So, this is it. As there are some delays on publishing my full take on Disrupting Class, I reckon it is time to share it with the world in the meanwhile.
Take a robust theory on innovation, throw in one of its originators, and apply the theory to a new topic. Seems like a no-brainer for any publisher. The result for Harvard Business School Press this time around? Disrupting Class, which applies Clayton M. Christensen’s mid-nineties approach of ‘disruptive innovation’ to current educational practices and their organizational ‘machines’, such as schools and the textbook publishing industry.
The theme here is the flaws in the current North American educational system, and how the tools offered by an approach rooted in disruptive innovation can help to design a new system and a plan for its application over the next two decades.
Much like a good user-centred designer, Christensen and his co-authors start at the very beginning – with a consideration of what actually motivates students to learn. Their conclusion, essentially that without an individual intrinsic drive to learn, no other motivation (be this economic need, social pressure or whatever) can be guaranteed as failure-proof, is hardly surprising.
Nor is it surprising that technology is, of course, presented as key to the solution, with a recommendation that platforms be developed to allow students to learn at their own pace and according to their own cognitive modes. The authors are keen, however, to point out that simply cramming hardware into classrooms isn’t going to address the bigger problems in the field (something that the proponents of programmes such as Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child initiative are hopefully taking notes on now). After all, American schools are hardly short on PCs, but they are short on approaches and organisational motels for successfully introducing pupils, teachers and parents to new technologies.
It’s at this stage that a brief overview of disruptive innovation is required. At its simplest, disruptive innovation is the opposite of a standard status quo of ‘sustaining innovation’ which aims to build on and improve existing technologies for the benefit of current consumer segments. Disruptive innovation comes from new ideas aimed at addressing the same objectives without a focus on existing solutions and their users. As a result, the outputs of disruptive innovation processes are likely to have aspects and characteristics that existing customers will find unwanted (at least, so the theory goes, initially).
In the case of education, this necessitates a proposed target focus on current non-consumers of educational IT – including home-schooled students and those still in kindergarten – while developing a more modular approach to help support different paces and styles of learning. Although this may seem radical to teachers, administrators and those involved in setting educational policy, to followers of contemporary business theory it’s simply Christensen delivering what the book promises on the cover; the application of his decade old theory to a new field. Nothing surprising here.
What makes the book interesting, however, is the authors’ vision for how they expect to see schools evolve.
What they foresee replacing the rigid and standardised systems currently in place is a much more collaborative system tied (predictably) to the current rise in attention focused on peer to peer conversation and user generated content.
It’s a vision of a highly customisable system, where students can instruct and learn from one another: “These instructional tools… rather than being ‘pushed’ into classrooms through a centralized selection process… will be pulled in into use through self-diagnosis by teachers, parents and students. User networks, not value-chain businesses, will be the business models of
distribution. This will allow parents, teachers and students to offer these teaching tools to other parents, teachers and students.”
It’s a fantastic vision, and passionately delivered, but while the authors’ approach appears to have been admirably exhaustive, Disrupting Class is perhaps sometimes too naïve in considering the consequences of the type of socio-technical changes proposed. Learning is not just a matter of cognitive styles and intelligences; it has a very social aspect as well. By proposing an
education method exclusively focused on the individual student, there is the risk of underestimating the real world social network that students normally create while learning and sharing knowledge.
Turning groups of likeminded students into true communities of practice (very much part of the end-game suggested) is likely to take much more than the development of a platform for the creation of user generated content, and the question has to be asked of whether the US education system, with all its diverse stakeholders, is prepared to act on these suggestions. Much like the proposed approach to innovating education suggested by Charles Leadbeater in his We Think, perhaps the greatest impact of such approaches to changing the traditional status quo of public service provision will be felt in the developing world where there is far less ‘establishment’ to turn around and rebuild.
What is important, and indisputable however, is not the nature and accuracy of the authors’ recommendations and rationale, but the approach. There are moments in the book when one can understand how big ideas and innovation don’t come by simply asking to your best customers; they will probably be happy with the system, and they could ask your organization for some improvement: a sustaining innovation. Disruptive innovation, on the other side, sparks by observing those who are discontent or, even better, your non-consumption area. Only when one deeply understands what the reasons of non-consumption are, one can see the gaps where innovation can be created. Therefore, user research techniques can be used for facilitating the creation of innovative solutions: primary research and a quasi-ethnographic approach can help understanding the reasons behind non-consumption, and it is able to provide a great deal of insights that will uncover new spaces for disruptive services.