Disrupting Class

by Clayton Christensen

There are many discussions today about students in America not getting the education that they need. Repeatedly, we hear that something is wrong with our educational system. However, reaching a consensus as to what is wrong, why it is wrong, and what to do about it, remains elusive.

Disrupting Class, by Clayton Christensen, takes on this daunting topic. Christenson, a business professor at Harvard University, was asked to give a fresh look at the problems facing education through the scope of his specialty - organizational innovation and growth. He parallels his studies and anecdotes from the world of business to that of education in hopes of helping develop a framework of why schools have struggled and how to solve these problems.

Christensen and his co-authors start by dismantling most of the finger-pointing arguments popular among educational and political groups. Are schools underfunded? Are there enough computers in the classrooms?  Financial incentives for teachers? Chartered Schools or no charter? Unions or no unions?  These are all “sustaining innovations” (i.e. incremental improvements). By themselves, adjusting these factors is the equivalent of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Instead of taking sides, or ranking this problem over that problem, Christensen’s basic thesis is that everyone is right, because it is ALL wrong: the “monolithic” system is, itself, broken, and no amount of tweaking is going to make a real difference.

Instead of fixing the existing system from within, Christensen thinks that the real fix will come from outside the system via change driven by “disruptive innovation.” This type of innovation occurs when a new way of doing things emerges that doesn’t compete with existing paradigms, yet ultimately overtakes them.

As an example, consider cell phone service. When it first appeared on the scene, no one imagined cell phones would compete with regular landline home phone service. They were called “car phones” and, as such, they served a small niche. But, as cellular service improved via sustaining innovations (coverage, handsets, quality, etc.), more and more people had them, and began using them in places besides their car. To the point that now, even though cellular service didn’t start out as a direct competitor to local phone service, it has now surpassed it. Cell phones revolutionized the local phone business without even trying.

Christensen believes that this type of “disruptive” phenomenon will occur in our educational system, too.  He makes the case that online learning is the disruptive force that will revolutionize the manner in which students are educated. Online learning will provide student-centric educational opportunities, customized for each student type, learning style, and learning pace. These environments will provide nearly instant and continuous feedback to students; giving them a sense of accomplishment and helping teachers serve them more effectively. (The teacher of tomorrow, according to Christensen, will function more as a learning coach rather than the “sage on the stage” that dominates today’s system.) Christensen believes that the seeds of this change have already begun to bear fruit and that by the end of this decade education will look very different in America.

Along the way, Mr. Christensen shows off his Harvard Business School chops (and jargon) by taking the reader on a journey into, well, pretty much how the world works. The range of topics he touches is breathtaking.

  • Want to learn about the eight intelligence types? It’s here.
  • Ever wonder why people glue feathers to sticks, jump off a cliff and try to fly? It’s here.
  • Interested in interdependencies limiting modular educational units in schools? Check it off your list.
  • Ever asked yourself why so many milkshakes get sold before 10am? The mystery is solved.

Organizational change management, forecasting reductions in costs, improving educational research, the ineffectiveness of most governance tools, even negotiation tactics, it is all here. By the time you are done reading, you will feel like you’ve been visiting classes at Harvard Business School.

I recommend this book. You may not agree with the conclusion that online learning is the future of education; however, this book will challenge your notions and expand your perspective on the topic of education in America. If you care about education and/or if you have ever been curious about how organizations change and societies evolve, you will find this book to be an interesting read.

Buy it on Amazon - Disrupting Class by Clayton Christensen

(Review written by John Harrington, CEO of Funds for Learning and GE board member.)