Home > Uncategorized > Christiansen’s Clarification: Technology Will Not Disrupt Public SCHOOLS… it WILL Disrupt School SYSTEMS

Christiansen’s Clarification: Technology Will Not Disrupt Public SCHOOLS… it WILL Disrupt School SYSTEMS

February 3, 2019

In a recent Christensen Institute blog post, Thomas Arnett asserts that the Clay Christensen and Michael Horn’s book, Disrupting Class, never claimed that public education would be disrupted in the sense that that term is applied in business. Here’s his reasoning (with the bold emphases applied by Mr. Arnett and the red italics applied by me):

First, charter schools are not disruptive innovations relative to traditional schools.Disruptive innovations always start out serving people who lack access to mainstream options. But in the United States today, all students have access to some form of public education. This means that charter schools cannot be disruptive because they compete head-to-head with district schools for enrollment.

Second, full-time virtual schools and other purely online options are not disrupting traditional public schools either. Disruptive innovations need a technology that can improve over time until customers see it as comparable to traditional options. But when it comes to schooling, technology cannot substitute for everything parents value in a traditional school. In addition to academic learning, most families value the caretaking role that schools offer for working parents. This important benefit of brick-and-mortar schools has no technological substitute, which means only a small segment of the population will ever be interested in full-time virtual schooling.

Charter schools and virtual schools certainly compete with district schools, but their differences relative to district schools do not make them disruptive.

Mr. Arnett DOES contend that disruption has a place in public education, and that place is at the SYSTEMS level… and because it is taking place at that level it is requiring much more time!

As Disrupting Class points out, online learning enables disruptive innovation in K–12 education. But online learning is not disrupting the K–12 education system. Rather, it fuels disruption within the markets that provide resources to K–12 schools….

Disruptive entrants in the K–12 marketplace offer schools fresh opportunities to better support their students. But using technology to make learning more student-centered will be neither automatic or intuitive. In an EdSurge article, my colleague Julia Freeland Fisher explains that many of the most innovative online-learning technologies have slow adoption curves because they are not plug-compatible with traditional schools. Similarly, some of my recent research points out that schools trying to personalize learning might want to rethink traditional school staffing models; but redefining educator roles and responsibilities is no easy task. Even with all the new opportunities that online learning has to offer, transforming schools still comes down to the hard work of change management.

Disruptive innovation is happening in K–12 education. But it isn’t going to replace traditional schools. Rather, it will change the menu of instructional resources that schools can use to serve their students. To take advantage of these resources, school leaders first need to carefully consider how new tools impact educators capacity. Then they need to implement new tools, programs, and approaches in ways that actually motivate teachers to change how they teach.

As one who attended two presentations to Superintendents where Clay Christensen’s co-author, Michael Horn, talked about the concepts in his the book Disrupting Class, I don’t recall this emphasis on this need for systems changeRather, Mr. Horn was promoting the idea among our group that online learning was going to transform public education the same way the transistor radio changed music and cell phones were transforming communication and media transmission, which meant that delivery of education in brick and mortar schools would go the way of plug-in radios and landlines. Systems change is far more marketable to parents than change that completely uproots the care taking role parents expect from schools and the human interaction that only a teacher can provide.

I think public education needs to change the same way that book stores and public libraries are changing. The old model for book stores and libraries, where there were large endless shelves of books, is being replaced by smaller gathering places where customers can linger on their devices, sip coffee, and seek the advice of the bookseller or librarian on books that are on the market that might be of interest to them. They might even have meeting rooms where like-minded individuals can gather to share insights on a book or do an activity together. Instead of being a single minded store or institution that deals only with printed text, book stores and libraries are becoming gathering places where there is a menu of options for their clientele.

But unlike book stores and libraries, public schools play an important care-giving role. They need to embrace the idea that “…most families value the caretaking role that schools offer for working parents.” and that “this important benefit of brick-and-mortar schools has no technological substitute”.  To that end, when public schools develop their menu of options for parents they might also include space for after school activities like music instruction, medical services, unstructured play with their classmates, and a safe space to hang out. 

This expansion of the school’s menu from offering only academics to providing care-giving would clearly cost more… but I believe a case can be made that it would also save more in the long run. Working parents would not have to fret about whether their children arrive home safely and what activities they are engaged in, the endless shuttling to-and-from after-school activities would cease, and children would have more opportunities to play with each other with light adult supervision. If that is “disruption”, I say bring it on!

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