"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, July 06, 2009

Clayton Christensen and the Innosight Institute:Fixing Public Education

Various factions of the education world are abuzz with the ideas proposed by Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen and his colleagues in "Disrupting Class," a relatively new book about education reform. Just to be clear, Christensen's background includes a previous stint in the business world, a position at Harvard's business school, and a position as an elder in the Mormon church. As far as I can tell, Christensen hasn't spent any time with children in an education setting.

Like many education reformers, Christensen is totally out of touch with both reality and good teaching. He and his colleagues believe most teachers simply stand at the front of the class and lecture. This might be the case for ill-prepared teachers, but experienced educators know students need to be involved in lessons instead of acting as spectators in the creation of knowledge. Consistently describing current teaching trends as "monolithic," Christensen believes computer-based learning is the key to education reform. In a bastardized understanding of Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences (and somehow Gardner agrees with him), Christensen believes every child could learn if we used more student-centric teaching methods (sound good, but Christensen really means plopping a child in front of a screen and keyboard in their solo experience of education. Sure, kids might interact with each other in the virtual world, but Christensen's views imply drastically reducing face-to-face interaction). I'm all for child-centered pedagogies and the reasonable use of technology in the classroom, but there is certainly reason to be skeptical of an education system that relies on computers as the primary delivery method. Christensen never addresses the potential social impacts of his take on education reform.

But computer-centric learning will not be willfully adopted by educators. Rather, online and computer-centric learning will gain strength through providing educational opportunities for students who have difficulty in traditional classrooms. Christensen and his pals suggest this new form of learning will eventually overtake traditional public education; half of all high school courses will be taken online by the year 2019 and continue to expand as the online school market thrives. For an added twist, Christensen and his colleagues repeatedly mention Apex Learning, an online learning company started by Paul Allen. Allen, in case you were unaware, co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates.

Christensen's theory of disruptive innovation suggests that teachers will never implement his concept of "student-centered learning" because it would put the teaching profession at risk. The computer-centric learning Christensen and his colleagues drool over is attractive for reasons having more to do with eliminating teachers and weakening the teachers' union than anything else. While I'm not here to criticize religious beliefs, Christensen's vision fewer teachers and student-centric learning mimics his experience in the Mormon church: there are no paid professional leaders (aka teachers), and Christensen feels sorry for religions that employ paid laborers. Everyone is expected to be both a teacher and student (great idea), but the show is not guided by someone who is specially trained (teachers). You can read more about this in an essay he wrote, "Why I Belong, and Why I Believe." Just to reiterate, I'm not criticizing religion - I'm just noting a comparison that may be relevant to Christensen's beliefs about education reform.

The following is a recent critique of the reform efforts, particularly the stimulus funding. Christensen co-wrote the piece with Michael Horn, co-founder of the Innosight Institute and one of Christensen's co-authors of "Disrupting Class." You'll notice the fawning over TFA and New Leaders for New Schools, two groups on the forefront in the corporate reform of public education. From CNN.com:

Commentary: Don't Prop Up Failing Schools

(CNN) -- Historically the federal government has been a small investor in the nation's education system. With the recent economic stimulus bill, however, this changed virtually overnight.

There is great danger in the sudden and massive amount of funding -- nearly $100 billion -- that the federal government is throwing at the nation's schools. District by district, the budgetary crises into which all schools were plunging created the impetus for long-needed changes.

The most likely result of this stimulus will be to give our schools the luxury of affording not to change. This is borrowed money that we're pumping into our schools, and it comes at a price. Charging education isn't changing it.

That our schools need to change should not be surprising. Just walk into your local school and enter a classroom. Odds are high that it won't look too different from a classroom from a generation or two ago.

Sure, there might be some computers in the back of the room and perhaps an interactive white board instead of a chalkboard, but chances are high that students will still be sitting at desks lined up in neat rows with a teacher at the front delivering the same lesson on the same day to all the students. This might be acceptable if society and the skills many people need to succeed in today's economy hadn't changed either, but they have.

While U.S. schools stand still, the rest of the world is moving forward, and this has a price tag -- not just for individual children, but also for the nation.

We urge the federal government to consider four criteria when creating new programs or grants for states and districts to help transform an outdated education system into one fit for the 21st Century.

First, don't fund technology that simply shoves computers and other technologies into existing classrooms. We've spent well over $60 billion in the last two decades doing just that, and there is now overwhelming evidence that when we do it, the current unsatisfactory system co-opts the technology to sustain itself.

Second, don't fund new school buildings that look like the existing ones. If the architecture of new buildings is the same as that of existing schools -- designed around teachers delivering monolithic, one-size-fits-all lessons to large batches of students -- it will lock students into another century in which the physical infrastructure works against the flexibility needed for student-centric learning.We should instead use technology funding to bolster new learning models and innovations, such as online-learning environments, to level the playing field and allow students from all walks of life -- from small, rural communities to budget-strapped urban schools -- to access the rich variety that is now available only to children in wealthy suburban districts.

Instead, invest in bandwidth as an infrastructure of change. The government has a productive history in investing in infrastructure that creates change and innovation -- from allocating land to those building the transcontinental railroad and the land-grant colleges in 1862 to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funding the creation of the Internet.

To allow all districts to realize the power of online learning to advance us toward a student-centric system, the federal government should help deliver broadband capabilities necessary not just for today's needs, where schools already lag, but also in anticipation of tomorrow's.

Third, don't fund the institutions that are least likely to change. Our research shows that institutions are good at improving what they are structured to do, but that transformative innovations that fundamentally change the trade-off between cost and quality -- disruptive innovations -- come from start-up institutions.

This means that there is a high probability that spending money on existing schools of education will only result in their doing more of the same, for example. Meanwhile, there are a host of disruptive training organizations that are providing comparable educators at lower cost, such as Teach for America, the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, and New Leaders for New Schools.

Alternative certification, including alternative programs from existing schools of education, has grown at a 29 percent compound annual growth rate since 1997. The government must embrace this and back the winners, not defend the old institutions.

Fourth, direct more funds for research and development to create student-centric learning software. Just a fraction of 1 percent of the $600 billion in K-12 spending from all levels currently goes toward R&D.

The federal government should reallocate funds so we can begin to understand not just what learning opportunities work best on average but also what works for whom and under what circumstance. It is vital to fund learning software that captures data about the student and the efficacy of different approaches so we can connect these dots.

Transformation of any existing system isn't an easy process, but ignoring the laws of innovation, although it may be perhaps politically expedient in the short run, will only make it more difficult.

When the federal government directs future funds toward education, having these principles in place will go a long way toward making sure we're not simply charging education, but that we have a fighting chance of changing it.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn.

Christensen and his colleagues are the type of "educators" that whittle education down to a teacher, textbook, or - in the near future - software companies depositing information into the "empty" minds of students (Freire's critique of what he describes as banking theory; Christensen takes the banking theory digital). Each student, on their own path of customized education, might interact with their peers occasionally, but the majority of the time appears to be spent in solitary education confinement. Formative assessment - a wonderful idea when used properly - becomes nothing more than preprogrammed computer-based feedback loops in this technology-centered classroom (can you see how this would be a heck of a lot easier to take this "to scale" with common standards in all 50 states?). I'm all for technology use in the classroom - let's just keep it reasonable.

Jeb Bush loves Christensen's ideas (read his recent foray into education reform ideas here). So does the Gates Foundation's Education Director Vicki Phillips, NYC's Joel Klein, and Harvard MBA types. The idiots march on, this time to the tune of another questionable drummer.

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