Disrupting Class: A New Age for Learning

Book review: one in an occasional series on works that aspire to reimagine learning in the information age.

Let’s start with the shocking news that Disrupting Class authors Clayton Christensen, Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson present a hopeful view of the world where K-12 education is utterly transformed. In their view, learner-centered teaching plus information technology will mean the end of the century-old industrialized model of public schooling. From page one, there’s an expression of “high hopes.” They debunk many of the traditional theories about why our schools are failing: funding issues, lack of technology, parental disengagement, or teachers unions. Instead, drawing on Howard Gardner’s “theory of multiple intelligences,” Christensen and his co-authors define the core trouble with modern schools as the assembly line-like instructional model. Their solution: radically customized instruction thanks to what they predict will be a fundamental shift in the way schools will use computers and digital media.

Rather than using computers merely to support existing methods of instruction (for example, to write a research paper or conduct an Internet search), they say customized software will serve the needs of individual learners. Essentially, it’s a private tutor for each and every student. For example, offering multimedia alternatives to traditional lecture; pacing material according to a student’s progress; or offering a course topic that doesn’t interest enough students at the school to hire a real-world instructor.

Using data from 2007 and graphical modeling, the authors project a dramatic increase in the future use of technology for learning — even predicting that digital learning will overtake traditional classroom learning.

The data suggest that by 2019, about 50 percent of high school courses will be delivered online. (p 98)

One wonders whether early fans of Maria Montessori painted similarly rosy futures for the adoption of her methods when she claimed she could revolutionize and individualize the student learning experience. Regardless, it is clear that the technology for enhancing courses and fostering interaction between teachers, students and peers is rapidly gaining momentum.

Disrupting Class contends there are many situations in which a student may benefit from an interactive curriculum that can recognize and adapt to a learner’s needs, whether it is delivered online or in the classroom. I found myself imagining a typical English-as-a-Second-Language classroom in Southern California, where one teacher might have to teach grammar to students from a variety of cultures. The teacher may, but likely does not, fluently speak all of their native languages. So, the software could ask the student to choose his or her native language, and then present course material that compares and contrasts grammar structures in English with those in the native language. Next, as the student answers quiz questions, the software could recognize the structures that give him or her the most trouble and review them.  

Creative, Web-based, Learner-centric, Shared

The book proposes many creative applications for customized learning technologies in a variety of subject areas, such as the Virtual ChemLab, which “allows students to try experiments that would be too costly or dangerous to do at their local high schools.” Learning resources and the Internet can open up access to a knowledge base and to instructional opportunities beyond the limits of the teachers, facilities and equipment available at any one school. The authors also suggest that once a useful resource is developed by a teacher, tutor, parent or student, it could be shared on an exchange website where users could review and rate them. There is potential for the learner to collaborate with the creator of his or her learning materials in a way that is truly “innovative,” “disruptive,” and democratic.

Since the book takes such a positive tone, I found myself wondering about the controversy that surrounds Disrupting Class.

At first glance, educators may object that Christensen and his coauthors place too little emphasis on the role of teachers, instead of software, to engage students in curriculum. However, Disrupting Class puts forth a vision of the teacher actively participating, guiding, mentoring, exploring:

They will mentor and motivate them through the learning with the aid of real-time computer data on how the student is learning…Since customization will be a major driver and benefit of this shift to student-centric online technology, increasingly teachers will have to be able to understand differences in students and be able to provide individual assistance that is complementary to the learning model each student is using. (107)

In essence, Christensen and his coauthors feel that a teacher can more effectively do with the computer and the Internet what he or she wants to do with a textbook or any other course material and guide their students towards new insights through Socratic questioning. It’s a model of teacher as co-explorer.

Teacher = Ennobler, Encourager, Explorer

Indeed, Disrupting Class asserts that technology will allow teachers greater time to serve as mentors to the most successful students, as well as comforter, encourager, and ennobler to the most challenged. 

Another potential criticism: the authors’ reliance on educational software to save the day for learning seems quasi “monolithic,” the very charge they level at the contemporary educational model.

On page 72, Christensen and his coauthors point out that President Bill Clinton, in 1996, espoused a goal to “(make) educational software an integral part of the curriculum and as engaging as the best video game.” But Disrupting Class means for the interactive text/game software to be more than merely integral — it’s perhaps the only course material with which some students would interact, outside of P.E. and hands-on electives. The computer course-video game hybrid they imagine would substitute for all the lectures, seminar discussions, group work, visual aids, read-alouds, worksheets, hands-on demonstrations, and other techniques, both creative and traditional, that a teacher might employ.

It’s an interesting thought. The assumption is that most children love video games — and I’m sure most do. But does the blanket solution of an adaptive video game hold much allure for youth who learn best from a master lecture and class discussion (as I did)? Indeed, Christensen and his coauthors seem to dismiss lecture-loving learners (nor do they even acknowledge such learners exist any longer!). As much as digital media and the Internet have redistributed knowledge creation and acquisition in wonderful ways, there is no one-size-suits-all learning model for learners of any age — past, present, or future.

Banner image credit: YouMedia @Chicago Public Library http://www.flickr.com/photos/youmediachicago/4988059217/in/set-72157624951552906/