Post 5: School Disrupted

Thursday, September, 13, 12 § 1 Comment

Guest contributor Tony Gerlicz has 35 years experience as a teacher and leader in schools across the world. He founded Monte del Sol Charter School in Santa Fe, NM Find his full bio here.

I recently co-facilitated a workshop called “Innovative Leadership” for 38 independent school leaders in Silicon Valley arguably the epicenter of innovation in the US if not the world. The speakers we brought in described how failure and resilience are constant companions to innovation.  A venture capitalist told us he looks for a “failure resume” from clients to gauge their seriousness of intent and capacity for learning.

We asked the educators how resonant these ideas of failure and innovation were in their schools. Of the 38 school leaders, one or two raised a hand.

Historically, people do not think of education when they think “innovation.” They think of a plethora of other industries.

But Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, who has written extensively on innovation in business, turned his attention to learning and schools in this 2008 book, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.

In his earlier books, including The Innovator’s Dilemma, The Innovator’s Solution, and The Innovator’s DNA, Christensen illuminates patterns that bring about failure in once successful businesses. His theory identifies sustaining innovations, which improve a product without affecting existing markets, and disruptive innovations, which upend and overtake existing markets. Disruptive innovations usually enter the market quietly, ignored or dismissed by established companies in an existing market. When the innovation improves and the price point is reachable, the established companies fall.

It’s not that these disruptive technologies eliminate the industry overall; rather, they destroy companies in that field who do not see the disruption emerging. The disruptions are generally not felt by the consumer and often take a long time before they significantly impact established companies.  Christensen sites numerous examples of industries that have been disrupted in this way, including computing, disk drives, automotive, mining, telecommunications, medical, light, and more. Think Encyclopedia Britannica, which ended its print production in 2012 after 244 years of life, disrupted by Wikipedia (as was the multi-million dollar effort Microsoft put into the much more short-lived Encarta). Think Kodak, or Borders.

Is there a disruptive innovation for education? In Disrupting Class, co-authored by Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson, Christensen posits that there is indeed—in fact, the disruption is already underway, thanks to new technologies in learning. The authors argue that our current system of schooling, with its “monolithic, teacher-centric” techniques, does not address that every student is wired differently, learns differently and does not have to learn the same thing at the same time.  Writers on this site and others highlight isolated stories of schools where real learning, real engagement, and real innovations are happening.  Project-oriented curriculum, flipped classrooms, virtual schools show different ways that kids are engaged, learning is real, ideas and strategies are shared and learning is personalized.  The ubiquitous presence of computers and wireless access is changing the education game. It is accelerating a wave of “personalized learning” that is beginning to swell through our school systems.

Let us look at how this personalization wave affects three critical components of education: the learning environment, the teacher, and the students.

With respect to learning environments, we know that what used to be a seat time environment is now a 24x7x365 one; successful learning environments move from teacher-centric to learner-centric; media moves from books to blended; subject-based learning transforms to project-based learning.

With respect to the teacher, we know that what was teaching in isolation is now teaching while connected; instead of being the transmitter of information with limited knowledge the teacher is the facilitator of understanding with ubiquitous information; instead of being the master teacher, she is a model master learner.

With respect to the students, we know that instead of focusing on attendance, the focus will be on mastery of material; instead of students functioning due to external motivation, they will rely on internal motivation; instead of compliance, for which there is a place, students need to be innovate and creative for future work.

Personalized learning is the cresting wave.

The function of education in 2012 is not the same as in 1950.  In the factory model of education, still so prevalent, standardized classrooms, bell schedules, credit requirements, age-based grade levels, and above all testing, reign supreme.  However, no amount of mandates can change what Howard Gardner, Daniel Goleman and others have amply shown: students have multiple ways of learning, knowing and being.  Goleman’s research shows what the world of work already knows, EI (Emotional Intelligence) trumps IQ (Intelligence Quotient).[i]

Technology alone is not the answer.  We could use technology to make the factory run more efficiently by having students take self-paced on-line courses in front of aides instead of teachers.  We could use technology to make the factory run faster by having students fly through the curriculum without it passing through their cognitive or emotional brains.

Or, we could use technology to eliminate acquisition of factoids, allow students to construct learning in the context of real world problems, and to collaborate with students at home and abroad.  We could harness technology to facilitate personalize learning, anytime, anywhere and in multiple ways, enhancing real world learning with no loss of EI.

Christensen’s model is at play here.  To use his words, “…little by little, learning will be sucked out of the current classroom and into a new emerging network of learning.”[ii]  That “emerging network of learning” or sustaining innovation might disrupt the American public school education behemoth and it might not, but the wave of personalization will continue to swell.

Districts, states, and nations are right to design standards that encompass IQ, EI, and skills necessary for a robust democracy, healthy community and vibrant economy.  The question remains how those standards will help young people experience the curricula. If Christensen’s theories prove applicable, then school systems that cling to the standardization models from the 1950’s will follow the patterns above and eventually fail. But those who embrace the disruptive innovation will ride the crest of personalized learning into a future for our schools, and our world where all students are engaged and find meaning in the place called school.

Tony Gerlicz | September 13, 2012


[i] Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (1996)

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§ One Response to Post 5: School Disrupted

  • plourdet says:

    I hope that more personalized learning will continue to be the norm and that school leaders and classroom teachers are taking note, involving themselves in their own project based learning and becoming the “model master learners” as they interact with students. Inclusion for those that learn differently will happen as this scenario unfolds in the coming years!
    Disrupting Class by Christensen is such a worthwhile read. Everyone should have one!
    Thank you for your article ….so timely!

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