How to change the way kids learn

forbes_0811_p081_f1By Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson 08.11.08

Computers have failed to improve education. That’s because no one’s gotten disruptive with technology.

Why do U.S. public schools struggle so to improve? Everyone has a theory. Is it a lack of money? Maybe, but the U.S. spends more per student ($9,000) on K-12 public education than all but a few countries and still lags in results. Also blamed: student disaffection, parental neglect, intransigent teachers unions and flaws in the way we measure performance.

Elements of all these play a part, but the underlying problem is deeper. It comes down to the fact that schools aren’t motivating the children, and they are unmotivating because they are far too monolithic and standardized. The system doesn’t account for the fact that every student learns in a different way. Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner first posited the theory of “multiple intelligences” in the 1980s, and it has gained wide acceptance since. His classification system now numbers eight kinds of intelligence. You cannot compare the wiring of Michael Jordan’s brain (a kinesthetic intelligence) to that of a Frank Lloyd Wright (spatial) or a Walt Whitman (linguistic). Every student has a different blend of intelligence and within that a different learning style and pace.

In the 1800s teachers in a one-room schoolhouse would have no problem customizing their approach to each student. But at the turn of the 19th century, as schools filled up with 30 or 40 kids in a room, standardization became the norm. Schools turned into factories and ever since have resisted all efforts to break from a monolithic batch-process approach. Students who succeed today do so because their intelligence happens to match the dominant paradigm in use in a particular classroom, or they’ve somehow found a way to adapt to it.

If the goal is to educate all students so they have an all-American shot at realizing their dreams, we must find a way to disrupt the monolithic classroom and move toward a student-centric model. The way to get there is with computer-based learning. Technology offers students the ability to learn in ways that match their intelligence types in the places and at the pace they prefer. The hardware exists. The software is emerging. Now all that has to change is the system around it. Change will face mighty resistance, but we predict it will happen in the next ten years.

Skeptics will say the U.S. has spent $60 billion putting computers into schools over the last two decades and has still failed to transform the classroom—save possibly to increase costs and draw resources away from other school priorities. This should come as no surprise. Schools have done what virtually every organization does when implementing an innovation: cram it into its existing operating model to sustain what it already does. Merrill Lynch developed a solid online trading system to be used by customers. It could have fended off the E-Trades of the world. But all Merrill did was give the new system to its army of brokers so they could handle existing clients better. It didn’t transform anything. This is perfectly predictable, perfectly logical—and perfectly wrong.

The way to implement an innovation so it will transform an organization is to implement it disruptively. That means not attaching it to the existing paradigm and serving existing customers but targeting those not being served or not buying what’s served, people we call nonconsumers. That way, all the new approach has to do is be better than a nonexistent alternative.

Disruptive innovations tend to be simpler and more affordable than existing products. This allows them to take root in undemanding applications within a new market or arena of competition. They start to handle more complicated problems, and then they take over and supplant the old way of doing things. Sony chose to sell its tinny little transistor radio to teenagers who had never had a radio because they couldn’t afford a tabletop RCA model. Bit by bit, that radio improved until, at some point, it became a superior alternative. Japanese car companies did this to Detroit. Nucor’s mini mills did it to U.S. Steel. Google started out with ads from bicycle repair shops.

Computer-based learning is a radar blip now but is moving up the adoption curve we’ve seen in many industries (see chart above). Enrollments in state-accredited online courses went from 45,000 in 2000 to roughly 1 million today. That accounts for 1% of all courses, but we estimate that, given a looming shortage of teachers and widespread state budget crises, online learning will continue to gain market share until, by 2019, it surpasses live instruction.


The above article published on August 11, 2008, is reprinted from Forbes to give us, especially the reformers among us, an insight into “disruptive innovation” in the educational setting.

In spite of the fact that we’re probably years away from making the computer, as we know it, an ubiquitous tool in the classroom, other reasonably-priced options have been developed and continue to be developed to replace the computer.  The hard-charging evolution of the original cell phones into smartphones that can do most of the functions of an Internet-connected computer and the continuing innovations in the development of software to handle less expensive yet more effective self-paced educational courses online available 24/7 constitute just about the “disruptive innovation” we’re going to see to counteract the increasing cost of education and the declining quality as well.

What was once decried as the lack of “social interactions” among student peers and teachers in distance/online learning can now be mitigated with the video, audio, teleconferencing, texting and Internet capabilities of smartphones.  Inexpensive smartphones with all the bells and whistles will constitute, to my estimation, the next frontier in the delivery of quality education (because it will have the opportunity to be critiqued and improved by the best subject matter experts [SMA] in each field of knowledge) in a manner which will address the issue of “multiple intelligences”, in part addressing the “motivation” issue as well. Just like, how do you motivate a third grade student who is at pace with a fifth grader (aside from having him leapfrog third and fourth grades if you can) when you, as the teacher, are forced to use second grade resources and instruction to carry on a meaningful communication or relationship with the rest of your third grade class?

How does this “trivia” figure in mother tongue-based multilingual education in the Philippines?  For one, there’s going to be a more meaningful dialog in the home among parents and their school children and other support groups outside the classroom, including teachers, regarding the child’s curricular activities–a dialog facilitated by the use of the mother tongue (L1), or L2 (Filipino/English) and smartphones whenever necessary.  In a third world country as the Philippines, transitioning from the now familiar, almost ubiquitous cell phone to a smartphone is, skills-wise and financially speaking, a more feasible alternative to acquiring an Internet computer or netbook.

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