Review: Disrupting Class - Christensen et al. (2011)

Disrupting Class (Christensen, Horn, & Johnson, 2011) is an unusual perspective on innovation in education, with much of the thinking coming from outside education. The authors consider what innovations education needs, and how this can be achieved by learning from major shifts in the business world, i.e. through disruptive innovations. This can provide some useful insight into how to make education more creative.

1         The Problem with Education

1.1       Education is monolithic

In their view, what is wrong with education is that it is monolithic: it requires students to move at a common pace through material which is aimed at a mind-set which is the generally accepted approach within a particular field. Students are grouped according to their age, and with greater or lesser success, work their way through a fixed curriculum at a set pace which probably does not suit most of the class members. The teaching itself is also not conducive to learning for all. For example, Mathematics teachers tend to think in the same way, because they have come through a system which has rewarded them for being able to think like their teachers, and so they are not very good at teaching other than in the same way themselves. Teachers are not usually open to other approaches which might incorporate other learning styles and intelligences. This is contrary to the assertion that all students are different in terms of their strengths and weaknesses, and so would benefit from a pace and approaches which suits them specifically.

1.2       Education needs to be individualised

Their solution to this situation is for each student to create a unique package for themselves out of various online courses or modules which are suited to their level and learning style. The role of the teacher would, in this kind of learning, be that of a “guide on the side” who assists with the choice and implementation of these modules so that the student can derive the most benefit.

The balance of the book is an exploration of how that might happen.

2         Motivation

One of the aspects they discuss is the whole question of motivation. From their marketing perspective, they consider this question as a matter of researching what makes education palatable to the customer, i.e. a student, starting with the question: “what do I want this product to do for me?” They use as an analogy research to promote sales of a particular milkshake. It was only careful observation of the behaviour of milkshake purchasers that revealed that people bought a milkshake to keep them from being bored on a drive to work. The milkshake was easy to use (in one hand), did not make a mess, and, if it was thick enough, took a long time to drink. So improving the product meant making it thicker and adding extra interest value by including small bits of fruit. Also, they made it easier to grab one in a self-service manner. So, other changes made prior to the research had not worked because they added features to the product which did not address the task which consumers had in mind. In the educational context, the students would like to come to school for two main reasons: to be successful, and to have fun with their friends. Much of what happens in many classrooms prevents at least one of these, often both. They see a future education environment where students can be successful as they work alongside their friends, on materials which suit them. They also see the online education world making it possible for the students to work with others who are not in the same geographical location.

3         How disruptive Innovations happen

They also discuss in some detail how disruptive innovations happen. As a rule, established industries are incapable of real innovation, and need to be disrupted from outside, because they are invested in maintaining or improving a market position within an established business model. All stages in the mainstream model support this way of working, and innovation is aimed at doing the same thing better, eg by adding features to a product to make it better than the competitor’s one, despite the fact that these added features might not even be needed by the existing customers. The point is that it is still basically the same product aimed at the same customers. The real innovation comes when a completely different product is developed, aimed at different customers, people who have not been in the market up till then. One example out of the many in book is the Apple computer, which started out as a toy for children, in no way a competitor for the existing “real” computers of the day whose manufacturers were comfortably making huge profits. The fact that Apple did not have to compete in the mainstream gave them the space to innovate in their own way, until a point was achieved where they not only could compete but could turn the entire industry on its head. The areas they look to in education where this disruptive innovation is being incubated are home schooling and situations where students take part in online learning because of non-availability of teachers. Currently there is not much to prefer these offerings over traditional schools, but they have the potential and are starting to show some signs of making an innovative impact. But this is only the first wave of innovation.

They see education as based on a “value added” model – the child is the raw material which gets processed, and the final product is the educated child. So all mainstream educational innovation is aimed at adding more value. They maintain that a second wave of innovation is needed, based on a different model, viz. a “network facilitation” approach. In this approach, education providers have the role of creating networks whereby various course offerings can be created, shared, rated and engaged in. Teachers would become advisors who help students navigate this world, assisting them with finding course offerings of value to them (the students) specifically.

4         The Challenges to Independent Schools

This book is very challenging to all schools, not just American public schools which are its primary concern. More specifically, independent schools can learn a lot from what it has to say.

4.1       Same old same old?

An initial question that needs to be raised is whether, particularly if a school is seen as a market leader, real innovation is possible at all, and if there is an openness to being significantly disrupted, or whether the innovations that are predicted in education in this book will happen to the detriment of established schools. As we strive to improve our product and differentiate ourselves in a very competitive and tough market, are we merely adding superficial innovations to the same old product, or, worse, adding apparently innovative features which ultimately detract from the old, established product and also do not embrace and add the real innovations?

4.2       What is success? What is truly motivating?

The question of success as a key motivator is very crucial. This can be linked to the idea of purpose (Gurian, 2010). Children, particularly boys, need to feel that in some way they are heroes, that they are doing something of significance. Much of school work is, consequently, seen as boring and irrelevant, and cannot compete with the feeling of pride and significance derived from, say, running onto a sports field “to do battle” for the honour of one’s school, or taking a heroic role in a computer game. Will individualised online learning, as suggested by Christensen et al., provide enough of a sense of purpose? Possibly this will only work if it is in the form of a game such as Evoke (International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, 2012). Although mentioned in the book, methodologies such as Project-Based Learning (PBL), possibly blending online and offline aspects, could fulfil the motivational role very well, particularly since they are based on using teamwork (having fun with friends) to solve real-world problems (significance/success). The idea of the Flipped Classroom (Gerstein, 2011 ) is also relevant here. Online learning modules provide the basis for home or preparatory work, and the real lesson provides a way to use those in an interesting, motivating way.

Being a boarding school, and/or a school which offers a lot of sporting opportunities, may seem like a good way to offer the friendship and fun aspects of motivation. In the best-case scenarios (where boarding really is fun, and not an ordeal to be survived), and sport is too (and not a stressful attempt to win at all costs), this could actually have a detrimental effect on academic work if that is not also a fun experience.

4.3       Merely a guide-on-the-side?

Linked to the discussion of motivation, the concept of “meddler-in-the-middle” (McWilliam, 2009) retains a far stronger role for the teacher than that envisaged by Christensen et al. In promoting creativity, particularly amongst boys, it is important for the teacher to be more than a course choice advisor (“guide-on-the-side”). Teachers themselves need to be creative in setting up learning experiences that will draw on, and enhance, the various learning materials available online. What is certainly true, however, is that schools will need to be substantially different if the teacher-as-meddler is to have a realistic chance of fulfilling this role. A school such as High Tech High (Cross, 2010) possibly proves one model for how this could be achieved, but specific contexts will need to be taken into account.

5         Conclusion

In conclusion, what is required to promote creativity?

  • Schools need to be aware of, and open to, the radically disruptive innovations which are starting to happen in schools. Doing more of the same better will not lead to innovation or creativity. The value-added approach needs to be interrogated and a move to a network-facilitation model considered.
  • Schools need to address motivation in classrooms by providing avenues for fun, friendship and significance, possibly through PBL and Flipped classroom curricular designs.

6         Bibliography

Christensen, C. M., Horn, M. B., & Johnson, C. W. (2011). Disrupting class: How disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Cross, J. (2010, March 8). Larry Rosenstock - High Tech High. Retrieved from Vimeo:

Gerstein, J. (2011 , June 13). The Flipped Classroom Model: A Full Picture. Retrieved from User Generated Education:

Gurian, M. (2010). The purpose of boys: Helping our sons find meaning, significance, and direction in their lives. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

International Bank for Reconstruction and Development. (2012, April 2). Retrieved from Evoke:

McWilliam, E. (2009). Teaching for creativity: from sage to guide to meddler. Asia Pacific Journal of Education 29(3), 281–293.

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