Disrupt Disruption

With the publication of Disrupting Class in 2008, Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn introduced the idea of “disruption” to the education world, and the effects have been… well… disrupting.

The people driving school policy, from the Race to the Top architects at the US Department of Education to the Gates Foundation to the venture capitalists at GSV Advisors are now rushing to disrupt schools, pushing a faster rate of change and an increasingly corporatization of “the education sector.” And in states and districts all over America, the disruption has occurred as funding has dried up, leading to layoffs, school closures, and profound instability in what has been for nearly 100 years, one of the more stable institutions in American culture – the school.

But why were we – the tech-savvy educators – so quick to fall in love with the idea of disruption as Christensen presented it? Behind the idea that technology was going to change our schools – it can, it should, it is – was a market-driven vision of school that opened the door to “disruption” as a positive force in education.

When was the last time any teacher thought that “disruption” was a positive force in a child’s life?

The time has come for us to retake the language of school reform. Words like “Disruption” and “Revolution” create a mind-set among reformers that make it o.k. to cut budgets, lay-off teachers, close schools, and – at root – implement high-speed, high-stakes changes without fully examining the worst consequences of their own ideas. After all, there’s usually a body count in revolutions, and “disruption” always makes people uncomfortable for a little while. And we have to stop thinking that’s o.k.

Moreover, revolutionaries and disrupters have little use for history and context, after all, what they are creating will be totally new, right? Why would a disrupter have to immerse themselves in the history of education when what they are creating is so techno-saavy and new that will be unlike anything we’ve seen before?

The point is this: Those who think that they can come in from the outside of educational systems and “disrupt” schools are engaging in a profound act of hubris, only rarely are the reformers the ones who fall when the reforms prove less than successful.

The kids do. The reformers go back to the world of business or onto their next cause. And they get to throw up their hands and say, “If *we* couldn’t fix our broken schools, it’s not our fault. It just means no one can save them.” And that, of course, only serves to reinforce the notion that we should just blow the whole thing up and start over anyway.

We can aspire to more than that.

What we want in our schools is not disruption, but evolution. Our schools cannot stay static, on this we can agree, but disruption and revolution are the wrong models. We want our schools to evolve. We need to grow, we need to take the best of what we have been and marry those ideas to the new world in which we live. The patterns of the growth of our educational systems should make sense along a logical path with as few “disruptions” as we can manage.

We owe it to all of the people – students, teachers, parents – who bring the best of themselves to the flawed system of school every day to make our systems of school better tomorrow than they are today. But we also owe it to those people to make that evolution as painless as possible so that the upheaval and “disruption” does not mean the loss of dignity and learning and care for the people who inhabit our schools.

6 thoughts on “Disrupt Disruption

  1. Pingback: Dinosaurs, Disruption, and the Wisdom of Chris Lehman | The Learning Pond

  2. Chris, first of all, I have the same degree of admiration for you and SLA that Grant expresses in his post. Thanks for all you do. Truly.

    Here is my reply copied from Grant’s response (http://learningpond.wordpress.com/2013/03/15/dinosaurs-disruption-and-the-wisdom-of-chris-lehman/) to your post:

    “What frame of time does ‘evolution’ constitute – for schools, not dinosaurs or mammals? If I want to keep my own two sons (2nd and K currently) in public schools – where they are now – will the schools evolve in time to help them? What about their classmates and all the current students that I taught and principal-ed that I see as practically my own? What about the pre-schoolers now?

    What does evolution in schools mean? How long will that take?


    Chris, I spent about an hour yesterday replying to your post (on my iPad), and I lost the comment when I submitted. Sorry – my mistake. I’m going to be more succinct here than I was on Thursday:

    I think I totally understand your big-picture point about “disrupting disruption” and resisting the actions by some/many to corporatize education and schools. I’m assuming that much of this is directed at the corporations trying to manage and privatize schools – like an Edison Corp did. Am I interpreting that correctly? Or do you also mean more than just that?

    I understand your point about the language of “revolution” and “disruption.” Thank you for your thoughts on those important points. Language and shared understanding are so important.

    One of my big take-aways is that you think schools must maintain and exercise their own locus of control and agency for the change they intend to pursue. I respect that and agree.

    What I am wrestling with most is two things: 1) time frame of “evolution,” and 2) the concept of “outsiders.” I wrote a short reaction to the time struggle on Grant’s post and pasted it above.

    Here’s a condensation of what I wonder about the “outsiders” struggle I’m having…

    After 20 years of school-based leadership, I am beginning a new chapter in education. I have joined a transformation design firm that has 25 years experience helping organizations to design the change they want to undertake – to make more significant and positive impact on the world. We are a for-profit corporation. I am wondering if we fit into the blanket statement about “outsiders.”

    I am not interested AT ALL in corporatizing schools. However, I am eternally interested in being a part of the team(s) that help schools and education shift. I believe that external perspective and point of view are invaluable. I imagine that has something to do with the people invited to sit on the EduCon panels. I imagine that has something to do with the SLA internships on Wednesdays. External perspective – when invited willingly – is invaluable. Such perspective is a part of the teacher-student, coach-athlete, director-musician relationship.

    Building on that, I embarked on this next chapter because I see Education 3.0 and 4.0 as profound opportunities for corporation, social innovation, and education to join forces and work as teammates on the same super team. Rather than seeing those sectors as three separate divisions, perhaps they can be sections of the same orchestra – different instruments but playing together from the same musical repertoire for shared good. For example, I think about the potential for a company like Patagonia to partner with K-12 and university, as well as social entrepreneurs, to create a new kind of schooling that crosses current boundaries and blurs the lines between “school” and “real life.” To do so would mean working on the labels of “outsider” and “insider” and thinking about widening the circle that divides those two categories – so that a larger circle might bring the “others” together as “family” of some sort. At least a team, if not family.

    I joined this particular firm because we do not swoop in with canned solutions or ready-made answers. We partner and co-author with an organization. We do deep level discovery, ethnography, searching and exploring – but not as “subject-doctor,” but as co-pilots and partners. We provide support and assistance and capabilities in change process – through design – to help organizations raise trajectories and realize new possibilities. And we do this after being invited in.

    Is there room in your post for this type of school-corp partnership? Or do you see all for-profits lumped into the “outsiders” trying to corporatize schools?

    Thanks for your perspectives and clarifications. Much appreciated.

  3. One more thought. For my own sons – 2nd grade and K – I do want “disruption” in their lives. And in their educations. And especially in their schools.

    But, to be fair, for some of that “disruption,” I mean the kind that Wendy Mogel describes in “Blessings of a Skinned Knee.” Or Paul Tough’s work. I want them to struggle and work at Vygotsky’s ZPD, in many different ways. From those struggles and disruptions come growth and resilience and persistence and wisdom.

  4. Struggling and working hard to achieve because a curriculum is rigorous is one thing. Struggling because you are a student in a class of 40 children who range in learning styles, levels, and behaviors, with only one teacher who cannot possibly provide individualized attention is very different. “Disruption” in the sense of school closures causes chaos in the schools that are left open, as well as in the lives of the children we teach. In Philadelphia, the School Reform Committee is planning to close over 35 schools because there is not enough funding. Mind you, the man hired to “balance the budget” is being paid a six figure salary. How is the disruption of closing that many schools good for anyone involved? This is going to place an added burden on teachers who do not get laid off, yet will not get a raise when their class size grows from 20-30 students to 40-50. Not to mention the public high schools are already chaotic and uncontrollable when it comes to fighting, weapons, drugs, students assaulting teachers, etc. Where will the line be drawn?
    Students will also be affected by the disruption of closures. Some of the schools closing are in the same general area of each other. So, now our students who already took one bus to get to school, may have to take 3 or 4; many of which take Septa (public transportation) and are not provided school buses. So, let us say Johnny has a behavioral disorder, and is learning disabled. He now has to wake up at 5:00 am the latest to catch 3 different buses to get to school, or ride a yellow school bus for more than an hour. By the time he gets to school he was already bullied on the bus, and is in a bad mood. As we start our day, Johnny does not understand the material at all, and his frustration is growing. The teacher cannot make it around to Johnny because the other 38 students in the class also need her help. Johnny now either gives up, or becomes volatile because of the situation. Where does this leave Johnny and the teacher? Well, Johnny now needs to be able to pass the Keystone Exams in order to earn his high school diploma; however, Johnny does not know how to multiple and divide let alone solve for x. If he gives up, he winds up quitting school and running the streets. If he becomes volatile, he will most likely have an altercation with the teacher which may lead to an assault. Trust me, it happens.
    So again I ask, where will the line be drawn? When is it okay to sacrifice our students’ futures, and everyone’s safety to save a buck? I have witnessed kids like Johnny fall through the cracks. Do you want to know where they are today? Well, some are dead and some are in prison for murder. Some are running the streets selling drugs and themselves in order to eat and take care of their family. So, I ask, who has failed them? The teacher who could not provide everything they needed because of overcrowded, underfunded classrooms? The Reform Commission who shut the schools down and placed this burden upon the rest of the schools? Society? Who? Who?! Do you know who will get the blame? The teacher. The teacher should have found a way to meet the needs of every student in the class. The teacher should have recognized the warning signs that Johnny was volatile. The teacher will be to blame for not achieving the goal of having all of her students standardized when it comes to achievement, and will then be fired; even though not every student is “standard.”

    Where will the line be drawn?

  5. In the midst of change it is the ones that matter most that get the short end of the stick. Change is good, technology is good as well. However I believe we need to slowly immerse students into the changes to make sure we are doing them a service and not hindering the advances they have made. Of course teachers matter as well. They too need to be given a chance to integrate the changes and technology as fast as they feel comfortable with. We should not be quit to just them, everyone deserves to opportunity to try things and fail and then learn from the mistakes.

  6. Pingback: “You are ‘the education system’…” | chris.thinnes.me