School Climate & Safety Opinion

Can STEM Be Education’s Disruptive Innovation?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — January 28, 2016 4 min read
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The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true. - Carl Sagan

The phrase, “disruptive innovation” was coined by Clayton Christensen, the Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. The phrase is used to describe

a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors.

Although a business concept, and often used when describing the advances of technology and the computer, the idea has application for education.

Schools are designed in a model that served well but is eerily the same as it has been for a century or more. Yes, schools have gotten larger, schedules have changed a bit, new courses, like technology in elementary schools or graphic design in high schools have been added, yet schools remain, well, as they say, “old school.” School hallways and classrooms resonate familiarity to most who enter them. The design has taken on characteristics of set cement as rules, regulations and contracts define the work of schools. Like cement, change has happened by chiseling away small pieces but voices are rising that encourage using a more powerful tool to break it apart.

Disruption Leads to System-Wide Shifting
We believe that a systemic understanding of what STEM can be and do in schools allows for a locally chosen disruptive innovation that can catapult education into a new learning design. Our definition of STEM is broader and different from others. It is an inclusive term that reaches beyond the four subjects of science, technology, engineering, and math. It is inclusive of other subjects traditionally taught in schools, it demands collaboration among faculty across grades and subjects, and it invites partnerships with businesses, health-care, community nonprofits and higher education.

A system-wide shift to claiming STEM as a disruptive innovation calls for students to become engaged in their learning as explorers, who share their learning with each other and with authentic audiences to serve real purposes. The integration of technology and project-based learning are basic initial steps, as are unit specific partners, and the beginning of interdisciplinary content. Boundaries blur as art, music, math, science, technology and engineering all find their way into history and English. (Myers & Berkowicz, 2015). The achievement gap haunts educators, as does the elusive question of being college and career ready. But pressure on those points has not caused disruptive innovation nor spawned system wide motivation to change.

At what point are educators complicit in the decision about which students will be knowledge workers and which can not? Though not a purposeful decision, it is a powerful one just the same. As children are assessed and measured in schools, children are separated by their abilities and their futures are being decided for them. “STEM professionals are knowledge workers-they are paid for what they know rather than for what they do” (Drew. p.55). An environment in which students are invited as learners, recognized for their strengths, allowed to learn the application of their studies as they are applied in the ‘real world’, and work beside professionals and each other is much better suited for ALL children to have chance at becoming knowledge workers.

[Peter] Drucker felt that education was the key to a better society, one with knowledge, not products, as its main economic focus. Schools, then, were essential in the delivery of quality teaching and learning needed in the new knowledge economy. "...the job of the teacher is to find the strengths of the student and put them to work, rather than to look at the student as somebody whose deficiencies have to be repaired” (Drew. pp.55-57).

Disruptive innovation depends on school leaders with vision, passion, skills and capacity for coalition building, skill to lead non-mandated change, and STEM knowledge (Myers & Berkowicz p. 59). It depends upon the organization and the community that supports it to recognize, call out for and support changes. It requires an organic growing, constant focus and receptivity to new ideas. And we believe, when enough schools and districts push at the boundaries that are archaic and constrain creativity and improvement, their collective voices will be heard.

We have not seen a major change in education from within. What we see is response to changes “from away.” The concept of disruptive innovation teaches us to explore the potential of displacing the old boundaries with open borders, at least in our thinking as educators.

Drew, D.E. (2011). STEM the Tide: Reforming science, technology, engineering, and math education in America. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Myers, A. & Berkowicz J. (2015). The STEM Shift: A guide for school leaders. Thousand Oaks Ca.: Corwin

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.