CCK08: Book Review of “Disrupting Class” by Clayton Christensen

Nowadays, it’s easy to find critics of the K-12 system and its many problems. It doesn’t matter if you are in the UK, US or Canada; each system has problems of literacy, math, and science achievement levels. It’s also easy to find many solutions to the problem. Some say more computers are needed, some say a focus on the fundamentals are needed. Finding a common solution is hard.

So I was happy to discover Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns by Clayton M Christensen, Michael B Horn and Curtis W Johnson. Christensen is a Harvard Business professor known for his studies on Innovation and the corporate world. In this book, he analyzes the K-12 Education world, what is wrong with it, how technology has been misapplied, and recommends a way out of the morass.

Chapter 1 focussed on learning styles and Christensen notes there are 8 styles. The problem he points out with schools is that they tend to teach to one dominated style (often the logic approach). Early ELearning had this similar problem. Christensen notes that schools need to go to a student-centric approach. This is similar to the user-centric approach I use in my information architecture consultancy.

Chapter 2 notes that it is getting tougher to evaluate the school system because we as a society are constantly changing our school system so the measurement mechanism are always changing. He notes that the measures are getting more precise. HE also notes how the education system ahs been able to adapt, despite its institutional nature.

Chapter 3 is where he tackles the role of the teacher. He advocates that in a student-centric learning environment, that uses IT extensively, that the role of the teacher will be more of a tutor as each student will have an individualized learning path (ILP) and environment. He points out that even though the education system has spent $60 billion on IT in the last 20 years that the IT has always been crammed into the existing structure instead of redefining what the education structure should be around IT. I teach distance learning for a Canadian military school (The Royal Military College) and I feared the conversion of paper based distance learning to online learning in 2003-4. However, rather than decrease my teaching, I found there was an even greater demand for my services as a instructor for grading and mentoring because now the course was available to a larger body of students.

In chapter 4, he starts to move into the practical advices. He advocates that computer based learning should happen where there is currently no intuitionally offered course. So if you are a rural or inner city school with limited course offerings due to budget or teacher depth, you can use computer based learning to complement the core program you have. Since there is no “competition” these course will be successful and build a user base for the conversion of more traditional subjects. This methodology will not only work in the K-12 world, but corporate world. Christensen notes that we are actually in 2008 at the end of the early adopter phase of the eLearning innovation and about to move into the mass application of eLearning. He notes that using the S curve of innovation adoption, that in 2013, 25% of K-12 teaching will be computer based, and that by 2020, it will be 50%. So the issue is not about to go away, but rather, being even more pervasive.

Chapter 5 notes that current computer based learning follows what Christensen calls CBT 1.0, that is mainly and electronic version of a page-turning textbook. He notes Computer based learning needs to adopt more Web 2.0 technology to be more responsive to a greater variety of learning styles.

Chapter 6 argues that computer based learning should not be limited to the 10-18 year age croup. He advocates it should start at age 5 and notes that most language learning happens by age 3-3.5 so early exposure to computer-like technology is crucial.

Chapter 7 focuses on why research hasn’t provided good answers for the K-12 program. He notes how most research tends to be descriptive i.e., this is what we have observed. He argues that research needs to be more prescriptive based on the observations made. He argues that prescriptive research tends to find the anomalies that then show the different conditions for why the observations are different. He firmly believes researchers need to note the environment in which the education occurs to understand what prescriptive measure are needed. This is also similar to my information architecture practice. You need to see how what conditions (people, space, noise, politics, geography, etc) that a user-learner is operating in to understand what technology can or cannot be used. For example, the impact of IT on literacy may not be high because the students only have 1 computer to every 5 students and they are located across campus in a centralized IT lab.

Chapter 8 focuses on how education administrators can manage greater adoption of IT into the curriculum. Here he describes how to go about building a consensus of change by using leadership tools, culture tools, power tools (no not carpentry, hierarchical-type tools), and management tools.

The last chapter notes that a team-based approach is critical. No one person can make the adoption of IT into the classroom on their own. Parents, teachers, administrators, and technology experts all have to work together. And don’t forget the kids! He notes that some circumstance may need “heavy-hitting teams” to transcend institutional barriers.

I found his analysis and conclusions to be very enlightening to me personally. What he discusses for American Schools, is equally applicable to Canadian schools. Some Canadian school jurisdictions have the additional complication of English-French instruction, but this is not much different than the US English-Spanish situation.

This is a worthwhile read for those that teach or design learning for the post-secondary and corporate training world. Many of the same institutional problems exist. Many of the same different learning styles exist.

Christensen noted how the 8 learning styles impact on how content is taught or experienced. This means the same lesson plan may have to have 8 different variations. Clearly this is difficult for one teacher to implement ion the classroom and this calls for a centralized approach to designing the 8 versions of a lesson plan. And this is where computer based learning can shine. The new DITA-XML mark-up language has developed an eLearning specialization to the mark-up language that allows you to rapidly develop training content. Since XML is output-format neutral, it makes it easy to modify the content and add other learning style elements into the topic or lesson. You then publish the content in the desired form (course, web help page, mobile content, PDF), and you also specific which learning style needs to be published.

My only criticism of the book is the 4 points raised in the first paragraph of the introduction, where the author accepts the traditional view of education that it has to:

  1. Maximize human potential
  2. Facilitate a vibrate, participatory democracy
  3. Develop the skills, capabilities and attitudes needed for a prosperous economy
  4. Nurture understanding and those differences should be valued

With the exception of the last point, the first three have a very “heavy” and prescriptive role for K-12 education. I found myself asking, why can’t people learn because it is fun to learn? Why does learning need to have a purpose? Luckily, the rest of the book does not dwell on this underlying premise.

I highly recommend that every K-12 teacher read this book, and that the post K-12 education world can learn from this as well. Buy link. (By the way, I was not paid to write this review and I actually bought my copy.)



10 Responses to “CCK08: Book Review of “Disrupting Class” by Clayton Christensen”

  1. CCK08: Book Review of "Disrupting Class" by Clayton Christensen | Says:

    […] Read the original […]

  2. suifaijohnmak Says:

    Hi Bradley,
    Thanks for your great review. It is thought provoking.
    I have composed a response on

  3. My response to Bradley CCK08: Book Review of “Disrupting Class” by Clayton Christensen « Suifaijohnmak’s Weblog Says:

    […] 11, 2008 · No Comments Hi Bradley,… I read your review with interest. I echoed with your view in that why not having fun in learning. […]

  4. ctscho Says:

    Hi Bradley,
    We must have been turning the pages of this book in synchronized movements:-) I do think this is a significant work in providing a possible picture of some nitty-gritty inner workings of computer-supported, more independent education. I’ve been observing a program like this, and while the author understands the complexity, the reality of implementation is even, shall we say, messier. One concern I have with the book is that while this idea takes us up to the edge of significant change, there is also the implication towards the end that this type of learning can be subject to the same type of measurements (and essentially cover the same content) that “traditional” education requires. This makes the changes easier to sell at a policy level, but it’s still trying to fit an old shoe on a growing foot. The author also suggests that the window for implementation is with learners who would not normally “succeed” in traditional settings. This can be interpreted very liberally, but it would be too bad if this type of learning was pigeonholed as more appropriate for a “last ditch” effort. That said, change is desperately needed, and more power to everyone for working in that direction.
    Thanks for the nifty summary!

  5. CCK08: How to Profit off of Open Source, Or at least pay the Bills « Bradleyshoebottom’s Weblog Says:

    […] Bradleyshoebottom’s Weblog Just another weblog « CCK08: Book Review of “Disrupting Class” by Clayton Christensen […]

  6. bopdilly Says:

    Excellent blog! Interesting article and very informative! I will necessarily subscribe for this blog.

  7. CCK08: Week 10 Wild Flower Garden « Clyde Street Says:

    […] alphabet post and admired his writing productivity over the last few weeks (this week a response to Bradley’s book review and this post on connectivism, for examples). I noticed Andreas’s post […]

  8. Michael B. Horn Says:

    Great review. I think we agree with you that learning because learning itself is fun is a very good goal — and that’s why we think moving to a student-centric method is so important!
    To the point about the old subjects raised in the comment above, I think that’s also a good point. I’m not sure we have a strong viewpoint in this area that we mean to express in the book. Thanks!

  9. Barbie Ortga Says:

    Great post. Have been trying to learn a different language on the net but not having much success, considering going to a local programme so this is helpful, thank you.

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