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Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns / Edition 1

Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns / Edition 1

Pub. Date:
McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing
Pub. Date:
McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing
Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns / Edition 1

Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns / Edition 1

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“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

“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 Gergen, US Presidential Advisor

“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

“Full of strategies that are both bold and doable, this brilliant and seminal book shows how we can utilize technology to customize learning. I recommend it most enthusiastically.”
-Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester (NY) Teachers Association, and vice president of the American Federation of Teachers

"Finally we have a book from the business community that gets it. Disrupting Class from Clayton Christensen and colleagues points out that motivation is central to learning and that if schools and learning are to be transformed as they must be, motivation must be at the center of the work. They also point out how technology should be used to personalize learning and what the future might look like for schools. A must read for anyone thinking and worrying about where education should be headed."
-Paul Houston, Executive Director, American Association of School Administrators

“Powerful, proven strategies for moving education from stagnation to evolution.”
-Christopher Dede, Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies, Harvard Graduate School of Education

“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

“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

“The genius of Disrupting Class is the spotlight the book throws on how we can tap children’s early enthusiasm for school by letting them learn in best-choice, individualized ways, the teacher’s role transformed from ‘sage on stage’ to ‘guide on the side.’”
Seattle Times & Post-Intelligencer

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780071592062
Publisher: McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing
Publication date: 05/14/2008
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 9.08(w) x 6.10(h) x 0.91(d)

About the Author

Author Information
Clayton M. Christensen
is the Robert and Jane Cizik Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, and is widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost experts on innovation and growth. He is author or coauthor of five books including the New York Times bestsellers, The Innovator's Dilemma and The Innovator's Solution.
Michael Horn is the co-founder and Executive Director, Education of Innosight Institute, a non-profit think tank devoted to applying the theories of disruptive innovation to problems in the social sector. Tech&Learning magazine named him to its list of the 100 most important people in the creation and advancement of the use of technology in education. He holds an AB from Yale and an MBA from Harvard.
Curtis Johnson, once a teacher and later a college president, is a writer and consultant. He was head of the public policy research organization that launched the idea of chartered schools and chief of staff to former governor Arne Carlson of Minnesota. Co-author of three books on how metropolitan regions have to adapt to new realities to be successful places, Johnson is a partner with the Citistates Group and the managing partner of Education Evolving, a project of the Center for Policy Studies. He is a graduate of Baylor University with a PhD from the College of Education at the University of Texas.

Read an Excerpt


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.

Table of Contents

Randall Circle High School
Chapter 1 Why Schools Struggle to Teach Differently When Each Student Learns Differently
Chapter 2 Making the Shift: Schools Meet Society’s Jobs
Chapter 3 Crammed Classroom Computers
Chapter 4 Disruptively Deploying Computers
Chapter 5 The System for Student-Centric Learning
Chapter 6 The Impact of the Earliest Years on Students’ Success
Chapter 7 Why So Many Students Seem Unmotivated
Chapter 8 Improving Education Research
Chapter 9 Organizing to Innovate

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