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Thoughts on Disrupting Class

dis-classI know I’m lightyears behind on my professional reading, but over spring break this year I’ve finally been reading Disrupting Class by Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn, and Curtis W. Johnson. I am not sure exactly what I was expecting from the book, but it is a title that almost everyone I know has recommended as a “must read.” I am not quite sure that I get it. Don’t get me wrong, Disrupting Class makes excellent and valid points about the changes needed in our educational system. In fact, I want to reflect on a few of these points today.

We are rebuilding the airplane mid-flight.

I have had to remind myself constantly that changes in education aren’t as easy and obvious as I would like them to be. It seems like a no-brainer, but I forget that it isn’t that obvious or that easy to others. When a business needs a structual overhaul, it works behind closed doors for months or years to develop and roll out the revised business model that will work more effectively and efficiently. The newer model is at its near-best from the moment it opens its doors. We can’t do that to schools. We can’t put them on hold or shut them down for extended periods of time while we “fix things.” The changes that we want to make must be done in a way that liquifies solid boundaries and remolds them while we are unable to slow down the pace of movement. Despite these barriers, I truly believe it can be done. In fact, I believe it must be done. It will take an attitude of positivity and focused intervention, as well as the willingness for us all to have the wind in our faces for a while. The result will be worth the effort!

Are computer-based online courses really the answer?

This is an essential question and one that Disrupting Class addresses in a way that I find to be refreshing. If we allow computer generated courses to take on the content and depth of coursework, it cannot replace teachers. In fact, effective teaching practices can then be highlighted in their truest form. I have heard it said many times that you can tell a lot about an educator by their response to the question “What do you teach?” Some people say “Math” or “Biology” or “US History.” Others will respond with “Kids. I teach kids.” What if we could all just teach kids? In my opinion, in order to facilitate online learning to its greatest effectiveness, teachers will have to be more hands on than ever. I see online instruction being self-directed, self-paced and prescriptive in nature. It will allow individual students to follow uncharted paths of progressive learning, but these learning experiences will still need to be facilitated by a learning/teaching professional. Students will need well trained teachers more than ever to help navigate problems, overcome difficulties and move through their learning experiences in the most effective way possible.


Are innovative schools for everyone?

Throughout Disrupting Class I found myself nodding in agreement with most of the observations, but in chapter nine Christensen makes the statement “… innovative schools are not for everyone; instead, they are for specific groups of children who historically have not succeeded in all the traditional schools.” (p. 219). OK, hold on. I think we need to define “success” here. I have always gleaned my personal definition of success from the teachings of John Wooden, legendary UCLA basketball coach. He coined his own definition of success as “Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.” If this is the case, who has truly been successful in traditional schools? I was a straight A student, scholarship winner, and valedictorian; by traditional standards, I would be considered a successful product of public schools. As I learn and grow, I find myself disagreeing with the idea of myself as having been successful according to my personal definition. Are our traditional schools helping all of our students to “become the best [they] are capable of becoming”? I would make the case that all students deserve an innovative education so that they are able to maximize their own potential as learners and leaders. Schools must be willing to consider the idea that, while our schools have provided adequate education for a high percentage of our nation’s children, this doesn’t mean that they have best served our children and their future!

Wrapping up

I am actually encouraged that I haven’t been totally blown away by the ideas set forth in Disrupting Class. Maybe it means that we’re moving in the right direction, that these disruptive forces are actually becoming more mainstreamed. In the book’s conclusion, I especially appreciated the charges for individual groups of people who might come across this book. “There is power in our communities to effect change.” How true. How brave. How enriching. Maybe one day soon, students, teachers and parents will be celebrated for being disruptive! Let us hope.

Computer lab photo credits to Extra Ketchup
Disrupting Class photo credits to Wilhelm Augustus Hohenzollern

6 Responses

  1. […] Original post by Kelly Hines […]

  2. Like you, I have endeavored to use spring break to catch up on my personal learning. Yesterday I created a twitter account and today I discovered your blog as a result of following e_shep.

    I read Disrupting Class a few months ago and then heard Christensen speak at the National Conference on Education. I have since purchased the book for our School Board Members and the Leadership Team (all administrators) who are expected to read it before our Summer Leadership Academy.

    Our Summer Leadership Academy is a two-day event that includes all members of the Leadership Team and 8-12 teacher-leaders from each of our six schools. It is an attempt to leverage our division’s small size (4000 students, four elementary, one middle, and one high school) to rapidly deploy best practices by creating a “critical mass” (a core group of formal and informal leaders) in all six schools. Using this approach, we are able on Day 1 of each school year to hit the ground running and we are all pulling in the same direction. We find this approach far superior to waiting for new initiatives to slowly gain traction at different rates and in different degrees in each school through more traditional professional development pathways.

    Last summer, we focused on Formative Assessment and in March of this year our ITRTs debuted our Virtual Assessment for Learning Fair (a division web-page that seeks to be the online equivalent of a science fair, but instead of three-sided display boards everyone’s work is instantly available for all). The AFL fair also served to evidence the AFL growth objectives that was shared by all professional staff for SY 08-09. In a matter of months, our terrific people put ideas into practice in every classroom in our division! We will continue this effort in SY 09-10 and easily double the collection of K-12 AFL practices. Here is a link to the AFL site:

    Now back to the matter at hand, Disrupting Class. Although it is required reading for the Leadership Team, it is only one of four book choices for the rest of the Academy participants, including Influencer, Outliers, and Made to Stick.

    Our rationale for this approach (other than it was hard to pick any one of these terrific books) is that Participants have widely different interests and needs. While Disrupting Class is essential for those responsible for (or interested in) long-range planning many professionals crave information that they can put to use immediately (like Made to Stick and Influencer provide) while others appreciate profound insights into the very fabric of our profession (like those in Outliers). I am confident that as each of our book study groups report out in August that everyone will benefit from all four books and that many will elect to read some or all of the other choices. Regardless, we will have a common language and a few very conversant professionals in each building.

    If you are still reading this comment, here is how this connects to kellyhines’ outstanding blog entry about Disrupting Class. Student-centric, software based learning will indeed forever change our noble profession…and for the better. The rate of change will be hampered by legislators seeking to “help” public education (hopefully the reauthorization of ESEA will include an emphasis on individual student progress “growth models” that will help position public education for the advent of much greater use of these future tools) but it will occur. Many practicing educators, however, will likely treat Disrupting Class the way they did The World is Flat…as interesting, insightful, but not immediately helpful to those seeking to help their students be successful in class right now.

    I do not fault this reaction. I want teachers to be fully focused on their current students…on “every child; every day” as we say in Salem City Schools (http://salem.k12.va.us/). This makes it even more important, however, for policy makers, administrators, and interested teacher-leaders keep an eye on the horizon and plan to make full use of emerging technologies so that as they are ready for immediate use, tools can be quickly put in the hands of the professional in the classroom.

    I would encourage all future-minded educators to be familiar with the future outlined in Disrupting Class. Even though the future will likely not be precisely as described in the book, it provides a compelling vision of what the future will hold and Instructional Leaders had better be leading and not reacting as it unfolds.

    Alan Seibert
    Division Superintendent

  3. I just found your blog, and I enjoyed reading your post. I really liked the comment about “I teach kids”…forget the labels. I had to stop and think about that, because we have been slipping away from that. I believe we have become teaching the test, and letting other things slip on by.

    I’m going to check out this book too when I get a chance.

  4. A more succinct prediction, and maybe more useful, about the future of education can be found in Thomas Frey’s, The Future of Education. http://www.davinciinstitute.com/page.php?ID=170

    One of the things Frey does more clearly than Christensen is outline the practicality of the future trends. He points out that there is a difference between online and blended instruction. I personally think that blended instruction where students use computers in the same way that adults have been using them for the last 30 years or so will be the way of the next few decades or so.-we’ve got to rid of this notion that computers are something that reside in a room by themselves, apart from instruction, what we call computer labs.

    I’ve also been disappointed in the direction that Christensen’s co-author, Curt Johnson. has taken since; he’s pushing a union busting charter school type of initiative here in Minnesota disguised as empowering teachers.

  5. […] This post was Twitted by chadratliff […]

  6. I found this post from our comment on the Shelfari summer reading list.

    I quite enjoyed Disrupting Class, except for the implication that subject matter specialists will cease to be necessary once we have good, online educational materials. One only need look at the state of science education to understand that we can’t simply put an excellent teacher in a room with computers and expect high quality learning to occur. (Especially if the same people who pick textbooks now get to pick the online materials.)

    Students deserve to have access to expert, intelligent problem solvers in the areas they’re studying, whether that means someone who has read all of the books by their favorite author (and the other books that influence a nuanced reading of the text) or someone who can solve optics problems in their sleep. I’m not sure Christensen understands the amount of pedagogical content knowledge teachers need to be effective.

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