Disrupting Class

"The United States has kept its technological edge in the world not because its public schools are sending the best potential technologists to U.S. colleges. The United States is clinging to its advantage because it has continued to be a magnet for the best talent in the world."

- Disrupting Class, page 6

Clay Christensen’s research into disruptive innovation, as detailed in Disrupting Class, provides the foundation for a look at the challenges of introducing disruptive technologies to our public school system. With an initial examination of the struggles and challenges facing our current educational system, Christensen and his co-authors, Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson, outline the key factors our schools face:

  • Every student learns in a different way, making student-centric learning the next frontier.
  • Society has changed the goal of schools, making teachers and administrators jobs more challenging.
  • Migrating from a monolithic method of instruction to student-centric instruction presents an opportunity for technological advancement.
  • But, the addition of computers to classrooms, a sixty billion dollar effort, has resulted in virtually no improvements in student achievement.

The question then becomes: how do we meet these challenges to arrive at the end goal of high quality, individualized education for every student?


The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Organizations Cannot Naturally Disrupt Themselves

"The way schools have employed computers has been perfectly predictable, perfectly logical – and, if transforming learning is the goal, perfectly wrong."
- Disrupting Class, page 73

When we look at disruptive technologies in the for-profit sector, innovation disrupts and eventually eliminates established businesses, primarily because the innovation in question addresses non-consumers – those individuals who had not previously been customers for the established market leaders. In contrast, the public education system enjoys a near monopoly, which provides no place for disruptive technologies to attract new consumers.

When we look at the ways computers have to-date been used, they’ve primarily served as a replacement to older technologies (think paper and notebook) or a topic for courses (think word processing rather than typing.) In every other area of our lives, new technologies have transformed the way we communicate, collaborate, and create – except in education. Our schools, in contrast, have adapted technology to existing models, rather than disrupting how they deliver and measure teaching and learning.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Education Markets Ready for Disruption

"Like all disruptions, it first appears as a blip on the radar, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, the mainstream rapidly adopts it."
- Disrupting Class, page 91

The authors identify four areas where computer-based technologies are already taking root to meet the needs of underserved populations:

  • AP classes offering college-level courses to high school students
  • Urban secondary schools, primarily in low-income areas, where resources are constrained
  • Homebound and home-schooled students, where traditional classroom education is either impossible or undesired
  • Credit recovery for students who need to make up credits

In each of these populations, new education providers are already meeting the needs that traditional public schools can’t. We can expect advances in technology to continue to improve the ability of the software and to reduce the cost of online education. The best news is that as these technologies become more widely available and affordable, public schools will adopt them en masse.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Disrupting Toward Student-centric Learning

"The entire system for creating education materials, making the decisions about which materials to adopt, and delivering the content to students must and will change."
- Disrupting Class, page 125

In the two-stage process by which existing systems are disrupted, the value network that supports our public education system will give way to a new network focused on facilitating individualized learning. At present, the production, distribution, and marketing of textbooks determines most of what is taught in class and how it’s taught. In the future, however, facilitated networks of user-generated, collaborative content will serve to disrupt the current network, finally creating a healthy student-centric learning economy.


Disrupting Class has changed not only the way I view the business of public education but also the way I handle my career. As a salesman whose sole focus is introducing disruptive technology to K-12 education, I’ve had to reevaluate the system in which I work – to identify where my solutions can affect the transition to student-centric learning and how I can support my customers in their passion to personalize teaching and learning. What this book reminded me (and what I see in schools every day) is that educators deeply care for their students – a point which must not be minimized, especially if we desire to assist them in their calling. I am encouraged by Disrupting Class – by the technological advancements outlined in its pages and by the future of our schools and our world. It’s an excellent era to work with public education.

Do you work with schools or have children in school? Have you seen an increase in online teaching and learning? Have you or your school administration made a concerted effort to improve personalization of the teaching and learning process? What has been the result? What would you change?

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Jennifer Knighton

ABOUT Jennifer Knighton

WHO ARE YOU? I'm a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend. I'm a saleswoman, a rain-maker, a dragon-slayer. I like shoes, handbags, a cold gin & tonic on a hot summer day...
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