Sunday, September 27, 2009

disruptive education

There is a business principle called disruptive innovation, related to disruptive technology and a recent example is when the television networks filed suit against DVR manufacturers to stop production of products they thought would be the death of their industry. Now they are beginning to acknowledge that the DVRs that they fought against may actually be the technology that saves their butts. Changing lifestyles mean that people are no longer glued to their sets for an entire evening and the DVR allows them to follow network series on their own schedules. Had networks been more aware of the principles of disruptive innovation, they might have saved millions of dollars in legal fees as they attempted to forestall the inevitable.

I may not understand the concept completely, but I have an example from education.
Sometime back in the late 1700’s a child in Pestalozzi’s school challenged his teacher, “You want me to learn the word ladder, but you show me a picture. Wouldn’t it be better to go look at the real ladder in the shed?” The teacher was frustrated by the child’s remark and explained that he would rather not take the whole class outside the building just to look at a ladder. Later, the same child was shown the picture of a window and again interrupted the teacher. “Wouldn’t it be better to talk about the window that is right there? We don’t even have to go outside to look at it!” The teacher asked Pestalozzi about the incident and was informed that the child was right. Whenever possible children should learn from the real world and the experiences it offers.
Most teachers are reluctant to change what they are doing in the middle of a lesson plan, allowing for children to express their own learning needs. Children are to sit complaisant, not disrupt. But the idea of disruptive education is that often what one regards as disruptive or interruption presents a learning experience that may have value beyond our expectations. The illustration shows the effect of "disruptive technology". Imagine what can happen when a teacher knows to utilize the child's disruption for its value in supercharging learning. As shown in the cart, you see dramatic growth.

I have witnessed disruptive innovation a number of times at Clear Spring School. In fact, it is an almost every day occurrence. It may start with a simple question when a child asks, "Can we do this?" A teacher sticking to well prepared lesson plans says no... and misses the opportunity to open doors of special interest that lead to lifelong learning.


  1. Anonymous4:46 AM

    Not an easy thing, seeing a disruption as an opportunity for better teaching.


  2. I agree with Anonymous. I think this either takes training to learn to think like this or it takes a person with a highly adaptive, spur of the moment mind.

  3. When you begin to associate disruption with innovation and work within a setting that allows quick change and adaptation, it is easier to get the hang of it. And a good teacher is often herding cats toward the desired outcome. and the expected outcome may have some effect. Is your desired outcome to make a mark on a standardized test, or to create a life-long learner?

    Rigid, top down structures in which a teacher's performance is based on his or her maintaining discipline and quiet in the classroom does not encourage teacher innovation.

  4. I think it's worthwhile to note that in the story the teacher was not really teaching the child anything. If the child had no idea what a ladder was then how would he know that it is out in the shed? Obviously he had already been in a shed and knew what it was. Obviously he knew what windows are as well. The kid was criticizing the teacher, but not really interested in learning. He already knew the subject matter. the teacher didn't need to drag the whole class to the shed, just the ones who didn't know what a ladder was.

    Part of the problem is that the teacher has to deal with a large number of students, some that need to learn the material and some who don't. The class as a whole tends to move through at the pace of the slower students.

    If teachers wanted to make good use of technology then lessons could be made available for topics in a Learning Management System. Allowing the students to self pace and progress through the curriculum. Of course the teachers would need to understand how to use a LMS, but it would be better than attempting to use a laptop in place of pen and paper or chalkboard. That could be a real disruptive technology in education.

  5. I don't know how a Learning Management System works. I'll try to become more familiar. The lesson in Pestalozzi's school classroom doesn't suggest whether or not the kid knew in advance what a ladder or window were but whether an illustration of a window or ladder would suffice in place of the real thing. Surely seeing a familiar object like a ladder would not be worth in most teacher's opinions, a trip to the shed. But for learning to be as active as the child suggested is a worthwhile lesson consistent with what all progressive educators have agreed.

  6. I'm sure active learning, when possible, is probably the best approach. But the story does not support that. The child suggests an alternate method, the teacher gets annoyed, then Pestalozzi says the kid was right. This is not an illustration of why or how it works better, just an appeal to a higher authority. Sort of like appealing to the authority of "all progressive educators".

    For the story to be effective it would be better for the child to be confused by the picture in a way that would not happen with a real life object. For example asking why the teacher can't just pass around a ladder in the classroom (obvious failure to comprehend scale).

    My earlier comments were in regards to the student in the story. We both agree he was disruptive.

  7. Anonymous7:02 PM

    I work with Education Generation to provide scholarships to students around the world. We are looking to partner up with organization in the developing world that are using 'disruptive education,' do let us know if you find any good examples. Great Post!