Disrupting Class is a 2011 book, written by Christensen, Horn, and Johnson, that attempts to show how schools can take advantage of computer and internet based software to provide an intrinsically motivating learning environment for kids. As they point out, students need customizable learning suited to their pace, learning style, and personal interests. That learning should also give them the most opportunities for success.
The complication is that schools, organizationally, cannot do the very thing students need the most. Due to the interdependence of the modern school, customized leraning cannot be offered without prohibitive costs. Technology has only been bolted on as an afterthought and hasn't changed the core teaching methods.
Christensen, et al. see a future where teachers are learning coaches and facilitators and software-based, student-centric tutoring programs allow students to learn the material they want, at their pace, with the grading and assessment built into the software. This won't come all at once, due to the entrenched infrastructure of our education system. Instead, it will happen in the gaps where traditional teaching isn't reaching as their effectiveness is proved, and will eventually become the norm as costs fall and the role of teachers is changed.
In certain ways, Christensen et al.'s ideas are similar to that of Cathy Davidson in Now You See It: using technology to create a network model of learning. In fact, the authors of the respective books use the same metaphors, though in different words. While Davidson talks about an assembly line versus a network model, Christensen et al. talk about them in terms of business models. The current system we have, as they describe, is a value added process, or value chain, analogous to an assembly line. At each stage of the value chain, new inputs are added that create value for the end customer. The textbook manufacturers send textbooks to the schools, and the teachers in the schools use them to add value to the students in certain batches: 9th grade math, 7th grade science, etc. The model we need to have, on the other hand, is a value network. Instead of the producers creating value in a linear fashion that is consumed at the end point of the chain by the students, in a value network, each of the consumers adds their own value into a vast pool that can be shared by everyone who's bought into that network. Think about YouTube as the consumate example. Anyone can add value to the network in the form of a funny, useful, or entertaining video, and the benefits are available for all to use. In fact, YouTube is essentially the model Christensen et al. envision: an internet-based learning platform where teachers, students, and parents can develop learning apps that can be shared with one another at low, or no, cost (132).
Currently, schools are only able to provide monolithic, one-size-fits-all learning because, as the authors say, "Today's system was designed at a time when standardization was seen as a virtue" (38). And in many ways, despite our newfound understanding of learning styles, developmental psychology, and more, we still believe this. The fact that we still bother with the same, monolithic standards for every single child in the US, which are the same measures we use to compare ourselves internationally, proves this.
I won't go too far into the author's explanation, found in chapter one, but they do an excellent job of showing how the various pieces of a modern school are too interdependent. You can't change one piece without changing all of them. They are interdependent temporally (with the age-based grade system), laterally (across disciplines- as they note, you can't change the way Spanish is taught without changing the way English is taught), physically (the school buildings are designed to facilitate only one kind of learning), and hierarchically (schools have various stakeholders to make happy, often in conflicting ways) (33).
Because of the interdependence of the parts and the fact that, at its core, the system is designed to standardize, adding computers and software to the mix solves nothing. It apports marginal benefits, but nothing revolutionary because the fundamental teaching methods haven't changed. The software solutions designed are little better than digital textbooks. As a result, customizing learning to aid students is prohibitively expensive. The authors make the point that in Rhode Island, educating a regular student costs about $9,300 per year. But educating a Special Education student, who's learning is supplemented with special materials, individualized instruction, etc., costs just shy of $23,000 per year (34).
Ultimately, technology can't be the solution. It's a force multiplier that improves the efficacy of the solution you already have. If you have an ineffective solution that creates poor outcomes, technology can't save it. The analogy Ivan Illich uses in Deschooling Society is that expecting technology to solve our educational crisis is like the US military trying to bomb the Viet Cong into submission with bigger and more destructive bombs (77). It can never work because the fundamental approach is flawed. As John Boyd noted during his time in the Pentagon, “People should come first. Then ideas. And then hardware.” The fundamental way students, teachers, and people in general interact in our education system has to change before technology can be effective at multiplying the impact of learning. Ultimately, that's what Disrupting Class is about.
While Christensen et al. would probably disagree with much of Ivan Illich's philosophy of completely abolishing mandatory education, their ideas are very similar in important ways. In his book Deschooling Society, written before the internet, Ivan Illich provides an alternative vision to modern education to replace our current model of mandatory education. He describes four learning networks, free and open to all to use (91):
This sounds pretty close to the network model Disrupting Class promotes as an ideal, where students and teachers can trade personalized learning apps, expertise, and knowledge in a mutually beneficial way. The only real difference I see between Illich's and Christensen et al.'s idea is that the latter still buys into the idea of standardization: all kids need to be learning more or less the same thing and get ranked and graded on those same things. If we accept that, then we still need most of the current educational infrastructure we currently have: mandatory attendance and all the associated overhead and extra cost associated with keeping a quarter of our population under control for half the days of the year, not to mention the largesse of a national system of testing and standards.
To this point Christensen et al. describe two uses for testing. The first is for students to demonstrate mastery of the subject material, which is fine pedagogically when that aim is separated from our compulsive need to rank, sort, and compare students. Indeed, according to Cathy Davidson, the original letter grade system arose primarily as a shorthand among teachers to understand how well their own students were grasping the material. But alas, the second use Christensen et al. see is to compare students.
"College admission decisions are built around test scores. The evaluation of which schools and districts are doing satisfactory jobs educating their students depends upon standardized exams. Even the assembly of honor rolls- whose purpose is to compare students- is largely based upon performance on exams" (111).
As I already wrote in a previous article, it seems silly and wasteful to test kids on behalf of universities and employers, and sends the message that our schools are basically factories and feeders for these institutions. At what point did it become the responsibility of our school system to help those institutions choose who to accept? But as Christensen et al. point out, colleges do need a way to make admissions decisions. If they want to use test scores to do that, there are plenty of ways to accomplish that aim without making it the responsibility of the public school system. Universities could easily have their own entrance exam, and at any rate, plenty of standardized tests like the ACT and SAT exist, all supposedly designed to test college-readiness.
The second point, that of evaluating the performance of schools and districts, is an issue inherent in a standardized, mandatory system of schooling. If we truly accepted a plurality of interests, passions, and learning styles among ourselves, and as a result rejected a standardized, mandatory system, then the onus would be on the teachers to make their class interesting and relevant enough that kids would want to attend. Then it would be easy to see who the good instructors were: they would be the ones who could present the material in a way that was interesting and engaging to the students, and actually had attendance. In vying for kid's attention in an open marketplace of ideas, instruction, and learning-facilitation, it would spur a search for innovative and effective pedagogical methods such as the very ones described in Disrupting Class in creatively run institutions like Quest 2 Learn, The Met, and High Tech High. The entire city or town could be opened up to facilitate more natural, integrated, and holistic learning.
Christopher Alexander, ironically enough an architect, provides a visionary example of what our educational system could look like in his A Pattern Language. Envisioning a learning network remarkably similar to that of Ivan Illich, Alexander describes "another network, not physical like transportation, but conceptual and equally important, is the network of learning: the thousands of inter-connected situations that occur all over the city, and which in fact comprise the city's 'curriculum'". This city-as-curriculum is in fact a decentralized education "congruent with the urban structure itself", noting that "living and learning are the same."
He continues: "In a society which emphasizes teaching, children and students- and adults- become passive and unable to think or act for themselves. Creative, active individuals can only grow up in a society which emphasizes learning instead of teaching" (99).
I mention Alexander here because one of the many inspiring architectural "patterns" (or solutions) in his compendium is that of the University as Marketplace (231), more or less similar to what I described above when discussing the potential results of abolishing a mandatory, standardized curriculum.
"Concentrated, cloistered universities, with closed admission policies and rigid procedures which dictate who may teach a course, kill opportunities for learning. The original universities in the middle ages were simply collections of teachers who attracted students because they had something to offer. They were marketplaces of ideas, located all over the town, where people could shop around for the kinds of iedas and learning which made sense to them. By contrast, the isolated and over-administered university of today kills the variety and intensity of the different ideas at the university and also limits the student's opportunity to shop for ideas."
He notes that the key aspects here are that:
A university or school system run in this way could essentially be seen as nodes in Illich's learning networks: natural points where learners, mentors, researchers, masters, apprentices, instructors, and resources congregate.
Going back to the idea of testing, what do these standardized tests measure anyway? Their chief virtue is that the metrics they use are easy to measure and compare. But ease of use does not a good metric make. What higher-level, more important values are we leaving unmeasured as a result of our focus on our precious, multiple choice, standardized tests?
But, we say, how can our students be prepared for the real world if they don't learn certain basic skills? And implicit in that question, is how can we know if they've really learned those skills if we don't test and compare them?
One thing everyone agrees on is that, the more intrinsically motivated one is to learn, the better. Indeed, Christensen et al. state several times in Disrupting Class that fostering intrinsic motivation should be a chief aim of our education system. But that intrinsic motivation cannot develop in an environment of coercion. Because the learning has no real context or meaning for students, it doesn't stick, and kids pass their time slowly learning the same things over and over again to pass the next test.
Yet there's substantial evidence that when someone is truly motivated to learn and able to freely choose to do so, they can learn the same content on their own or with minimal instruction in a fraction of the time it would have taken in a coercive school setting. Think about all the hair-pulling and gnashing of teeth that teaching reading inspires in our schools today, for example.
Paulo Freire, an internationally renowned revolutionary pedagogue, became famous for his work as an itinerant teacher in rural Brazil. He would go from village to village teaching illiterate farmers how to read. These tenant farmers were forgotten by society and exploited by landowners, in large part because of their illiteracy. Because they never had access to resources to learn how to read, they grew up illiterate, and as a result couldn't do something as simple as sign their own name at a courthouse- something they had to be able to do if they wanted to take legal recourse to protect themselves against the endemic exploitation they faced.
He found that, without fail, a month was all it took to teach these "dumb" illiterate farmers enough of the basics of reading and writing that they became self-sufficient autodidacts, starting with the words and topics that were important to them as exploited, poor, rural farmers- their Key Vocabulary, as Sylvia Aston-Warner called it. From there, they could learn the rest on their own. Why? Because they had clear, strong motivations to do so. They needed, and knew they needed, to learn how to read to be free and to live well in their society. I believe it is a mistake to assume that, with the overabundance of the written word in nearly all parts of the United States today, our youth would not come to the same conclusion that these poor Brazilian farmers came to.
And again, it comes down to what we value. Do we want pacified citizenry that duly does as its told? Or do we want ingenious self-starters who identify a problem and take the initiative to correct it? The first is the system we currently have. The second requires that we trust ourselves in a way that, as we've become slowly more institutionalized, we've forgotten how to do. If the basic skills we aspire to teach in school are truly as important as we think, then we will by necessity learn them as a natural part of living.
As a simple example, imagine a youth that has lagged behind his peers in learning how to read, for whatever reason. All his friends are on Facebook, and he wants to be able to use Facebook to talk to his friends. So he begins teasing out the patterns on his own, and if resources were made available to him through a free and open learning network, he would probably take advantage of them.
John Holt provides an admittedly much more compelling example describing his experiences working as a teacher in a summer reading program designed to help at-risk, poor, mostly black kids with poor reading skills.
"Leon didn't speak. When he did, he didn't say much. But what he said I will never forget. He stood up, holding before him a paperback copy of Dr. Martin Luther King's book Why We Can't Wait, which he had read or mostly read, during that summer session. He turned from one to another of the adults, holding the book before each of us and shaking it for emphasis, and, in a voice trembling with anger, said several times at the top of his lungs, "Why didn't anyone ever tell me about this book? Why didn't anyone ever tell me about this book?" What he meant, of course, was that in all his years of schooling no one had ever asked him to read, or ever shown him or mentioned to him, even one book that he had any reason to feel might be worth reading. It's worth noting that Why We Can't Wait is full of long intricate sentences and big words. It would not have been easy reading for more than a handful of students in Leon's or any other high school. But Leon, whose standardized Reading Achievement Test scores "proved" that he had the reading skills of a second-grader, had struggled and fought his way through that book in perhaps a month or so. The moral of the story is twofold: that young people want, need, and like to read books that have meaning for them, and that when such books are put within easy reach they will sooner or later figure out, without being taught and with only minimal outside help, how to read them" (33).
Finally, Christensen et al.'s last explicit use for comparing students: honor rolls. I can think of no more vain or petty reason to test students than to sustain the practice of honor rolls or principal's lists in schools. They are an academic beauty pageant, and don't actually justify the need to test. It is one of the many carrots we offer students to gain their buy-in and cooperation: do well on these tests and you'll get a gold star, do poorly and you'll have to stay back and repeat the class.
All this is to say that if we take Christensen et al.'s fundamental theorem to its logical conclusion- that everyone is different, with their own learning interests, passions, pace, and learning style, then the idea of testing everyone on the same standard seems unnecessary and wasteful. If we accept that, then the whole apparatus of nationalized standards and testing, national curriculums, even mandatory attendance seems to totter. Why have the costly educational infrastructure at all, if these learning networks can be provided at a fraction of the cost?
Christensen et al. provide an example of a fictitious kid named Doug. A star soccer player, academically he is "falling through the cracks".
"She [the principal] has seen Doug in class a couple of times- he's perfected the art of appearing to take notes, but unlike most of his teachers, she knows he's not. He's doodling. Fantastic, elaborate doodles. That first glimpse of his notebook had horrified her- how long had he been getting away with this? But she had also instantly known he was talented. Maybe Doug belongs in a school with more unconventional programming- more art, more creative kinds of writing, more music. Too bad Randall Circle [the school] doesn't have the infrastructure or funding for that stuff" (208).
Too bad, indeed. It's clear that the school isn't serving kids like Doug adequately and may even be doing more harm than good, as by the school's standards, Doug is a failure. But by other standards- athletic, artistic- Doug might very well be considered a success, or at the least very promising. Christensen et al. note that every kid (and really, every person) has a need to feel successful and competent (176). But Doug will never be able to feel competent in that system; the one school activity he does excel at (soccer) is disdainfully labeled as "extracurricular".
Doctors learn that their first imperative is to, above all else, do no harm. Should we not hold our schools to the same standard? Would Doug not be better off if he were left to his own devices so that he could find the "unconventional programming" on his own?
Later on, a fantastic AP calculus teacher named Escalante is described. "Escalante was an exceptional teacher. Why not capture Escalante's instructional magic on film and make it available to schools anywhere?... But these sorts of films have had little impact because they were simply carmmed into classrooms as a tool on top of the traditional teaching methods. Not surprisingly, never has a calculus teacher announced to the class, 'Kids, today is a great day. We have these films of a teacher in Los Angeles, and you just need a technician to run the projector. You don't need me any more'" (83).
I almost feel like that quote needs no explanation. It is the equivalent of keeping our tax code convoluted to satisfy and employ an industry's worth of H&R Blocks, and it sounds like Christensen et al. are as frustrated by that as I am. Of course, change won't happen all at once. The interests- of teachers, unions, administrators, textbook suppliers, standardized testing companies- are too entrenched. A complete collapse of the system is unlikely, instead rapidly increasing costs and mediocre improvements seem to be on the horizon. In the meantime, the disruption will happen in the cracks of the current education system. In the meantime, I will echo one of the calls of Christensen et al.: we need more experiments, more pilot schools and pilot initiatives designed to push the boundaries of what we think we know about learning and teaching and show that other, more empowering ways of educating ourselves are possible.
Perhaps universities have an advantage in that, as more autonomous institutions, they can test new ideas and change with more speed and agility. That is, if any of them are willing to say "enough!" to the current collegiate arms race long enough to care about the quality of their educational instruction.
I'll end with a poignant observation that Ivan Illich made: "The social decision to allocate educational resources preferably to those citizens who have outgrown the extraordinary learning capacity of their first four years and have not arrived at the height of their self-motivated learning will, in retrospect, probably appear as bizarre" (34).
Dillon Dakota Carroll
...sees much and knows much