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
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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 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.

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Joanne H Ensign's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I hope by the time this fantastic transition to Wii School takes place I am no longer a teacher in the classroom. You see I teach Kindergarten and I can't imagine a more horrifiying scene than a bunch 4 and 5 year olds staring into computer screens moving their avatars around in a pretend school setting instead of actually interacting with and learning about each other. Young children should be learning how to listen and speak to one another by taking turns. They should be introduced to thoughtful discussions, problem solving and peaceful disagreements. They should be observing shells and rocks and the amazing transformations of caterpillars to butterflies or eggs to chicks. Children should be getting their hand messy with finger paint and glitter. They should be using scissors and glue to create masterpieces to be taken home and hung on refrigerators. Children ALSO should be engaged in technology and all the many advances it has to offer, but not at the expense of a real authentic experience. We are HUMANS programmed from birth for personal interaction with each other. I don't want to teach in a classroom where all I do is monitor someone's computer program progress. I think you will see me as an example of your problem, a teacher that wants to rule the roost. But I want to interact, share and learn with and from my students. I do believe there is always something new to learn and always an opportunity to improve education. I just don't think public education does that awful of a job, especially with the great diverisity of students we now serve. Just ask anyone who's kid is trying to get into a college these days. A 4.0 isn't even high enough anymore!

Marilyn Wright's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I can see why we get cautious about the use of computers for seemingly everything...however, don't you think that the practice of basic material could be better served, enjoyed, and mastered by use of technology - i.e. games that support basic knowledge (multiplication) and that the game be geared so a child has multiple methods of learning/remembering this knowledge (i.e. multiple intellegences)
THEN, teachers can work on collaborative/cooperative learning, group discussions led effectively to get children to think! and work with others??? AND how to learn for themselves. I think that is our learning and the desire to do so...!

Robert Cole's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think it is interesting that the extinction of interaction is often the overshadowing sentiment of those that resist technology use for students at a younger age. My question would be how does one define interaction? One can interact digitally and in person. I will concede that the interaction is different, but that is the point. Different interaction is not the same as no interaction. Upon that examination, I would explore the quality of interaction. Is it possible that some face-to-face interactions are actually of lesser quality than some digital interactions?
It is not as easy as "they shouldn't do this because it will stifle interaction with one another". There are many layers to consider and the argument of many circumnavigates that reflective step.

Richard Smith's picture

Disruptive innovation in school education is sorely needed. 'Disrupting Class' is a great book, but I was disappointed with two issues. Teachers are important 'learning managers' and the term 'facilitator' misrepresents their potential impact on learning outcomes. Again, the core element in encouraging beginners to reach more complex levels of understanding and skill is pedagogical practice, what 'teachers' do. There is much now known about how people learn different kinds of knowledge. Disrupting Class is silent on this issue. On-line and other platforms are clearly the future if research-based strategies form part of their design. Otherwise, it is more of the same...


[quote]I echo your thoughts exactly. It appears that many educators are exasperated with the need to further their education concerning the integration of technology into the classroom. I feel that many are simply frightened by the unknown, and instead of exploring the possibilities, they choose to stay in the dark. You make an excellent point in saying that we ask our students to learn and step out of their comfort zones on a daily basis; yet, we are hesitant to do the same. Technology is not a fad; it has more than withstood the test of time. If teachers could see the potential behind technology in the classroom and experience it for themselves, this would not even be a discussion. There is no "try" there is only "doing". Technology is already in the hands of our students, and if we continue to take a backseat, then technology will do our jobs for us. If teachers embrace technology, then they gain the control. Educators have to engage their students in order to gain their attention, and technology is the key to unlocking this door.[/quote]
There is ever so subtly a hint in this post of the thing that may stand in the way of the new paradigm in education that Christianson suggests. That is whether or not teacher's will gain, i.e., retain control. The new paradigm really calls for teachers to become tutors and mentors and "inspirors"--almost, one could argue, a new profession. If the new paradigm catches hold, what a teacher does in their individual classroom will be a thing of the past. It won't be a question of whether teacher "A" decides to be tech cool, while another continues with the traditional system. The whole environment of the learning center (toss out the word school) will be altered.
One of the things that the summary of Christianson's book omitted is the fact that spiraling costs of traditional education will drive municipalities and school districts in this direction. Let's put two and two together folks. Why would this be the case? Because it will cut down on the number of teachers. And if individualized, learning-style student-centric software works, there will be much less need for special ed teachers . Test taking and correcting, and thus teaching to the test--often in special, extra classes--will end. Test taking will be as obsolete as balancing your check book if you do online banking, because you will know on a daily basis, the state of your bank account/progress of the student. And here is a radical observation. The whole architecture of schools (sorry, education centers) will be different. There are architectural firms who specialize in only two types of building because they are so similar: schools and prisons. We need to put them out of business. Schools, as they are built today, are designed with teacher retention and expansion as a given. Few even realize this. "Bringing technology into the class room" will be an antiquated expression.

Anne-Marie Thinnes's picture
Anne-Marie Thinnes
librarian at Seisen Inernational School Tokyo

Yes, it is a shame that some teachers are too reluctant about using technology with their students, but your vision of the future in education is frightening!
We all know that there are plenty of good reasons to introduce technology in the classroom . Adopting students centered practices like the one described in this article is only one of them. We also all know that some teachers are absolutely reluctant to use any computer in their class room other than as a type writer with memory.
I don't think that practices are changing that slowly though. The Internet is only ten years old, after all. In the school where I work, I can see teachers trying to introduce new technologies and support projects oriented learning everyday. It is not always easy, you sometimes need to invest a big among of time to master a tool for a new project that doesn't work that well when used in the classroom.
I just wonder, what is the point of wishing to completely change the way students are taught and learn?
First, I don't have the feeling that all the generations of people that learned the traditional way are completely dumb, uncritical and unable to cope with today's world. So, going slowly is not going to harm anyone, I guess.
Second, I don't think that getting rid of the specialized teachers and moving to mentors-teachers will help students learning better, because students are not going to trust someone that cannot help them in the subject taught. Learning is not only about drills, it is also an emotional, affective and physical process. We learn better with peers and from people we trust, from people we talk to, from people with argue with. I know, we all had teachers we hated and made us hate the subject they taught, but we also all had teachers that were so enthusiastic that they made us want to know more and challenged us. A mentor could encourage us, but what about the challenge?
Get rid of the classroom? Is a discussion online as rich as in the classroom? What about learning to deal with stress and respect for other people's space and pace? What about science lab? Sports? Art? Drama? Debate? Music? Do kids really enjoy learning through computers only? You only need to look at a group of students working on a science project virtually to see how dull they feel compared to how excited they are on hands-on experiments.
Get rid of the school? Where are our children going to meet their friends (and enemies)? Where are they going to learn social skills and develop some kind of emotional intelligence? Where are they going to meet people coming from different social backgrounds? At home? Alone in front of their computer?
Yes, we need to change the way we organize our classroom, assessment and grades. Yes, technology can help connect schools to the real world through collaboration with research centers, museum, non profit organizations, and more.
Are we really going to save money moving to online schooling? How much does good software cost? Is is for free? Then, who is going to pay the programmers and teachers who create and update it? What about kids who don't have access to technology at home?
Also, last but not least, do we need to cut cost on education?
At this point, I can only quote Benjamin Disraeli (British Prime Minister, 1804-1881):
"Upon the education of the people of this country, the fate of this country depends."

hmundahl's picture

I agree with the author that we both need change, and that tech can play a role but that's where my agreement ends. The idea of a fake bricklayer giving pretend emotional responses to a student isolated from her peers doesn't sound like the kind of innovation I want to see. Why not video chat with other kids from China instead? That's a real life, non linear experience, and a much more authentic challenge.

I'd like to see kids and teachers use tech alongside traditional classroom experiences to do more real work, not more contrived work. The world needs problem identifiers and problem solvers, not game players.

bfarrior's picture

When I first started teaching, I was very afraid to implement technology into my classroom for the simple fact that I had not had much training in that area. After teaching for almost 10 years and learning more though, I love the thought of having more technology in my classroom. In fact, my students seem to be more engaged when I am integrating technology than when I am not. They love using our smart board; they get to be the "teacher" for a short while. They love researching and finding out they can go to different websites to research the same topic. I love using programs in which I can track their progress on certain skills. I am by no means a professional at integrating technology, but I think I have come along way. If someone had asked me 8 years ago what I thought about technology in the classroom, I would have said it is very disruptive to the learning of students. However, with our technology advanced world, I am finding more and more that technology is needed in every classroom. As teachers we have to help prepare the students for a more technology advanced world.

Karen Lane's picture

I like the idea from the article of students learning at their own pace. I have always had the idea that self paced learning is beneficial and can hold the learner's attention better than the same teaching style for all students. But, do we really need technology to implement that concept? When it comes to technology in the classroom, I am torn. Yes, technology can be beneficial to students; however, it can also be a distraction. Policies need to be in place in order to ensure that students are using the technology for learning purposes only. Teachers need to be trained to assist students with the technology. Teachers also need to follow up with the students to make certain they are benefiting from the technology they are using. I do feel that technology needs to be included in the classroom more, but we need to be careful with technology.

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