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Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns

Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns

3.5 17
by Clayton Christensen

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Selected as one of the "Best Books on Innovation, 2008" by BusinessWeek magazine

Named the "Best Human-Capital Book of 2008" by Strategy + Business magazine

A crash course in the business of learning-from the bestselling author of The Innovator's Dilemma and The Innovator's Solution


Selected as one of the "Best Books on Innovation, 2008" by BusinessWeek magazine

Named the "Best Human-Capital Book of 2008" by Strategy + Business magazine

A crash course in the business of learning-from the bestselling author of The Innovator's Dilemma and The Innovator's Solution

"Provocatively titled, Disrupting Class is just what America's K-12 education system needs--a well thought-through proposal for using technology to better serve students and bring our schools into the 21st Century. Unlike so many education 'reforms,' this is not small-bore stuff. For that reason alone, it's likely to be resisted by defenders of the status quo, even though it's necessary and right for our kids.
We owe it to them to make sure this book isn't merely a terrific read; it must become a blueprint for educational transformation."
--Joel Klein, Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education

“A brilliant teacher, Christensen brings clarity to a muddled and chaotic world of education.”
--Jim Collins, bestselling author of Good to Great

According to recent studies in neuroscience, the way we learn doesn't always match up with the way we are taught. If we hope to stay competitive-academically, economically, and technologically-we need to rethink our understanding of intelligence, reevaluate our educational system, and reinvigorate our commitment to learning. In other words, we need “disruptive innovation.”

Now, in his long-awaited new book, Clayton M. Christensen and coauthors Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson take one of the most important issues of our time-education-and apply Christensen's now-famous theories of “disruptive” change using a wide range of real-life examples. Whether you're a school administrator, government official, business leader, parent, teacher, or entrepreneur, you'll discover surprising new ideas, outside-the-box strategies, and straight-A success stories.

You'll learn how

  • Customized learning will help many more students succeed in school
  • Student-centric classrooms will increase the demand for new technology
  • Computers must be disruptively deployed to every student
  • Disruptive innovation can circumvent roadblocks that have prevented other attempts at school reform
  • We can compete in the global classroom-and get ahead in the global market

Filled with fascinating case studies, scientific findings, and unprecedented insights on how innovation must be managed, Disrupting Class will open your eyes to new possibilities, unlock hidden potential, and get you to think differently. Professor Christensen and his coauthors provide a bold new lesson in innovation that will help you make the grade for years to come.

The future is now. Class is in session.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
It's no secret that people learn in different ways, so why, the authors of this book ask, "can't schools customize their teaching?" The current system, "designed for standardization," must by its nature ignore the individual needs of each student. The answer to this problem, the authors argue, is "disruptive innovation," a principle introduced (and initially applied to business) by Harvard Business School professor Christensen in The Innovator's Dilemma. The idea is that an audience in need will benefit from even a faulty opportunity to fulfill that need; in education, the demand for individual instruction could be met through infinitely customizable online computer-based instruction. The authors, all professionals in education, present a solution to the ills of standardized education that's visionary but far-fetched; even they admit that their recommendations would be extremely difficult to implement in current school systems. Still, the authors' unusual case, though occasionally bogged down in tangents, is worthy reading for school administrators, teachers, parents and, perhaps most of all, software developers. Charts.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns


Copyright © 2010 The McGraw-Hill Companies
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-07-159206-2

Chapter One

Why Schools Struggle to Teach Differently When Each Student Learns Differently

Maria slides into her seat two seconds before the bell rings and curses her alarm clock. She's already behind. Class starts practically before the bell rings because Mr. Alvera likes to cram the period full with as much information as possible. Maria glances over the handout waiting on her desk—it's a bullet-point recap of last night's reading, which she digested easily. She shoots a glance over at Rob and mimes the gesture of taking off his hat. Catching her eye, Rob complies before Mr. Alvera has a chance to say anything.

Rob tugs a hand through his mussed dark red hair and pulls out a notebook as the chemistry teacher explains the formula for the thermodynamic behavior of a gas. He tries to focus on the scrawled chalk that says "p V = n R T"—and diligently copies it into his notebook, as though that will change the fact that he doesn't get it. Mr. Alvera has spent some extra time trying to help him out, but there's limited time for that, and Mr. Alvera only seemed able to explain the same concepts in the same ways—just slower and louder. If Rob's grades keep slipping, Mr. Alvera is required to report him. And if that happens before tomorrow night's soccer game, he suspects he'll be riding the bench. But he's got soccer down: he actually feels worse about the fact that after spending last night poring over the textbook, he still doesn't get the concept.

Across the aisle, Maria sits up and raises her hand to ask a question. "Using p V = n R T, how would I find the density of a gas at standard temperature and pressure?"

Beside her, Rob's soccer teammate, second-stringer Doug Kim, looks like he's taking notes. Rob's heart sinks. Doug plays forward, too. Rob never used to think of himself as stupid, but these days, he suspects, most people at Randall Circle High School think of him as a dumb jock.

Rob's slumped shoulders in the third row of the classroom do not escape Alvera's notice, but Alvera has little time during the class period to dwell on one kid. His experience as a teacher has taught him to triage: some students get it, and others don't. In a school this big, what can he do? He's already met with Rob several times after class and given it his best shot. In his own school days, he'd been a miserable English student. Even now, Alvera is not a confident writer; yesterday, he'd had another teacher read over his draft of the memo to Stephanie Allston about Rob's class performance. He didn't want to give the new principal a bad impression. And he's not looking forward to talking to Allston about the school's star soccer forward. But Alvera can't afford to pay too much special attention to Rob; he likes the kid and admires his willingness to work hard, but Alvera's got 120 students in his five classes. All he can do is teach the theory as best he can and move on within the time they have. Alvera allows himself a fleeting moment of regret. Despite hours of extra assistance, he can't get through to Rob. But he knows that Rob isn't dumb.

And Rob knows he isn't dumb. He heads home that afternoon after soccer practice pleasantly sweaty from running sprints in the hot fall afternoon. Unusually, though, the exercise hasn't made him any less frustrated. Maria had been busy during study hall, and Mr. Alvera had another meeting already scheduled after school. Now Rob's going to have to face down a problem set with no idea how to tackle it.

Rob is still sitting at the kitchen table, head propped in hands, when his father arrives home from work. Rob doesn't even look up at the sound of the door opening and closing. Flipping through the pages of his textbook to check the answer to a practice problem, he groans.

"What are you working on?" his dad asks. He sets his briefcase down and starts going through a stack of mail.

Rob looks up at his father. Keep getting the problems wrong, or ask his dad? "I don't understand this thermodynamic gas stuff," he says after a long pause, "and Maria wasn't around to help."

"Let me see," his father says, and Robert shoves the textbook over to his father, who seems surprisingly undisturbed.

"OK, Rob, this isn't so bad," his father says. "Tell you what. Go down to that store that sells the balloons with helium and bring a few back here."

The tightness in Rob's chest eases. Soccer game tomorrow night! By the time he has dashed to the corner store and back with a set of balloons, the evening has started to cool, but it's still in the 90s. His father is waiting for him in the garage.

"Now take one of the balloons and put it in the car and close the door," his father suggests. Frowning, Rob does as his dad says, and the two loiter in the waning light until a bang makes Rob jump. His father laughs.

"It's the balloon! OK, now, I want you to think about the effect of temperature on pressure," his father says, "and think about how that expands volume beyond the breaking point of the balloon's rubber ..."

Rob grins. He's starting to get it.

Rob struggled in chemistry class because his brain is not wired like his teacher's or Maria's. It's not that Rob is not smart. He mastered the chemistry concept when the teaching was customized to the way he learns. So why can't schools customize their teaching? As we'll show, schools have a very interdependent architecture, which mandates standardization. So how do we get customized learning for each student? Modularity allows for customization, so the solution is to move to a modular architecture in schools. Only then can Rob have a learning solution customized to how he learns.

Most of us intuitively know that we all learn differently from each other—through different methods, with different styles, and at different paces. We remember not being able to pick up a concept at the same time someone else grasped it instinctively. And we remember that occasionally a teacher or parent or another student would explain it in a different way, and it clicked. Or perhaps it just took more time. Other times we figured things out faster than our classmates. We grew bored when the class repeatedly drilled a concept for those who struggled to get it. And most of us had friends who excelled in certain classes but struggled in others. Our experience is that we learn differently.

In the last three decades, increasing numbers of cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists have acknowledged this, too. Researchers have produced a multitude of schemes to explain the straightforward idea that people learn differently from one another. This research has bubbled up under different rubrics. While there is considerable certainty that people in fact learn differently, considerable uncertainty persists about what those differences are. At the moment the only sure thing is no one has yet defined these differences so unambiguously that there is consensus on what the types of intelligence or styles of learning specifically are. Food fights periodically erupt in graduate schools of education about what the salient differences are. As our understanding of the brain improves, we will better understand how it processes information—how neurotransmitters fire across synapses, which parts of the brain do what, how these develop, and so on—so we can better understand how different people learn. As neuroscientists help us to understand these underlying causal mechanisms, we will then be able to understand some of the mysteries of how human beings learn and what role our environment and experiences have on that ability. For now, however, the uncertainty persists.

In this book, we consciously avoid the controversies about whose definition of these differences is correct by making a simple assertion—people learn in different ways. Some of this difference is coded in our brains when we are born; other differences emerge based on what we experience in life, especially in our earliest years.

In this book, we use one of the more well known of these rubrics to illustrate what we mean by these differences, and while you might not agree with the schematic we chose, that's not the point. In the pages that follow we employ language about people possessing different intelligences, but thinking about this as people having different aptitudes is fine as well. We merely introduce this theory of different intelligences so that readers can visualize how students might learn in different ways, whether the domain or field is math or music, languages or science.


Research from academic psychologists has set the stage for an escape into a new understanding of intelligence. In the past, scholars reduced intelligence to a number, considered it unitary, and gave it a name—intelligence quotient, or IQ. They then proceeded to compare people within age groups by this measure. But some research indicates that intelligence is much broader than this. Many scholars use the word intelligence to denote competence in a variety of areas. The result is a proliferation of definitions of intelligence.

Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner is the pioneer in this multiple intelligences field. Gardner first posited the idea of many types of intelligence in the early 1980s as he introduced his "theory of multiple intelligences." A cursory examination of Gardner's definition of intelligence and his categorization scheme shows how people can have different strengths and how the learning experience can be tailored to those differences. Here's how Gardner defines intelligence:

• The ability to solve problems that one encounters in real life.

• The ability to generate new problems to solve.

• The ability to make something or offer a service that is valued within one's culture.

That definition escapes the narrow clutches of an IQ score. In studying intellectual capacity, Gardner established criteria to aid him in deciding whether a talent that could be observed was actually a distinct intelligence and therefore whether it merited its own spot in his categorization scheme. His criteria are that "each intelligence must have a developmental feature, be observable in special populations such as prodigies or "savants," provide some evidence of localization in the brain, and support a symbolic or notational system." From this, Gardner originally came up with seven distinct intelligences. He has since added an eighth to that list and given consideration to a couple more.

Gardner's eight intelligences with brief definitions and an example of someone who exemplifies each one are:

Linguistic: Ability to think in words and to use language to express complex meanings: Walt Whitman.

Logical-mathematical: Ability to calculate, quantify, consider propositions and hypotheses and perform complex mathematical operations: Albert Einstein.

Spatial: Ability to think in three-dimensional ways; perceive external and internal imagery; re-create, transform, or modify images; navigate oneself and objects through space; and produce or decode graphic information: Frank Lloyd Wright.

Bodily-kinesthetic: Ability to manipulate objects and fine-tune physical skills: Michael Jordan.

Musical: Ability to distinguish and create pitch, melody, rhythm, and tone: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Interpersonal: Ability to understand and interact effectively with others: Mother Teresa.

Intrapersonal: Ability to construct an accurate self-perception and to use this knowledge in planning and directing one's life: Sigmund Freud.

Naturalist: Ability to observe patterns in nature, identify and classify objects, and understand natural and human-made systems: Rachel Carson.

How does this relate to teaching and learning? When an educational approach is well aligned with one's stronger intelligences or aptitudes, understanding can come more easily and with greater enthusiasm. Put differently, the learning can be intrinsically motivating. For example, in the above story, Rob struggled to grasp the material when the teacher taught it in a logical-mathematical form. Almost surely this form of intelligence is not one of his strengths. His classmate, Maria, has a high logical-mathematical intelligence, so she grasped it immediately. But when his father demonstrated the same concept to Rob in a different, spatial way that aligned with how Rob learns, he not only understood, but found it interesting.

Gardner and others have researched ways to teach various content materials so that they are in line with each of these intelligences. In the book Teaching and Learning through Multiple Intelligences, the authors Linda Campbell, Bruce Campbell, and Dee Dickinson demonstrate this by telling a story about a girl who was several grade levels behind in school. The more she struggled, the more she hated school—and her self-esteem plummeted. When she entered the sixth grade, she had a teacher who observed how gracefully she moved, which prompted the teacher to wonder if she might learn through movement. Without being an expert in intelligence typologies, that teacher could see that this student had the gift of great bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. The student generally refused to read, write, or practice spelling. But following her hunch, the teacher suggested to the girl that she "create a movement alphabet using her body to form each of the twenty-six letters." The next day, the girl ran into the classroom before school started with something to show her teacher. She danced each letter of the alphabet and then sequenced all twenty-six into a unified performance. She then spelled her first name and last name through dancing. That night she practiced all her spelling words through dancing—and performed the dance for her classmates the next day. Soon she began writing more and more words. First she would dance them; then she wrote them down. Her writing scores increased, as did her self-confidence. A few months later she no longer needed to dance out words to spell them; learning through her strength in bodily-kinesthetic intelligence had opened a world of reading and writing to her forever. These skills are important no matter what path she pursues in life.

Gardner's research shows that although most people have some capacity in each of the eight intelligences, most people excel in only two or three of them. His research, while implying the need for learning opportunities that line up with individual strengths, also cautions against pigeonholing people and not developing all their intelligences.

In addition, these differences in intelligences are only one dimension of cognitive ability. Within each type of intelligence there are different learning styles. Some students most easily comprehend through visual means. Others need to talk it through, write it down, play it out, and so on. And a person who learns best with a visual learning style for one type of intelligence—by seeing images or reading text—may not necessarily do well using that same learning style when using another type of intelligence. Finally, nested within each learning style, there is a third dimension of difference. People learn at different paces—slow, medium, fast, and all the variations within.

Given that we all learn in different ways, one might assume that we would teach in different ways, too. But think back to your experience in school. Because schools place students in groups, when a class was ready to move on to a new concept, all students moved on, regardless of how many had mastered the previous concept (even though it might have been a prerequisite for understanding what came next). When it was time to take Algebra 2, even if we had not yet mastered all the requisites in Algebra 1, we took Algebra 2. Some people moved on even if they did not pass the prerequisite class. Conversely, it did not matter if some percentage of students could cover the World History curriculum in a quarter; everyone was stuck in the class for a full year. And when our fourth-grade teacher taught long division in the manner that corresponded to how she best learned it and understood it, maybe it clicked for us and maybe not; whether we understood it right away and became bored with the repeated explanations or sank deeper into bewilderment, unable to grasp the logic, we sat in the class for the duration.

Why do schools work this way? If we agree that we learn differently and that students need customized pathways and paces to learn, why do schools standardize the way they teach and the way they test?


To explain this conflict between schools standardizing the way they teach in the face of students needing customization for the way they learn, we first need to step back and understand the concepts of interdependence and modularity from the world of product design.

All products and services have an architecture, or design, that determines what its parts are and how they must interact with each other. The place where any two parts fit together is called an interface. Interfaces exist within a product, as well as between groups of people or between departments within an organization that must interact with one another.


Excerpted from DISRUPTING CLASS by CLAYTON M. CHRISTENSEN MICHAEL B. HORN CURTIS W. JOHNSON Copyright © 2010 by The McGraw-Hill Companies. Excerpted by permission of McGraw-Hill. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

Howard Gardner
"After a barrage of business books that purport to 'fix' American education, at last a book that speaks thoughtfully and imaginatively about what genuinely individualized education can be like and how to bring it about."--(Howard Gardner, author of Five Minds for the Future)
Christopher Dede
"Powerful, proven strategies for moving education from stagnation to evolution."--(Christopher Dede, Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies, Harvard Graduate School of Education)
Vicki Phillips
"Clayton Christensen's insights just might shake many of us in education out of our complacency and into a long needed disruptive discourse about really fixing our schools. This will be a welcome change after decades in which powerful calls to action have resulted in only marginal improvements for our nation's school children."--(Vicki Phillips, director of Education, Gates Foundation)
David Gergin
"A decade ago, Clayton Christensen wrote a masterpiece, The Innovator's Dilemma, that transformed the way business looks at innovation. Now, he and two collaborators, Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson, have come up with another, focusing his groundbreaking theories of disruptive innovation on education."--(David Gergin, US Presidential Advisor)
Tom Vander Ark
"Clayton Christensen and colleagues describe how disruptive technologies will personalize and, as a result, revolutionize learning. Every education leader should read this book, set aside their next staff meeting to discuss it, and figure out how they can be part of the improvement wave to come."--(Tom Vander Ark, President, X PRIZE Foundation)
Kathleen McCartney
"In Disrupting Class, Christensen, Horn and Johnson argue that the next round of innovation in school reform will involve learning software. While schools have resisted integrating technology for instruction, today's students are embracing technology in their everyday lives. This book offers promise to education reformers."--(Kathleen McCartney, Dean, Harvard Graduate School of Education)
Jim Collins
"A brilliant teacher, Christensen brings clarity to a muddled and chaotic world of education."--(Jim Collins, bestselling author of Good to Great)

Meet the Author

Clayton M. Christensen is the Robert and Jane Cizik Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. He is author or coauthor of five books including the New York Times bestsellers The Innovator's Dilemma and The Innovator's Solution.

Curtis Johnson is a writer and consultant who has served as a college president, head of a public policy research organization, and chief of staff to governor Arne Carlson of Minnesota.

Michael Horn is the cofounder and Executive Director, Education of Innosight Institute.

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Disrupting Class 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
Love-a-good-thriller More than 1 year ago
Clayton Christensen offers a believable and intuitive approach to fixing our staggering American educational system. In a nutshell: people learn in different ways (no surprise here; it's a well-documented theory). Teachers too often teach one way (or two or three--the point being, teachers standardize. I understand. I've been a teacher most of my life. One of us and many of them in a classroom). His solution: Use 21st century technology and Web 2.0 to individualize lessons to suit needs. That's where the problem starts according to Christensen. Schools throw technology at their problems in hopes software, hardware, internet websites, will fix their shrinking test scores. Every technology teacher I know agrees with the author that this approach is flawed and frustrates both students and teachers. Technology is a tool, to be wielded with a skilled hand. Christensen gives teachers permission to disrupt class--shake it up! See what's going on. Here are some of my favorite ideas: 1) If the addition of computers to classrooms were a cure, there would be evidence of it by now. There is not. Test scores have barely budged. 2) Why haven't schools (with so much emphasis on technology) been able to march down this path (of student-centric learning)? ...because they have crammed the new technologies into their existing structure... 3) The world of education is one in which there is little agreement on what the goals are, let alone the methods that are best-suited to achieve them. 4) Public schools have been improving steadily, since 1900, but society moved the goal posts ...changed the definition of improvement... I'd recommend this to any teacher intent upon integrating technology into their core curriculum.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The idea that education reform comes from the minority - those that are on the outside edges of the spectrum - is fascinating. It is encouraging to explore the possibilities of how educators and students can properly use technology to their advantage. Transforming the role of the teacher is not only possible, but necessary if we are wanting to reach different results. The idea that learning can be an individual process, rather than a strictly a group process is refreshing. This book had been recommended to me by several educators and administrators and I'm greatful to have read it. It has given me a fresh set of eyes to approaching some of the problems we are facing today.
Booknut62 More than 1 year ago
I became fascinated by the boasts of the subtitle of this book: "How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns." That is a fairly powerful claim. After being entangled in the authors' fanciful charts and background information, I began to look forward to some miraculous new disclosure on this new innovation that will transform the world of learning. I was disappointed. At its best this book offers some interesting theories on innovation in general. At its worst, it argues that technology-based, student centric instructional tools are going to take over the educational world, and according to the authors, this will happen by 2014. (I haven't yet figured out where that specific timeline comes from.) In the nineties there were individuals who predicted that computers would replace teachers. These authors believe that the role of teachers will be transformed to that of tutors. The whole idea of reducing learning into a software program has been tried. The reality is learning is a messy, complicated process, and just as the authors assert, no one process works. But, their belief in the salvation wrought through computer software alone may be misplaced. This book was disappointing because I thought it would offer some clearly applicable innovative ideas for my school. Instead, it promotes theories and ideas. It makes broad sweeps with generalizations and predictions, but offers very little that is practical for the school practitioner.
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RolfDobelli More than 1 year ago
The very real value of this useful and, at times, pleasantly surprising book comes from the way the authors apply their expertise in innovation to the field of education. By approaching public education's crisis with new eyes - and conceptualizing education as a product or service like any other - Clayton M. Christensen (The Innovator's Dilemma), Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson provide insights that escape the tired loops of argument that often define discussions about public education. These writers' obvious willingness to look in new directions for learning innovation is matched by their genuine concern for everyone involved in education. However, they do seem a bit idealistic, as they focus so strongly on the pedagogical and conceptual aspects of education that they seem to skim over other concerns, like logistics and budgets. The authors acknowledge the legal monopoly governing public education without really addressing the social weight and inertia of such a monopoly. In fact, they seem to believe that positive disruption is almost inevitable. getAbstract recommends this thoughtful book to anyone interested in social change and education, and - not tangentially - in how new technologies affect societies.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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