Everything You Think is “Disruptive” Isn’t

shifting-conversations-logoThe talk about “disruption” in education has been building for quite some time now, but as with much of the rhetoric that surrounds school change and “reform,” the bar for what constitutes real disruption continues to be set relatively low. We’re told that “Massively Open Online Courses” (MOOCs) will disrupt the entire higher education system. (See Audrey’s earlier take on that.) Or that “flipped learning” is the key to a new paradigm of schooling. Or that tablets and Chromebooks will “transform” the education experience for all.

The latest is business consultant suddenly turned education expert Michael Horn’s Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools, a title and a book which sets the bar equally low for “disruptive” and “innovation” and “improve.” According to Horn, a mix of classroom learning and online learning (hence, the “blend”) is a potent disruptor in that it “helps teachers differentiate and customize learning to fit a student’s needs” (6). In Horn’s world, for kids to succeed “we need to be able to customize – or personalize – an education for each student’s distinct learning needs” (8). This all in support of “student-centered learning” which he defines as “essentially the combination of two related ideas: personalized learning and competency-based learning” (8).

5210463195_2a620dfa4e_bFor those with limited experience with the opportunities of learning online, Horn’s thesis may seem compelling, “disruptive” even. The idea that we can now provide each student with an individualized path through the curriculum, one that uses technology to deliver relevant resources and problems in the moment, and one that remediates as necessary is unquestionably an improvement on even the best teacher’s attempts to do the same for each of her 25 or 30 or in some cases 50 students. Odds are that students will indeed benefit in the context of the traditional outcomes and expectations of school.

But it’s that last part that renders Horn’s and others’ definition of disruption rather hollow. Peel back all the layers of rhetoric and catch phrases and you still have basically what you started a with: a set school curriculum that needs to be passed down to students by whatever mechanisms and practices necessary to ensure they show competency or pass the test. Blended learning is no more “disruptive” to the core function of school than the millions of iPads that current students around the world are using to read their textbooks and do their homework.

That’s not to say, however, that learning itself isn’t being disrupted. It absolutely is…outside of school. Learners who have access to the Web and to other technologies have more opportunity and agency to learn than ever in history. But that learning isn’t segregated into subjects or age groups. It’s not a linear path through a set of courses. Rarely is there an organizing adult that supervises or assesses the “progress.” That “personal” learning that’s happening online is “blended” too, mixed with face to face discussions and activities, but all in the service of the learner’s goals, not some institution’s.

If you really want to see the Web and computers as disruptors, you have to see them not as tools to mediate the current interactions between schools and students more effectively but as tools that transcend the traditional roles of schools and teachers in the learning interaction. The disruption that’s upon us is not about our efforts to create better students. It’s about helping our kids become better learners.





(Photo credit: Luke Peterson)

1 thought on “Everything You Think is “Disruptive” Isn’t”

  1. Maha B

    Great article, and great point! Thanks for writing this

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