Book Discussion of “Disrupting Class” by Clayton Christensen


“Disrupting Class” by Clayton M. Christensen – Book Circle Discussion

When I was hired as a computer teacher, I was asked to teach technology to middle school students.  I was thrilled at the opportunity to have an entire lab of 30 computers at my fingertips.  Ideas flew through my head like jets through O’hare at Thanksgiving.  I envisioned infinite possibilities: a paper-free classroom, creating presentations on learning topics, having real world learning and expertise at our fingertips.  While I had been a computer enthusiast for years, I was new to teaching and had no computer teaching experience. Administration simply told me, “Teach computers,” and gave me little guidance and no curriculum.

What a great opportunity: I jumped right to action, thinking of engaging and innovative ways of teaching students how to accomplish various tasks using computers such as creating presentations, researching, and publishing.  It didn’t take long for me to discover the need for a dramatic amount of differentiation within each of my classes with some students would stare at me like I was teaching them their ABC’s, and others struggled to keep up with opening, saving, and right clicking.  As I adopted a more project based approach, I needed subject matter for the projects.  Because I wanted to integrate my classes with the students’ core knowledge classes, the most logical solution was to use this as the content.

I saw a great deal of potential for reinforcing student knowledge.  But then a new hurdle appeared: I thought I would be reinforcing knowledge; I came to realize that I would also be teaching core knowledge, as many of the students struggled in these areas as well.  In addition, the students who struggled with core knowledge were not the students who lacked basic computer skills.  It became evident that technology needed to be used as a tool in content instruction.

These thoughts made my interest jump at reading Disrupting Class, by Clayton M. Christensen.  The title alone stood out to me, as I pondered how drastically the system would need to change in order to bring this technology driven, self-paced learning environment to fruition.   Christensen’s business background would also bring an interesting perspective to education, having come from a previous career in the private sector myself.  I knew Michele, Bruce, and Sue all came with somewhat different backgrounds and always brought insightful comments to class.  This book study would definitely be a fun time discussing one look at the changing face of education in today’s world.

After reading the first five chapters, I couldn’t wait to get to our first discussion group.  The ideas presented by Christensen really seemed to hit home with me.  I was able to discuss his analogies to the business world with my visiting father, a CPA and financial advisor.  He most enjoyed the comparison of standardized teaching to the industrial factory system and the shift toward online stock trading by brokerage firms.

Our discussions at the Rock Bottom Brewery focused on Christensen’s ideas of various learning styles, multiple intelligence, and the importance of differentiation.  The concepts of using customized pathways and using a more modular interface seemed logically in-line with my previously stated thoughts.  We conferred about how so much time talking about how every student has his or her own specific needs and the need to differentiate our instruction for this, but the economic model of this does not work in our current system.  With costs well over twice as much to educate a special needs student, these students are often forced into the mainstream.  By using computers to deliver content in small modular units of study, we all agreed that learning can become truly customized, student-centric, and reduce instructional costs at the same time.

Unfortunately, with our current system, teachers are being pushed toward becoming more and more standardized in their instruction.  With this approach, the teachers become can become overwhelmed, trying to keep everyone on the same pace to cover the standardized content.  This means a student whose learning style best aligns with individual teachers’ is more likely to succeed than a student who doesn’t.  Technology and the modular learning approach helps alleviate this issue, as students are able to move at their own pace, teachers’ time is freed up to help those students with greater needs, and more learning styles and intelligence types can be covered.

At the time, I was trying to implement different on-line course programs within classroom.  This brought by unique perspective to the table.  Using edu2.0’s website, I created three different units for my own class instruction.  While there were certain limitations to the modular type instruction with this free online program, I could not seem to create quite the differentiation I would have liked, but the students were able to pace themselves through the units.  With close guidance and daily “mini-lessons,” my more advanced students cruised quickly and independently, and I was better able to focus the majority of my classroom time on helping the students with greater needs.

We spend so much money on getting technology into schools, but they really have little impact on the way education is delivered to the students.  We continue to purchase more and more computers to put into the classroom, but they are most often used for writing and researching for papers or for educational games during student free time.  They really are not used for delivering content to students in the current setting.

Being able to discuss these principles with our group provided interesting perspectives on the ideas presented by Christensen in Disrupting Class.  While not everyone in our group believed this held the key to the future of education, I was perhaps the strongest believer in Christensen’s idea of disruptive innovation.  I believe this type of change is needed for education to be effective as we move into the 21st century.

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