Public Education: Start Again

If you could start from zero, what would public education look like?

Clayton Christensen Uncovers Change In Schools

Posted by Stephen Dill on June 18, 2010

Clayton Christensen at the 2009 Microsoft CEO Summit conference held in Redmond, WA

The research team behind Clayton Christensen’s 2008 book, Disrupting Class, deserves a lot of respect. It would have been easy to cite Howard Gardner’s “theory of multiple intelligences,” point out that schools homogenize the learning experience along a one-size-fits-all model, note some statistics of the increase in use of online education resources in order to predict big change, and called it a day.

Instead, they have dug deep and presented 30 or more years of research into how humans learn and how humans teach to assess what is facing America and the world in the education systems most everyone adopted from their predecessors going back a century or two. This is not casual reading, but because most of us are products of a school system, are working in one, or are parents of children going through one, the skillful presentation of this information revives our own personal histories like electric shocks to the brain can induce cold sweats and generate perfect smells of an occasion long ago. The results are as visual (or aural, or kinesthetic, as your learning preference dictates) as they are intellectual.

If you take away anything from this book, make it this: innovation happens in many ways, but the most successful innovation has happened when the new was competing against non-consumption, not the existing products or services in the marketplace. People will be delighted to have the product, even if its capacities are limited. Online courses are making fast headway into school systems that cannot offer similar classes, not in systems where there are teachers and class materials for all the topics the students want to learn or the district has to teach. It’s the absence of competition where innovation thrives; identifying “nonconsumers” and their needs then becomes the primary function of the disruptive innovator. The book uses personal computers as an example. When mainframe and minicomputers roamed the land looking for customers for their $200K and more products, upstart Apple offered their Apple II products as toys to children and home science experiments to hobbyists. None of these people were consumers of computers before, they never noticed the differences in capabilities or performance between the Apple products and those from DEC and IBM. Innovation improves over time. Within a few years, technology improvements made the personal computers capable of doing much of what the behemoths could do, making computing widespread and much cheaper. As the world improved with the use of personal computers—under the noses of DEC and the other minicomputer manufacturers—another disruptive innovation brought down the competition without ever stepping foot on the same playing field. Read Chapter 2 if you cannot read the whole book.

Resisting the urge to paste in the hundreds of phrases and passages of the book I underlined and highlighted, I will instead encourage your own reading of this powerful treatise by sampling Christensen’s take on a few of the most closely aligned issues that inspired All New Public Education. The very first paragraph captured my attention, as it may well yours:

We have high hopes for our schools. While each of us might articulate these hopes differently, four seem common to many of us. We summarize these aspirations as:

  • Maximize human potential.
  • Facilitate a vibrant, participative democracy in which we have an informed electorate that is capable of not being “spun” by self-interested leaders.
  • Hone the skills, capabilities, and attitudes that will help our economy remain prosperous and economically competitive.
  • Nurture the understanding that people can see things differently—and that those differences merit respect rather than persecution.

While I have moved away from a patriotic motivation for rebuilding the education system (see The World Is Flat, wherein we realize that borders are no longer as relevant as they were and we are moving to a global economy) and hoping that we can approach the rebooting of education as a global challenge, translation of these pronouns to the global scale should be relatively simple. We want education to help us all become collaborative, peaceful, productive, supportive, satisfied world citizens.

On the causes of educational malaise: “Motivation is the catalyzing ingredient for every successful innovation. The same is true for learning. … Unless students (and teachers, for that matter) are motivated, they will reject the rigor of any learning task and abandon it before achieving success. … When there is extrinsic motivation for someone to learn something, schools’ jobs are easier.” The book goes on to describe prosperity as “the culprit” in declining interest in subjects that take hard work or involve long periods of study or apprenticeship. This is one explanation for the engineering and science advantage shifting first to Japan, then to India and China.

On the future of assessment: “With the change to student-centric learning, assessment—the art and science of testing children to determine what they have learned—can and should change, as well. Student-centric learning should, over time, obviate the need for examinations as we have known them. Alternative means of comparison, when necessary, will emerge.”

As with virtually all of the other foundations of our current system, the dominant school categorization scheme that society uses today is outdated and no longer relevant. It’s geographical location. We go to school nearby, right? Why? Is transportation a problem? “The constraint that limited transportation and thus imposed this geographical categorization scheme in education is largely gone. And yet we continue to follow a policy whose implicit assumption is that all children within a given geographic district are best served by one type of school architecture. When students are in primary schools, sorting them by geography perhaps is logical. … But as students progress in age, geographic categorization makes less sense.”

Comparing the possibilities with the stone wall that so many education reformers have faced for years, Christensen and his co-authors encourage all of us to soldier on, convinced that “we now have an opportunity for great progress.” Web 2.0 has its roots in user groups that came together across dial-up connections to ask questions, share learnings, and keep abreast of the latest developments and use cases. Wikis, Twitter, Facebook and thousands of online communities of learning are forming the platform for disruption, a “modular education system that facilitates customization.” These will provide the networks to find a course, gather recommendations for a tutor or content, and recruit students for a class forming around a gifted teacher.

In the conclusion, a line aimed at teachers, parents, and students struck home: “There is power in our communities to effect change.” Amen!

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