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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Disrupting Class: Student-Centric Education Is the Future

How radical innovation will change the way we teach and kids learn.
By Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn

Current Classrooms -- Teacher Centric:

Standardization, which replaced personalization as public school enrollment rose in the late 1800s, still dictates the way subjects are taught: A teacher rules the classroom roost, using a prescribed approach to teach a generic curriculum to everyone in the classroom at the same time. Click here for visual map

Credit: Xplane

In a classroom of the future, students are learning Mandarin Chinese grammar. The students wear noise-canceling headphones and work with laptop computers.

One student is directing the work of a brick mason on his computer screen by having him assemble a sentence in the same way that he would construct a wall -- block by block. There are stacks of blocks with words on them in the background of the screen; each is colored for its potential role in the sentence.

The student directs the mason to pick blocks out of the appropriate stacks and put them in the correct order of a Mandarin sentence. When all the required blocks have been assembled in the proper sequence, the Mandarin word replaces the English on each block, and the student joins the brick mason in reading the sentence (which is written phonetically in the Roman alphabet).

When the student doesn't get the pronunciation right, the brick mason looks pained. The mason says the correct pronunciation, and when the student gets it right, the brick mason gives a high five. Mandarin is a tonal language, so the blocks then tilt to help the student see and feel the tones.

Future Classrooms -- Student Centric:

This model utilizes the teacher as mentor, problem solver, and support person. The focus for this "floating" teacher is on serving individual students who are learning at their own pace. Click here for visual map

Credit: Xplane

Another student in the same classroom is learning the same material from the same software program by rote memorization -- listening to a native Mandarin speaker and then repeating the sentences, in a mode of learning familiar to her parents' generation.

Both students are learning to put together sentences that they'll use in a conversation together in front of the rest of the class -- some of whom are using the same learning tools as these two, but many of whom are learning Mandarin in other ways tailored to the way they learn.

This vision for the classroom of the future is not new. It's one that people have talked and dreamed about for years in a variety of forms: Students partake in interactive learning with computers and other technology devices; teachers roam around as mentors and individual learning coaches; learning is tailored to each student's differences; students are engaged and motivated.

But this is far from the reality in most classrooms today. The classroom of today doesn't even look that much different from the classroom of thirty years ago, save for some interactive whiteboards instead of chalkboards, as well as some computers in the back of the room. How can we start down the path to transform the classroom?

Simply investing in state-of-the-art learning software and technology won't move us forward. Many innovative learning-software approaches already exist, but they have not had much traction in the classroom -- and, where used, they have tended not to transform teaching and learning.

The answer isn't simply investing more in computer equipment and technology for schools, either. The United States has spent more than $60 billion equipping schools with computers during the last two decades, but as countless studies and any routine observation reveal, the computers have not transformed the classroom, nor has their use boosted learning as measured by test scores. Instead, technology and computers have tended merely to sustain and add cost to the existing system.

That schools have gotten so little back from their investment comes as no surprise. Schools have done what virtually every organization does when implementing an innovation. An organization's natural instinct is to cram the innovation into its existing operating model to sustain what it already does. This is perfectly predictable, perfectly logical -- and perfectly wrong.

Student as Consumer

The key to transforming the classroom with technology is in how it is implemented. We need to introduce the innovation disruptively -- not by using it to compete against the existing paradigm and serve existing customers, but to target those who are not being served -- people we call nonconsumers. That way, all the new approach has to do is be better than the alternative -- which is nothing at all.

To convey what we mean, we need to briefly explain the disruptive-innovation theory. In every market, there are two trajectories: the pace at which technology improves and the pace at which customers can utilize the improvements. Customers' needs tend to be relatively stable over time, whereas technology improves at a much faster rate. As a result, products and services are initially not good enough for the typical customer, but, over time, they improve and pack in more features and functions than customers can use.

We call innovations that sustain the leading companies' trajectory in an industry sustaining innovations. Some are dramatic breakthroughs; others are routine. Airplanes that fly farther, computers that process faster, and televisions with incrementally or dramatically clearer images are all sustaining innovations.

On occasion, however, we see a disruptive innovation. A disruptive innovation is not a breakthrough improvement. Instead of sustaining the leading companies' place in the original market, it disrupts that trajectory by offering a product or service that actually is not as good as that which companies are already selling. Because it is not as good as the existing product or service, the customers in the original market cannot use it. Instead, the disruptive innovation extends its benefits to people who, for one reason or another, are unable to consume the original product -- so-called nonconsumers.

Disruptive innovations tend to be simpler and more affordable than existing products. This feature allows them to take root in simple, undemanding applications within a new market or arena of competition. Little by little, disruptions predictably improve. At some point, disruptive innovations become good enough to handle more complicated problems -- and then they take over and supplant the old way of doing things.

To implement computer-based learning in a way that transforms the classroom into a student-centric one, we must heed the right lessons from understanding disruption. Cramming computers in the back of classrooms or in computer labs as a tool for the existing classroom model or as a subject in and of itself won't do the trick. Instead, we must find areas of nonconsumption to deploy computer-based learning where it will be unencumbered by existing education processes. Once planted in these areas, it can take root, begin to improve, and, over time, transform the way students learn.

What does this model mean in education? For computer-based learning to bring about a disruptive transformation, it must be implemented where the alternative is no class at all.

There are many areas of nonconsumption within schools where this method is already taking place. For example, online learning is gaining hold in the advanced courses that many schools are unable to offer, in small, rural, and urban schools that are unable to offer breadth, in remedial courses for students who must retake courses in order to graduate, with homeschooled students and those who can't keep up with the regular schedule of school, and for those who need tutoring. Online enrollments are up from 45,000 in 2000 to 1 million today, as organizations like Florida Virtual School and Apex Learning lead the way.

Although computer-based learning is in its infancy, classes that follow this approach possess certain technological and economic advantages over the traditional school model that should allow them to grow and improve rapidly. Not only does computer-based learning provide accessibility for students who otherwise would not be able to take the course, but it also enables one to scale quality with far greater ease. And as it scales, its economic costs should fall.

In the United States, on average, it already costs less to educate a student online than it does in the current monolithic model. Furthermore, over time, computer-based learning can become more engaging and individualized to reach different types of learners; software developers can take full advantage of the medium to customize it by layering in different learning paths for different students.

We think there will be a second stage to this disruption as well that allows users themselves to create learning software modules. A student struggling with a certain concept, or her parent or teacher, will be able to log on to a Web site where she can find a software solution that another student, parent, or teacher developed for that specific challenge. Parents and teachers will be able to diagnose why children are not learning and find customized instructional software written to help students who closely match their children in learning style. As content is used over time, users will rate it, just as they rate books on Amazon.com and movies on Netflix.

There are exciting possibilities on the horizon for education. The reason we haven't progressed down these paths doesn't have to do with the state of the technology. It has to do with how the technology has been implemented. Employing a disruptive approach presents a promising path toward at long last realizing the vision of a transformed classroom.

Clayton M. Christensen and Michael B. Horn are coauthors, along with Curtis W. Johnson, of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.

Comments (24)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Gem Byrd's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with this article so much -- I can hardly stand working in the public school system where students spend hours/days waiting for others, lining up, receiving instruction that is not relevant to them.

Removing the vagaries of each teacher's skill or lack thereof, implementing a computer-based curriculum for most of the day would mean that kids wouldn't need to be in school for 7 hours/day or 13 years -- but it would turn our closely-held structure upside down.

I don't know why teachers don't see the solution right before their eyes when they see those computers in the back of their classrooms. But the article's right, computers are just viewed as an add-on.

Teachers unions would resist this because teachers, school buildings -- the whole shabang -- really aren't needed as they were in days past.

Tbone's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Where is the evidence to back up the notion that this is a superior model to the current educational system? Havn't there been studies recently in Britain (one of the most advanced in online learning and "courseware" modules) that show that this computer model does not in fact increase test scores?
While I agree that computers can enhance learning, there are in no way shape or form a replacement for the teacher. We need to think about this a bit more closely before we throw another huge amount of $$ towards yet another pie in the sky money pit. Expensive laptops, wireless networks and courseware may not be that much of an improvement unless it is handled correctly and still gives the time for a teacher to interact with students and allows students to build "REAL & TANGIBLE" - not online, relationships with their teachers, family and peers.

Jon Tanner's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


You are missing the entire point of the book. It's not that computers are inherently better. It's that student-centric learning is more effective than monolithic batch processing of students. If everyone could afford to hire individual tutors for their child, they would do it, because it would be more effective.

However, most people cannot do that, so out of practicality, we have our current monolithic system.

What Christensen is saying is that if we spend money on computers to sustain our current model, we will indeed be wasting our money. Innovation will begin with the non-consumers, and will supplant the current model. It is technology which will make that possible, and it will look nothing like the current model.

So, your assertions are correct, but they are not in conflict with Christensen's views.

Suzanne's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that a vital component of the future learning environment and technology being used to promote student-centred learning is training for teachers and educators. I have worked with computers for over 20 years and received little training in that time although I have used a range of software and resources.

Now as a teacher trainer I can see that most teachers do not use technology as a integrated part of the lesson/ syllabus, therefore missing the potential for truely independant student-centred learning. I am not saying this to point the finger and accuse teachers of an unwillingness to change but rather to highlight that the way forward is to invest and support our teachers to bring about these major changes in education. It seems obvious to me that if we really want Education 2.0 we need to have Web 2.0 teachers.

Let's hope that it happens soon!

Grant Harkness's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that the article makes a good point. For the last fourteen years I've been teaching students how to use computers. In addition for the last seventeen years I have been teaching Adult Education courses where we used computer assisted training (The WYCAT system, PLATO, APEX, and another system I can't recall at this moment) to tutor students. With each system, many students had success while others failed. The students who failed did so because they tried to just click through the programs. It was the students who wanted to learn that did learn.

Four years ago I finished a master's degree in Learning and Technology. I learned that in order to create curriculum that will benefit the students you have to pay attention to the students and their preferred learning styles. Many teachers use a Classic teaching style which doesn't cater to or help students whose preferred learning style is hands on, aural, visual, etc. Thus, those students are left behind.

Technology is a tool that can help students do well because it crosses many learning styles, but teachers need to know how to use it. Computer technology cannot just be added; you need to change your teaching style to be able to use it as a tool not a gimmick or something to take up time.

I also use online testing for many lessons, it saves time and gives immediate results to the students and I can track what worked in my lessons and what didn't work.

EricW's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

...but the subtext seems to be. It can't be too controversial to say that online learning will replace...no classes. What people seem to be balking at is the notion that, once the void of classes like Arabic is filled, online classes will begin encroaching on traditional classes. It's already happening in our district, where the online photography class (which is also offered in traditional classrooms) is growing steadily. But I don't see how the decentralization of content creation mentioned in chapter 5 of "Disrupting Class" can occur with technology changing as fast as it is. For instance, imagine what would happen to any student-created content created on a Mac....All gone now. Imagine content created for Windows 95....which isn't supported by Microsoft any more. I think the technology itself will be a big barrier, but not for this first wave of disruption.

Phil Biggs's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow. This message demonstrates precisely the point the authors make. When you don't even understand how transparent the hardware and software are now, it is highly unlikely the schools will, on their own, make the transitions the book describes. And, as we go to web based, open standards, this certainly won't be true.

Disrupting Class is a great book, and one educators should read. My only response to the authors of the book is that legislators will not let this easy political issue go away so easily. When your campaign in going down in flames, it is so easy to use education as a topic that can please everyone. You can say we need to improve, which make all sides happy. You can say we need more resources, which can make all sides happy if you spin it right. If students were learning successfully, what issue would they have? As the other issues become tougher to solve, politicians will cling more tightly to their one easy issue and will thwart any attempts to finally make schools work. It doesn't matter the party, either... I'm not trying to say one is better than the other. Public schools that look just like we have them now are just too convenient for the people that make the rules.

Rich Bartolowits's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We do need to train and support the teachers. However, there is also a need for teachers to realize that yes, they do need to learn something new. Too many teachers use lack of training as an excuse for not learning something new. It is also frustrating, as a trainer, to hear teachers sarcastically utter those words, "great, now you want me to learn something new."

Isn't "something new" what we ask our students to do every day? If teachers don't learn something new, we will soon be following the footsteps of other leaders like DEC, and GM. They too resisted learning something new.

Eric Hardman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The point isn't test scores, it's mastery. Tests are irrelevant when every student has mastered the material before moving on to the next concept. Our current system is time constrained (K-12), with mastery being the variable. The proposal here is that time should be the variable, with mastery as the fixed value. And through individualized, student-centric instruction, even the time factor can be minimized by serving students the style of instruction most suited to their aptitudes and style.

Here is a good article on this concept: http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2008/0915/081.html

Also, there is no call for additional investment in technology -- the US has already outspent and underperformed in that regard. The suggestion from "Disrupting Class" is that the existing base of computers in classrooms is sufficient. This is a quibbling point, maybe some more is needed, maybe we are there. It's an incremental change at most, so there is no need for massive new investment.

Matt Steible's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Is it because we are creatures of habit? I've heard often that the most important teaching aspect that we can give our students is consistency. Having the courage to break away from our routines violates that main tenet. I've jumped around in my instruction mode as a first year teacher because I have immense freedom in the classroom and I see the future value to my instruction by experimenting now. But even I felt guilty by deviating from my new "standard teacher" self to try a couple class wikis this spring. The students like consistency, I just fear that consistency leads to complacency.

On a side note, I see you are from Soldotna. During the summers, I setnet for salmon from the mouth of the Kasilof. Breaking from years of lifeguarding in NJ to ship off to Alaska and an occupation I had no experience with took the will to learn something new. Now I can't see my summers anywhere else. We are creatures of habit.

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