Schools are often thought as businesses, and in a way they can be, however to think this way oversimplifies the complexities that a public school system has and tends to invalidate a lot of the structures that are in place that are working. I do believe that, based on what Christensen presented, disruptive innovation can have its place within a school, however educational leaders need to heavily consider how these business tactics can translate over without sacrificing the integrity of what a school is. I agree that there is a systematic issue with the American school system and that disruptive innovation can be a part of the solution, however I question the way in which this can be accomplished using these tactics in order to reach the end goal to the root cause of everything: students all learn differently.

Image result for disrupting class how disruptive innovation

References

Clayton C., M.B. Horn, and C.W. Johnson.  (2011). Disrupting class: How disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns. New York: McGraw Hill.

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