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Book Review of 'Disrupting Class' by Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn, and Curtis W. Johnson

By John Sener / December 2009

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It seems like everyone these days wants to "fix" American education—including the business community, which has produced a steady stream of books offering business-oriented solutions to the education "problem." Disrupting Class, by Christensen, Horn, and Johnson, was last year's star solutions manual, receiving much attention and acclaim from not only the business community, but also education leaders, as evidenced by favorable reviews and testimonials found on a web site related to the book.

Strategy + Business magazine named Disrupting Class the best human capital book of 2008, while Business Week put it on a list of "10 Best Innovation & Design Books of 2008."

One year later, Disrupting Class still seems to have legs. Newsweek put it on its 50 "must read" books this past summer; one of its co-authors was a keynote speaker at the 2009 National Educational Computing Conference in July; and the authors maintain a blog on their web site.

Taken at face value, Disrupting Class offers a comprehensive solution to the current ills of education. Its subtitle proclaims, "Disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns."

Based on the recommendation of several colleagues, I read the book last summer. Although the book focuses on K-12 education, I initiated a discussion with colleagues who work in online higher education to seek their opinions. Their reactions were almost universally dismissive of the book and its recommendations, which were seen as overblown and largely irrelevant to the higher education arena.

Nonetheless, one can't help but wonder about the effects the book has had on education policy. For instance, the Obama Administration's description of a new Online Skills Laboratory as part of its recently-proposed American Graduation Initiative contains echoes of Disrupting Class's recommendations, noting that "online educational software has the potential to help students learn more in less time" and that "interactive software can tailor instruction to individual students like human tutors do."

Still, after re-reading the book one year later, it's hard to understand its staying power based on the content. Its central argument is certainly of interest: The way American students learn is too standardized. Different students learn in different ways. To remain competitive globally, the U.S. needs to "rethink our understanding of intelligence, reevaluate our educational system, and reinvigorate our commitment to learning."

Fortunately, computer-based online learning is a "student-centric technology" which will enable truly individualized learning and thus help many more students succeed. Disruptive innovation will make this possible by circumventing roadblocks in the system. The transformation will be breathtakingly fast and thorough. The authors predict that half of all high school courses in U.S. K-12 public education will be online in just 10 years—and 80 percent by 2024.

Will it actually happen? Is the question even important?

What Is U.S. Education Really About?
One of the most frustrating aspects of Disrupting Class is that it builds a relatively solid base for its case and starts off in a variety of promising directions . But its prescriptions go awry.

For example, the very first page starts with four "common" and "high" hopes for schools. "Employment" is no big surprise, but the other three—citizenship ("an informed electorate"), nurturing understanding of differences among people, and maximizing human potential—are welcome inclusions that commonly get short shrift these days. Bravo so far.

The book also offers an uncommonly optimistic and accurate assessment of American public schools, which have not declined, as is commonly perceived, but have improved greatly over the past century. It is the pace of improvement that has not kept up with expectations or needs (p. 44).

Unfortunately, the authors go astray for the same reason that all business-oriented commentators do when they try to "fix" American schools: they fail to see education as a complex system.

Compared to education, the purpose of business is relatively clear: profit. Although it's not the only force that animates business practice (the "triple bottom line" concept has made some limited headway, for example) financial performance is, literally, business's bottom line. By contrast, education is designed to fulfill a variety of different and often competing societal purposes: provide custodial care for the young, create good employees and citizens, ameliorate societal inequities by offering social services, maximize human potential, oh yeah, and learning.

Because business is actually simpler than education, applying a business model to education oversimplifies it, resulting in solutions that are unrealistic, naive, and would be disastrous if actually implemented. As a comprehensive solution taken at face value, Disrupting Class sadly fits this description as well, although to its credit the book offers much more of value than most would-be "fix it" books produced by business-oriented authors.

The disruptive innovation model that drives the book's main premise has two phases. First, disruptive innovations gain a market foothold by "competing against non-consumption," that is, reaching a new market of previous "non-consumers," even though the supposed innovations are generally (perceived to be) inferior in quality. For example, the personal computer established a market foothold as a children's toy (p. 48). In phase two, the product or service disrupts the "established plane of competition" by improving to the point that it eventually displaces the established ones, for instance the way microcomputers displaced mainframes and minicomputers. Established companies and products usually cannot stop this tidal wave because they have too much invested in their established processes and features.

Phase one of the model actually works pretty well when applied to online learning in higher education. Online learning gained a foothold by providing convenient and flexible access to learners who otherwise would have remained non-consumers. However, at the K-12 level, online learning is commonly seen as best for situations in which classroom instruction is not available—virtual schools for rural students, credit recovery, courses not offered by the students' school, and so on. In both cases, established perception (though not necessarily reality) was that online learning is inferior, but better than nothing. So far so good.

Unfortunately, the disruptive innovation model falls apart at the second phase. Curiously, the book points out some of the reasons: Public education is "unique" in that "laws and regulations make [it] a virtual monopoly," which makes it very difficult for new business models to compete (p. 51). Since public education mandates near-universal attendance, there is no large pool of non-consumers nor a large group of start-up companies to generate disruptive innovation (p. 60).

Even more curiously, although the authors cannot name a single instance of a for-profit company implementing a disruptive innovation within its core business (p. 61), they provide examples of how public education has actually responded remarkably well to society's requests to re-invent itself, even though "society has moved the goal posts on schools" by imposing new measures of performance while expanding the societal roles of public education (pp. 52-64).

This should have been a clue to the obvious. Public education is fundamentally different from business, so to what extent can disruptive innovation theory actually apply? It falls apart in the second phase precisely because education is not business. "Market share" is largely irrelevant, "performance improvements" are multi-variant and not amenable to easy categorization, and teachers are more than just "labor."

The solutions offered by Disrupting Class similarly fall apart upon closer inspection in several important ways.

1. Individualized inputs, standardized results. Christensen et al. make the case that students need customized learning because they all learn differently, but the existing structure makes it very hard for public schools to deliver customized or modularized learning.

These ideas are not particularly novel. Individualized instruction has been around in various forms for several decades at least. The problem is the solution that's proposed supports customized inputs, but standardized results: "Since learning will no longer be as variable, we can compare students not by what percentage of the material they have mastered, but by comparing how far they have moved through a body of material" (pp. 111-112).

Eliminating "variability" by trying to squeeze all students into an existing narrow model of what constitutes high achievement (as personified through the book's fictional character Maria Solomon) is not progress. A better answer is to expand the notion of what constitutes high achievement so that there are multiple paths of recognized success besides, for instance, knowing calculus or being college-bound. Assessing student progress as distance traveled through a "body of material" is equally misguided: of what use, for example, will this fixed body of material be for helping today's students who will be working at jobs and having to solve problems which don't yet exist?

2. Fixation on multiple intelligences. The mistaken desire for reliable, standardized results also relates closely to the book's fixation on multiple intelligences. The concept of multiple intelligences has made a groundbreaking contribution to education; but Disrupting Class takes this pony and rides it into the ground, mainly by relying on it as the sole basis for pedagogical and curricular reform.

The authors seem to assume that a learner's intelligence type is fixed, so that, for example, teachers have to find ways to present material one way to students with bodily-kinesthetic intelligence and another way to students with logical-mathematical intelligence, and then find ways to assess the two comparatively (p. 112). They envision "user networks" of parents, students, and so forth, sharing resources keyed to intelligence type (p. 138)—as if most parents or students have a clue about multiple intelligences theory!

Intelligence types are presented in the book as the sole customizing force that should drive prescriptive research design (pp. 167-170), when in fact far more sophisticated forms of customization are available and in use. Even more dubious is the notion that intelligence types and other key factors such as socioeconomic background can be easily captured in a unitary, agreed-upon scheme, and that the resulting approach should be institutionalized at the school level, rather than modularized within each school, or classroom, or learning experience.

The research solutions proposed by Disrupting Class also start out promising, but then go astray. The suggestion that educational research should focus on specific situations and "anomalies" rather than average tendencies (pp. 165-67) is sound and well-suited for action research. But the notion that education should produce a body of research which allows "people to predict with great certainty the results of actions" (p. 161) is not sound, nor is the call for "prescriptive research" (pp. 167-170).

While the underlying rational-scientific philosophical urge for clarity and certainty probably explains why Disrupting Class promotes randomized controlled trials (isn't randomization the very antithesis of customization?) as the preferred method for educational research, it flies in the face of what complexity theory is teaching us about complex adaptive systems such as education. "People are still arguing over and researching what the proper categories should be in this still nascent field of understanding how people think and learn" (pp. 164-165) . Exactly! Because it's complex and probably not amenable to resolution with certainty. More importantly, looking for prescriptive solutions seems to lead inexorably to standardized solutions rather than individualized ones, a trap which the authors have failed to avoid despite their best efforts.

What Will the Teachers Do?
Another disturbing undercurrent is a general disregard for the teacher's role in their proposed new world. Teachers are portrayed as "learning coaches and tutors" who give "personalized attention" (pp. 106-07). Sounds fine so far, but look more closely: they will "mentor and motivate [students] through the learning" and "provide individual assistance that is complementary to the learning model each student is using" (p. 107).

In other words, Disrupting Class's "student-centric" model envisions that the student-content relationship (via student-computer) will become primary; the teacher's role will be to service this relationship in a secondary capacity. The book's index is even more telling: the word "teachers" is not indexed again after page 107, well before their proposed "system for student-centric learning" appears (pp. 128-133), which only mentions teachers in the context of being re-trained to function in the new system. Teachers then pretty much disappear until the very end of the book, when they are lumped in with parents and students and exhorted to "demand that your local schools offer online versions of unavailable courses. Seek user networks and tools to help your students learn troublesome concepts. When possible, build them yourself" (p. 229).

The authors end by assuring teachers that the book's recommendations will lead to opportunities "that make teaching professionally rewarding" (p. 230) as if it were currently bereft of rewards. Their message to teacher training colleges is: stop teaching the old way; train teachers our way!

The many other roles which teachers fulfill are not discussed and seem to have no place in the proposed system. The net effect is a rather chilling disregard for teachers and their profession; the operating assumption seems to be that teachers will be willing participants and mostly followers in the coming transformation.

All in all, Disrupting Class's "system for student-centric learning" appears to be little more than an elaborate method for producing "high-achieving" students that move through content more efficiently and do well on standardized tests. More students have greater access to more courses; the methods of instruction and assessment are more individualized in terms of intelligence "types;" and the pesky school bureaucracy is somehow circumvented and kept at bay. In the end, however, it just doesn't add up. The system design may appeal to employers, but citizenship, "maximizing human potential" and "nurturing understanding of differences among people" seem to have fallen aside somewhere along the way.

In fact, it is extremely tempting to conclude that the book is not about comprehensive reform at all, but is really about promoting certain specific reforms which the authors support: chartered schools and vouchers. The chapter on "finding a consensus for change" concludes that "separation (bypassing existing structures) is a critical option" to achieve reform (p. 194), and the most promising tools of "separation" are—surprise!—charter schools and vouchers. One small problem with this scenario: the lack of connection between charter schools and customized education as per Disrupting Class's model. Charter schools are not in the vanguard of offering online courses, nor are most newly minted charter schools more closely linked with online course offerings.

Perhaps the best takeaway from the book is to use its solid foundation—common high hopes for schools, individualizing instruction, situational research— as a means for building alternative systems which truly are student-centered and utilize online learning technologies, but also individualize student inputs and outcomes while enhancing the teacher's role in the process, while utilizing rigorous and flexible assessment methods. In the meantime, it will be interesting to watch the Disrupting Class meme work its way through the system, see if or how its authors' thinking evolves, and wonder what the value of its effects will be.


  • Sun, 15 Aug 2010
    Post by John Sener

    Thanks for your comments, VIcki! In particular, I appreciate your point about how Christensen et al. "don't pay the same attention to the issue of social learning outcomes as they do to knowledge outcomes" -- in fact I would argue that they pay hardly any attention to this issue. This seems to be a recurring flaw of business-oriented solutions toward fixing education -- they focus more on less exclusively on learning outcomes (or perhaps more accurately, employability outcomes) and neglect the rest; they fail to see education for the complex system that it is.

  • Sun, 08 Aug 2010
    Post by Vicki Watson

    On the eve of 'The Big Day Out', an event in which all principal class officers from across Victoria (Australia) will come together to launch the Victorian Education Department's new 'Ultranet', I have just finished my second read of Christensen's book. Like all curious teachers I remained perturbed and curious to see what others had thought of this works. John Sener's review satisfied my sense that again, a corporate organisational / change model was being used to focus on the status of schools. Sener has clearly articulated a good sense of the books inadequacies while also acknowledging the pivotal point that schools, and indeed education, remain challenged by the important question of 'how best to bring about improved learning outcomes for all students'. Unfortunately, Christensen (&co. authors) don't pay the same attention to the issue of social learning outcomes as they do to knowledge outcomes. As Sener hints - the importance of the learner as metacognitively engaged and as a flexible problem solver is not given much of an airing in the book. More disturbing for most teachers will be the incredible diversion in Christensen's discussion of 'The Impact of the Earliest Years on Students' Success' to an almost instructional lesson that Vygotsky has already given us all that time ago - the importance of an understanding of 'the zone of proximal development'and the role of the mother-to-baby linquistic interaction in cognitive development. Not to go further here re Vygotsky's gift to all educator's, and parents, but simply to say that this simplistic dabble into what remains the complex world of 'Thought and Language' serves only to convince the reader that again, the world of corporate and education remain vastly different. Christensen's intent may be clear in this passage but I fear that it has served only to detract from his main argument that does have a degree of credibility. The place of 'disruptive technologies' will become obvious but the place of educator will never be relegated to the single-minded perspective represented by the book, it will never be secondary. Schools will remain major social environments where students, teachers and parents are human participants. While we all remain determined to enhance learning outcomes, individualize learning and shape the role of ICT's in what Julia Atkin would call 'Powerful Learning' - where the teacher's disposition is no longer that of 'Sage on the Stage' but of 'Guide on the Side'.

  • Wed, 23 Dec 2009
    Post by Mark Notess

    I'm a huge fan of Clayton Christiansen's original work analyzing patterns of disruption and innovation in the computer industry. So I was intrigued when this book came out, but I was disappointed. When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I largely agree with Sener's critique. Certainly if we turn public education into a system more closely resembling an open market with profit-oriented players, the original principles of disruptive innovation will apply. But they don't apply as readily to the current government-run monopoly, a monopoly that is unlikely to change dramatically any time soon. Online learning, even in K-12, is seeing tremendous growth, but that growth is mainly an addition rather than a disruption to business as usual. Evolutionary change is less shrill than revolution, but incremental improvements may serve us better than intentional disruption or responses to imagined disruption.

  • Mon, 26 Jan 2009
    Post by Amjad

    It is totally useless to provide e Learning in Pakistan. Why teachers are paid more n why they are working for VU unversities n as well as for the universities where they are part of permanent faculty. Why they fee are charged more n why teachers are getting more n more pay!! E-Learning is a good solution for those countries who really want to be successful and who really want their teenagers to get a good education at their door step. But we hardly see this in Pakistan. Where the Rector, Registrar and Teachers hardly respond.

  • Mon, 27 Nov 2006
    Post by mutahi

    how can mathematics be taught for students using electronic technology

  • Sun, 05 Nov 2006
    Post by rwagasana gerald

    your site is very usefull for us since we have the problems you write about and have difficult to solve them

  • Thu, 21 Jul 2005
    Post by Rahul Mahanta

    e-learning is the solution to all our problems in india and this site is a perfect starting for both instructors and students alike