Review of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, by Clayton M. Christensen with Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson (New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, 2008), 288 pages, hardcover, ISBN: 0071592067 / 9780071592062, $32.95
This book offers brilliant insights into the United States’ education woes—and their solutions—with impeccable timing. Author Clayton M. Christensen, the Harvard University business professor who also wrote The Innovator’s Prescription (HarperBusiness, 2009) first saw the need for a new perspective on education more than a decade ago, when the charter school movement was in its infancy.
Disrupting Class begins by laying out what Christensen sees as the four common purposes of education: maximizing human potential, creating informed citizens through participatory democracy, strengthening skills and attitudes for a prosperous economy, and establishing understanding and respect for different perspectives.
With these purposes in mind, Christensen then gives examples of successful industries that could serve as models for education. Before personal computers came along, he notes, Digital Equipment Corporation was the top company producing minicomputers. But Apple attracted a new consumer base, expanding the demand—and a series of disruptions since then has continually improved the product through the free market.
But the free market currently doesn’t work in education—the government controls it as a monopoly. That means most schools still lack customized learning, which could ensure each child masters every concept before moving on. How can free-market disruptive technology improve education? Christensen argues the education industry must change from the inside out—because without that, changes in the consumer base are nearly impossible.
Despite technological advances, Christensen writes, teaching methods have changed little since the early 1800s—teach, memorize, test, move on. But using technology differently in the classroom could create a “modular, student-centric” teaching style. Like tutors, computers could tailor education to each particular child’s learning style.
“Given that we all learn in different ways, one might assume that we would teach in different ways, too,” writes Christensen.
Apex Learning, established in 2003 by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, is one example of how this can be done. Apex is a for-profit company that creates online Advanced Placement classes for public schools to purchase. More than 30,000 students in 4,000 districts have used the programs, often in schools too small or rural to offer the classes otherwise.
But computers alone are no magic bullet, Christensen notes. In the last 20 years, nearly $60 billion worth of computers have been installed in classrooms, yet the investment has brought little academic improvement. The reason, Christensen suggests, is that schools have crammed new technology into their old models instead of building a new model to fit this potentially productivity-enhancing technology.
Disrupting Class takes a refreshing look at America’s education system and ways to improve it, offering insights into how to restructure schooling through technology and free-market principles.
Evelyn B. Stacey ([email protected]) is the education policy analyst for the Pacific Research Institute, a free-market think tank in Sacramento, California.