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Necessary Disruption (Part 1: Keeping Pace With Technical Innovation)

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Surely there is no more oft-used or ill-defined slogan than “21st Century Learning.”  I suppose it evoked the notion of learning for the world as it was becoming when used in the 1990’s but now that we have traversed Y2K without incident and are 10% through the new century I am not sure why we still say it or what it is supposed to mean.  I do know, however, that there is good reason to feel some urgency about innovation in schooling practices.

Yes, Canada’s public schools are demonstrably excellent by international standards, and generally far removed from the sorry state of much of the American system, but the world is changing very rapidly and if schools don’t match that rate of evolution they will inevitably lose both relevance and effectiveness.  Outside of school we see things like robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and genetic engineering that are true game changers.  Inside of school we see incremental improvements at best in curriculum, instruction and organization.  This won’t do.  Its not only that good can be the enemy of great, but that complacency can kill you in a rapidly evolving context.

The world’s best typewriters became antiques overnight when keyboards arrived and every draughtsman has had to go digital.  You can’t keep up with the kinds of changes that abound in society just by improving what you are already doing.  Sometimes you have to change in order to survive.  Henry Ford is reported to have said, “If I had asked what people wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Abrupt change, which Clayton Christensen has termed “disruptive innovation,” is challenging for many reasons, not the least of which is that initially the innovation is more work and often less productive, and also because it upsets the prevalent social order in an organization, but unless one makes the change and suffers through the ensuing implementation dip in order to learn a new way, there is no possibility of significant improvement from the current plateau.  Eventually even “sharpening the saw” is not good enough - you have to trade the thing in for a chain saw.

So where might such disruptive innovation be necessary in public education?  The popular response, of course, is technology - and for good reason because there is a lot of potential there.  However, while a technology-infused future seems promising, a technologically-focussed future is not the answer.  Technology is the horse, not the cart - or perhaps I should say the booster not the payload - or, to be thoroughly modern, the codec not the video.  So, “technology” does not really answer the question since that conversation is primarily about means rather than ends. 

What is it about current structures and processes that needs to be disrupted in order for schools to free themselves from some of their current limitations and keep pace with the change that is occurring all around them? … to be continued

The world’s best typewriters

The world’s best typewriters became antiques overnight when keyboards arrived and every draughtsman has had to go digital. I'm at how to no no appreicate the effort and would like to get more like this.

Technical innovation is very

Technical innovation is very often in this kind of work. Thank You that i could read about this in Your article, this was very usefull. Custom Patches

Very interesting article. I

Very interesting article. I live in Canada but work for an American STEAM Curriculum provider, spending most of my day giving on -line demos to Superintendents and Curriculum directors for U.S. school districts. In my down or spare time I call on Canadian schools, most of the people I have talked to are not "disruptive innovators" but "defenders of the staus quo". We have had some interest. Our program was developed for high schools based on Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center. I really do wish Canada luck in education students for the 21st century creative economy but its been my humble experience that most administrators in Canada are focussed on two things, Friday at 5 and their 55th birthday. If there are any innovators reading this post check out Zulama Modern Learning.

"If you build it, they will

"If you build it, they will come!"

The Tail Wags The Dog!
This is a story of subversion, lies and the worst form of deceit, pretermission.  It might be regarded as a triumph over bureaucracy but, at most, it is a tenuous success in the face of the overwhelming forces of mediocrity.  It is not likely to win any contests, especially since its much longer then comments are supposed to be, but I feel the need to tell it just the same.

Anyone in the education business knows that to succeed you have to overcome the staggering inertia of “That’s the way we’ve always done it!”.  In fact, any story of IT success in the classroom is far more likely to be a tale of “Who you know”, rather than “What you know”.  It’s because, inevitably, where ever there is success there is also failure. Where ever there is a give, inevitably, there is a take.

Fifteen years ago, when I started teaching after 25 years in the private sector, it was made very plain to me that, in a world of limited resources and little tin gods, if I wished to have school-paid-for technology in my classroom, someone else in the school would have to do without.  This fact eventually came back to bite me, but I digress.

My first teaching position was at a small school with a huge student population (fifteen portables around the football field), and I was hired to start a Communications Technology program.  Through charitable sources (not the Board), our Technology Department was given $36,000 to set up a lab.  Needless to say, I was thrilled at first but later shattered when I learned the Art Department was denied a lab because the school was only allowed to have three, ours being the third.  They had been building up their program and lobbying for years to get one but, when we got the funding, they lost all chance of setting up their's.  It did not, and still does not, sit well with me.

The next year, I started a new job at an old school in my home town (my great-great-grandparents went to this school).  It is considerably larger than my first school (more then double) but did not have $30,000 for the entire school to by technology with, let alone one department.  There were four computer labs, 20 televisions, one digital projector and a handful of overhead projectors (none of which were in my Department).  Resolved to make a difference, I began lobbying for more technology and promptly got told to get in line.  It seems there is a hierarchy in my Board (as in most) and, if you are found worthy (ie. Kiss the right ego), you may scramble for the scraps, amongst the chosen few, as they fall from the Board table.

When I went to him, fortunately, my Principal stopped me in my whining and said “Don’t come to me with problems, come to me with solutions!”.  At that moment, my thoughts sank into that deep, dark, terrifying corner of my mind, the one I try to stay out of, and came up with a solution.  Upon hearing it, my Principal bent down closer to me, with a diabolical look on his face, and said those fateful words “It is easier to beg forgiveness, then ask permission!”.  That was fourteen years ago and I only look back to remind myself of where I don’t want to be.

For the last 10 years my school has been the most technologically advanced school in our Board.  Now, with a population of 1300 students and 85 staff we have almost 700 computers in our school (less than a 2:1 student:computer ratio) in 8 full labs, 4 half labs, 4 portable labs and numerous small groupings of computers.  Public WiFi through out the school. We have digital projectors hooked up to internet enabled computers in every classroom (68), the cafeteria, the auditorium and the gyms; document cameras and smart boards where ever they are needed and a host of other technologies. 

Students transfer from schools all around our city, even from other Boards, because our courses utilize the latest technologies in their delivery.  Gone are the fights over who gets what, gone are the excuses for not delivering the best.  We get compliments all the time from parents and students, even those who don't go to our school.  All this has been done with little help, even deliberate opposition, from our Board.
Would you like to know how we did it? ;-)

It has to do with being given "enough rope" but no body has all the answers. "its someone else's fault" is a favorite though. (_?_)

"Would you like to know how

"Would you like to know how we did it? ;-)"

OK, I'll bite.  How did you do it?

About disruptive innovation,

About disruptive innovation, I suggest you to read the book DISRUPTING CLASS

Christenson, C. Horn, M. Johnson, C. (2010). Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. McGraw-Hill, 256 p.

Some comments  I posted on Twitter about it :

  • The way schools have employed computers has been perfectly predictable, perfectly logical,... perfectly wrong.
  • Organizations cannot naturally disrupt themselfs. ...it explains why computers haven’t changed schools.
  • Students want to feel successful and make progress, and have fun with friends. Only «best students» get that. By design, the rest experience failure.
  • If you understand #disruptingclass, you get a clear picture why we are  right all along to keep pushing for Mac in a PC oriented community.
  • iCl@sse is a shift in the learning plateform. It’s an opportunity, not a threat.
  • Will you or teachers you know become obsolete by 2012 ? This is the year of the major «flip» in education.
  • Quebec, how much disruption can you take ?
  • Many a student drags home a backfull of a fat texts containing hundreds of pages he or she will never read.
  • We often learn better when we teach than when we listen to a etacher.
  • Our goal is to shift power in education.
  • Technology has not changed education because education has not moved from it’s traditional roots.
  • Social innovation is the next big thing we started today.
  • Education is not my students’ job. Feeling successful and having fun doing it is.
  • Existing paradigm causes researchers to stop their work when it is half done. iCl@sse produce research for better school.
  • Research shall move toward understanding what works from the perspective of individual students, not for a group of students.
  • School organization’s structure must be reconfigured to facilitate new patterns of groups working together.
  • Democracy itself is a fundamental barrier that will block implementation of many of the changes recommanded in this book.
  • Hey universities ! STOP training teachers for the PAST !

Pierre, I found Disrupting


I found Disrupting Class to be an interesting and useful commentary.  Christensen spoke about the necessity of change and, as I remember, suggested that best way to make it happen was by entering the system in an uncontested location, establishing success and credibility, and then moving laterally.  This, in fact, is how most new ideas and pilot projects are constructed.  Unfortunately, the lateral movement beyond early adopters and into the domain of the early majority seldom seems to occur.  At some point, and I think this is it, there is a need for more assertive policy-driven system-wide change so that pockets of good practice become broad fields of common practice.  This always seems to be where we fail through some combination of naivete, deep inertia (or, perhaps, complacency), weak political will and financial restriction.  What, I wonder, is going to make it different this time around - and if it is not different, what will be the consequence?

Bruce, good questions here,

Bruce, good questions here, but I would like to play the devil's advocate and put forward one of my own: Why?

For most of the years that I've hung around this profession, I've been told that change is necessary. In the late 80's there was the idea of paradigm shift. In the mid 90's the Internet promised to break down the walls of our classrooms and schools. At the turn of the 21st century, it was assessment and evaluation reform that was going to lead to a more responsive education system. And I happily became involved with all of these, to the point where I, literally, have the T-shirts that declare my commitment to evangelization in the quasi-religious fervor that has swept like waves over school communities across the country.

But now I'm focusing on the WHY? Why do we need to change? After all, the 21st century reality has been created by folks educated in 20th century schools?

In the words of a famous rock opera from the 70's, we're "far too keen on what and where and not so hot on why"

I believe that, until we start to speak passionately about the "why", then many are going to resist turning the ship. As transformative thinkers, we have the challenge of answering this question in a clear and compelling way.

Here is a link to a TEDtalk that has got me thinking about this more deeply. http://bit.ly/dcDsbx

Thanks for starting this conversation!


I agree that the first

I agree that the first question should always be Why, and the second What and the third How.  Entering on How generally results in one being lost in logistical issues and drowned in "yabbuts" that can doom an innovation if the Why is not both clear and compelling.

So, why?  First, the current system uses batch-processing to provide uniform outcomes economically.  It's a factory model.  Educators struggle to humanize the system and overcome its structural deficits, often with considerable success but always it is a matter of swimming up hill.  The fundamental problem is that the tyranny of lock-step curriculum frustrates some students and discourages others.  This problem has been exacerbated as the diversity of students' needs has increased due to the diversity in our society and as we have increasingly recognized, acknowledged and responded to their unique learning styles and rates.

Second, as the world in which students will live (now, 20 years hence when they are entering their early career years, and 50 years hence as they approach retirement - we hope) becomes more fast paced and densely interconnected, the opportunities and challenges that it provides become more complex and require deeper, more conceptual, understanding in order to thrive - whether as an employee or as a citizen.  This means that students must be more deeply engaged - intellectually rather than merely academically, as the WDYDIST research suggests.  It also means that we have to devote more intentional effort to developing their soft skills (communication, collaboration, critical thinking etc) so that they can use their hard skills creatively and wisely.

Teachers try to do this - and valiantly - but the system is stacked against them.  Something has to give, or they will.  Hence, I believe, disruptive rather than incremental change is required.  Just what and how I do not know - although I have some ideas - but the escalating intensity of the classroom and the accelerating rate of technical, social and economic change in the world around us requires that we do something different and not just more.


Hi Bruce, I agree with your

Hi Bruce,

I agree with your "why's", but I think that, while they are compelling for people working in the system, they haven't really engaged the critical mass as yet. So, how do we allow some of this thinking to percolate within public schools and create some of the necessary energy.

Originally, Al Shanker, head of one of the most powerful teaching federations in the U.S. suggested that allowing teachers and parents to create alternatives based on imagining some new possibilities would be good for the entire system. This was the beginning of charter schools in the States! The charter school movement has become something quite different.

But I still think that we need some "sandboxes" where we can develop alternatives based on the why's, what's and how's. And if we pay close attention to what happens in those sandboxes, we might begin to see some change.

I had a friend who once warned me that, if I got too far ahead of the curve, I would start looking like the enemy! I think that there's some truth in that.

That's a fair caution,

That's a fair caution, Stephen.  I take it as an important consideration going forward, but not as a reason to hesitate.  The objective is not to "go all mavericky" but rather to face the fact that incremental improvement is probably not sufficient at this juncture and that schools have to begin to think about some abrupt changes that can open up new ways of doing things.  Pilot projects, or "sandboxes" as you have termed them, may or may not be sufficient.  Any decision should be taken with care and consultation but after due process it may have to be bold and it may have to be system-wide.

Hi Bruce.  I agree that

Hi Bruce.  I agree that technology has potential in enhancing the future of public education, however, I believe the real "disruptive innovation" must be around people and the way people interact in our education systems.  We are still so stuck in a structure that groups age alike students with one teacher and expects that one teacher to be able to guide and direct the learning of all the students in the class. Students and teachers need more opportunities to interact with peers, colleagues, mentors, coaches, experts and anyone else that can bring knowledge, interest and enthusiasm to the learning process. 

I couldn't agree more,

I couldn't agree more, Jacquie.

Technology has great potential for enabling structural changes that will make it possible for people (both educators and students) to organize and behave differently, but the technology itself is neither good nor bad.  It all depends on how it is used.  Rushing in with technology before one has a clear idea (not final or completely detailed, but clear) about the educational innovation that you desire, and why that is important, is a waste of time and resources.  So, the question becomes, how might technology create the opportunities for consultation, collaboration and coaching that could bring enormous benefit to students and teachers alike.  There is clear Why (in addition to the two that I suggested in responding to Stephen above).  Now, we need innovators to figure out What should be changed to accomplish it and How that can be done.  Whereas the Why is clear and stable, the How is obscure and volatile - but we need to begin to learn, and soon.