Wearing my Futurelab Associate Director hat I was invited to speak at the CoSN Annual Conference in Washington DC earlier in the month. I picked up one of the big themes I have pursuing for a number of year – ‘Technology Push v Learning Pull’ [subject of subsequent post].
I was invited to have dinner at the conference with Curtis W Johnston one of the co-authors of ‘Disrupting Class‘ and was impressed with the depth of his thinking on the subject of education and in particular with his take on the concept of disruptive innovation which sits at the heart of this important book.
The title is intriguing – layered with multiple meanings as social class continues to be a strong predictor of educational outcomes throughout the world (with notable exceptions such as Finland). The 2007 OECD report on Scottish education once again highlighted the fact that our schools are not strong enough to break the link between social class and attainment. As the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu once mused ‘if you want to do well at school choose your parents carefully’.
Overall the book takes a novel perspective looking at schools through the lens of ‘scholarship in innovation’. Typically books about education written from a business perspective fail to recognise the considerable achievements of schools over the last 150 years. They rarely come to grips with the complexity of multiple stakeholders, the conflicting interests that are inherent in public services and tend to gloss over the highly charged context in which the life chances of our young people are massively at stake. I usually read these books with a strong sense that the authors have a narrow instrumental agenda, they just don’t get it and furthermore would not survive more than a week running a real school.
‘Disrupting Class’ is a refreshing read not least because it starts off by recognising the considerable achievements of schools in sustaining innovation as society continues to shift the goalpost of success.
Although the authors draw largely on the US school system for critique and inspiration the depth of their analysis and ambition of the recommendations have relevance for a global audience.
The book calls for ‘disruptive innovation’ in schools applying the theory developed Clayton Christiansen’s over the last decade that organisations eventually fail unless they are able to move to a new paradigm.
The basic argument of the book is that every student learns in a different way and the ‘monolithic instruction’ model that attempts to batch them into groups needs to be replaced by a modular, student-centric approach using software as ‘an important delivery vehicle’. Sustaining innovation that limits efforts towards trying to improve the existing model in a linear way is doomed to fail. New thinking, better practices, different structures and more relevant metrics are required if schools are to meet the challenge of personalised learning in a meaningful way.
Throughout the book technology is given a prominent role as a providing a ‘promising path’ towards a better future for schools. Defining technology broadly as ‘the processes by which an organisation transforms inputs of labour, capital, materials, and information into products and services of greater value.’ Not just supplying devices – although they argue later that the deployment one-to-one computing is an important precondition to disruptive innovation in schools.
This is a must read for anybody interested in the barriers to change in education and is a very positive and optimistic book suggesting a model for the future.
Let me pick out three of the arguments from the book before finishing.
Chapter 6 – The Impact of The Earliest Years on Students’ Success
Nothing new here but a succinct analysis of why schools find it difficult to equalise educational outcomes. The creation of intellectual capacity, curiosity and self-esteem in early childhood are strong predictors of educational performance. The number of words heard by children in the first 3 years range from 48m in some families to just 13m others. Teachers know that when children start school the gap is already massive and often unbridgeable. If we want schools to succeed then we need to turn educational investment on its head and give priority to early learning. In the long term this is the only way to avoid passing educational failure from one generation to the next.
Chapter 7 – Improving Educational Research
This is another important chapter. Educational research is generally hopeless if you are teacher or school leader. It seems to point in opposite directions, it’s full of caveats and disclaimers. But every teacher knows that there are some things that work and other that don’t. As a result teachers tend to ignore theory and take a practical approach to the classroom. To my mind this is not a good place for the profession to be in and we need to establish a stronger link between ‘what works’ and ‘why it works’. The authors argue for educational research to move on from a ‘descriptive’ to a ‘prescriptive’ approach picking up anomalies and using them to refine our understanding of ‘if this then that’.
This argument resonates with me and I would recommend John Hattie’s ‘Visible Learning’ as great starting point for what we know works.
Chapter 9 – Giving Schools the Right Structure to Innovate
Another important chapter that promotes the chartering school movement. But crucially not just to change the ownership but to change the model – schools to meet different needs. What I liked about this chapter is the commitment to bring the new ideas back into the public school system rather than have islands of excellence. The chartered schools are the heavyweight teams that break the new ground but always with the objective of scaling up and scaling out.
This chapter reminded me of my first teaching job at Wester Hailes Education Centre in Edinburgh. It was a purpose built community high school, community education centre and leisure centre within the public school system. Years ahead of its time and doing a lot of heavy lifting in terms of educational innovation. It was a brilliant model but there was no path for taking the innovation back into the system. I just wish I had read this book 25 years ago.