Classroom Technology

Clayton Christensen: Did He Really Disrupt K-12 Education?

By Alyson Klein — January 29, 2020 2 min read
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Disrupting K-12 schooling. Using technology to personalize learning for every student. Student-centric classrooms. Blended learning.

In 2020, these ideas are well-known in education, to the point of becoming overused buzz words, even as rank-and-file teachers remain highly skeptical that they really have the power to transform K-12.

But back in 2008, they were brand new and perhaps best articulated in the book “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns” by Clayton Christensen, Curtis W. Johnson, and Michael B. Horn.

Christensen, a Harvard University Business School professor who coined the innovation term ‘disruption,’ according to the Washington Post, died of complications from leukemia last week. He was 67.

Christensen is perhaps best known for his work in the business world, guiding top officials from companies like Apple and Intel on innovation. But his ideas about shaking up K-12 were also embraced district leaders, businesses, philanthropies, and policymakers, including U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

So does that mean Christensen really “disrupted” public education? It depends on who you ask.

Horn, one of Christensen’s co-authors, said it’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, schools are moving forward to better customize learning using technology and other strategies. On the other? It’s not easy to transform a large, bureaucratic system.

“I think we had the sense there was an opportunity if people used technology we could personalize the learning needs for different” types of students, Horn said. “That would naturally improve public schools. I think we were overly optimistic that this would happen naturally without major changes in how we measure student outcomes. While the disruption has taken place, we haven’t seen the improvements that we had hoped for.”

And he doesn’t think the book—or Christensen’s other work—necessarily spurred the changes, although he does say it helped explain and champion a movement that was already beginning to take place. “I think it was the right book at the right time ... we gave language to inspire educators and innovators,” Horn said. “I don’t think we’re responsible for the disruptions.”

So just how widespread is personalized and blended learning these days and is it as advanced as Christensen thought it would be? That’s tough to verify.

Perhaps most famously, Christensen predicted that there would be a “significant digital component” to 50 percent of high school classrooms. A recent survey by the NewSchools Venture Fund and Gallup found that nearly two-thirds of teachers say they use digital learning tools every day.

But an Education Week survey, conducted earlier this year, found that 60 percent of educators “never” or “rarely” use adaptive software to let students learn at their own pace. Teachers were more apt to use adaptive software for remediation or enrichment, with 53 percent saying they do that “often” or “always”. The same survey found that just about a fifth of educators say personalized learning is a “transformational way” to improve public education.

What’s more, another Education Week survey, conducted in 2019, found that just under a third of educators believed that technology supported innovation in the classroom. And about the same percentage found that technology was changing “what school should look like.”

Horn acknowledged those challenges, but said that a lot of progress has been made. “Changing a system that serves all students is really freaking hard.”

Image: Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.