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Published in Print: November 5, 2008, as Scholars Discuss ‘Disruptive Innovation’ in K-12 Education

Scholars Discuss 'Disruptive Innovation' in K-12 Education

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A latecomer to a panel discussion this week on “disruptive innovation” in K-12 education and health care may have suspected that he or she had entered the wrong room.

The main speaker, Clayton M. Christensen, was talking about the steel industry, not education or health. Then he discussed the automobile, radio, microchip, and software industries.

To Mr. Christensen, a professor at the Harvard Business School, those industries offer profound lessons for K-12 schooling. In every case, the introduction of a new technology led to the upending of the established leaders by upstart entrants, he explained at an Oct. 27 panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute.

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Mr. Christensen, the lead author of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, said similar changes will soon happen to public school districts, as providers of virtual schooling gradually claim more and more students, starting with those who are poorly served by their current schools.

'No Stupidity'

The book, published last spring and co-authored by Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson, predicts that those changes will accelerate until, by 2019, roughly half of all high school courses will be taken online. ("Online Education Cast as 'Disruptive Innovation'," May 7, 2008.)

To the roomful of policy experts and educators at the think tank’s luncheon meeting, Mr. Christensen explained that the leading companies did not lose their primacy through their managers’ incompetence. Instead, it was because they obeyed two hallowed principles of business: First, listen to your best customers and give them what they want; and second, invest where the profit margin is most attractive.

Rather, businesses need to be willing to act in ways that may be opposed to their short-term interests, and that lower their costs and simplify their products or services, making them more attractive to a larger pool of potential customers.

“It’s a story with no villains and no stupidity,” noted Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the AEI and the moderator of the discussion.

Mr. Horn, who runs Innosight Institute, a think tank in Watertown, Mass., devoted to Mr. Christensen’s theories, was on a panel at the event. Outlining the application to education, he cited Harvard education professor Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences and said “children’s need for customization collides with schools’ imperative for standardization.”

The billions of dollars that have been invested to put computers into schools have failed to make a difference because “we have crammed them into conventional classrooms,” said Mr. Horn.

Schools and students have not been able to reap the benefits of technology, he said, because of the web of constraints—called “interdependencies”—that schools have not been able to escape, including the organization of the school day, the division of learning in academic disciplines, the architecture of school buildings, and the federal, state, and local mandates that educators must obey.


On hand at the Oct. 27 event as the official “responder and raconteur” was education expert Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington.

Perhaps to the surprise of some in the audience, Mr. Finn generally agreed with Mr. Christensen’s and Mr. Horn’s arguments.

Mr. Finn, who served in the U.S. Department of Education during the Reagan administration, had two main points of contention. First, he disliked the authors’ reliance on Mr. Gardner’s theories, which, he asserted, are dismissed by “respectable cognitive psychologists.”

On that point, the authors are “wrong, but it doesn’t matter,” he concluded. “Gardner or no, I’m still in favor of greater individualization and customization of education.”

Second, Mr. Finn said, he thinks the authors have underestimated the power of politics to stymie the change in education, because in most cases it is the schools, not the students, that are the purchasers of the new technology-driven forms of education.

That means virtual schools will face “resistance and pushback and hubris, and a sort of smugness” from public education, Mr. Finn said.

As a result, he said, he did not expect regular public schools to become the “main route” for new technologies to be applied to K-12 education.

Mr. Finn added that a more likely route was for charter schools and families to purchase the technology directly, possibly in the form of supplemental private education, perhaps subsidized by philanthropies.

Vol. 28, Issue 11, Page 9

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