The Technology of Public Schooling Is Immature
Christensen notes that schooling’s architecture “is highly interdependent.” “Because there are so many points of interdependence within the public school system, there are powerful economic forces in place to standardize both instruction and assessment despite what we know to be true—students learn in different ways. The problem is that customization within interdependent systems is expensive.” For example, “although an innovative teacher might see a way to teach algebra in the context of chemistry, it would be nearly impossible to do it because the structure of what can be taught in the classroom depends on how the district headquarters carves up and defines the curriculum; and changes in the curriculum would also require changes in standardized tests and admission standards. Even more problematic, this kind of change in practice would require changes in the way prospective science and math teachers are trained and certified.”
But Christensen also states that, “The level of interdependence found in a product is a function of the underlying technology’s maturity. In the early days of most new products and services, the components need to be tightly woven together to maximize the functionality from an immature technology that is not yet good enough to satisfy customer needs.” This implies that the technology of public schooling (how we teach and design schools) is immature. How can that be possible when we’ve been operating public schools for over two hundred years, and schooling has existed in the world for millennia? It is possible that interdependencies in public schooling have persisted despite the technology being mature because public education is a virtual monopoly, but the system has been disrupted three times and “schools actually have been improving—moving up the vertical axis of their industry just like the companies in all the industries we have studied.” So schools have not been stuck or complacent. “In the face of enormous hurdles, and despite changing demands on schools, teachers and administrators have constantly improved public schools in the United States and navigated the disruptions imposed upon them. The latter is something almost no manager in private industry has been able to do.”
Educational Research Is Descriptive, But Not Predictive
According to Christensen, “there is lots of education research. Some is filled with mountains of statistical evidence, whereas other research examines case studies of randomized control trials. But the statistically valid research too often leads nowhere. Much of it is contradictory.” “Although correlative studies such as these are preliminary steps on the road to robust bodies of understanding, most education is trapped in this stage and does not progress beyond it. This causes paralysis because correlative studies, or descriptive bodies of understanding, cannot tell specific people whether following the average formula will lead to the hoped-for outcome in a specific situation.”
“Why is that? Other fields have bodies of research that allow people to predict with great certainty the results of actions. Many people in education—from teachers to researchers—say that it is impossible to build models of this sort in education because education is unique. It is not a science, they say. It is an art. Certainty is impossible.” But “researchers can build the same rigorous understandings in education. Doing so, however, will require a shift away from the prevailing paradigm. No longer will research on best practices or what works best on average across education suffice. Just as researchers in medicine are working to understand disorders by their causes as opposed to their symptoms in order to move toward precision medicine, education research must move toward understanding what works from the perspective of individual students in different circumstances as opposed to what works best on average for groups of students or groups of schools.”
Christensen does not attempt to explain why educational research is trapped in the descriptive stage. Does this happen in other fields? Proponents of Intelligent Design remain in the descriptive stage, but only because their goal is to support a pre-determined conclusion, and any anomalies would undermine that. I would assume that any field that takes the pursuit of science seriously would naturally move from the descriptive to the predictive. What is preventing educational research from making the same transition? Without predictive research, we can’t understand how individual students learn, which means we don’t know how to build student-centric learning technologies. “Our experience is that we learn differently. In the last three decades, increasing numbers of cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists have acknowledged this, too. Although there is considerable certainty that people in fact learn differently, considerable uncertainty persists about what those differences are.”
Instruction Is Not Improving
While the interdependencies in public schooling may lead to standardization, we should expect to see student-centric instruction in private schools and among personal tutors. In a competitive environment, innovations are developed “to sustain the performance improvement trajectory in the established market. And it seems not to matter how technologically challenging the innovation is. As long as it helps the leaders make better products that they can sell for better profits to their best customers, they figure out a way to get it done.” But that’s not what we see at all.
Christensen assumes that student-centric instruction existed in one-room schoolhouses and exists today in special education and personal tutoring because of the opportunity for teachers to work with students one-on-one. But if you study one-room schoolhouses, special education, or personal tutoring, you will find that the instruction in those settings is largely the same as instruction in the classroom. Instruction may be customized for pace and level, and sometimes for a learner’s interests, but it is not tailored for the way a learner’s brain is wired. We simply don’t know how to do that. Students who struggle in public schools typically continue to struggle with a tutor or in a private school because this level of customization is not enough on its own to make schooling intrinsically engaging for them.
Christensen cites Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences as one possible framework for further customizing instruction. But when schools and teachers attempted to apply Gardner’s theory, they couldn’t get it to work. When a teacher targeted a bodily-kinesthetic learner with a bodily-kinesthetic lesson, the student might respond once in a thousand times. That simply isn’t a sustainable batting average. Teachers that apply Gardner’s theory today now use a shotgun approach: instead of targeting one learner with one lesson, the teacher uses a range of lessons with the entire class purely in the interest of variety and diversity.
Another way for schools to customize instruction is to implement homogeneous groups so that students are grouped by level. While most teachers and parents support this idea, many school administrators are wary because they know that the instruction in the lower level groups can often be inappropriate and ineffective. Instead of designing their instruction based on the students they have in front of them, many teachers teach according to what they believe students can do. Their beliefs tell them to teach louder and slower, regardless of how the students’ brains are wired.
In the public school classroom, everyone gets cold medicine regardless of their symptoms (standardization). In personal tutoring, you get cold medicine if you have a cold and fever medicine if you have a fever (customization). But the medicines available to the classroom teacher and the tutor are the same, and we know that those medicines are ineffective for most people and haven’t changed in over two hundred years. Customization is important, but so is developing medicines that work. For some reason, this isn’t happening.
Outliers Are Ignored
Christensen argues that computer-based learning will be disruptive because it has the potential to take expert instruction to scale. “A great advantage in creating software that has been designed with success embedded within it is that it scales readily and economically. The intuition of those elite teachers who have the instinct to conquer motivation does not. Online learning changes a teacher’s job, and, as it improves, it will enable far more people to do what only the expert intuitive teachers could do before.” But in order to embed that expertise in software, it has to be understood first. Christensen notes that “a few outlier parents, teachers, and schools actually seem to have solved the motivation problem, but in most of these instances their solutions haven’t yet seemed to scale—as if there is a secret sauce in student motivation that defies codification.”
Christensen believes that expert instruction has little impact on schools because that expertise is ultimately twisted in an effort to plug it into the existing interdependent system. To make his point, Christensen brings up Jaime Escalante, the high school math teacher who taught AP Calculus to inner-city students at Garfield High School in Los Angeles. “Escalante was an exceptional teacher. Why not capture Escalante’s instructional magic on film and make it available to schools anywhere? Sure, it’s not the same as having Escalante himself, but if he is that good, why narrow his impact to one classroom in one school? People have in fact done this with great teachers of Escalante’s caliber. But these sorts of films have had little impact because they were simply crammed into classrooms as a tool on top of the traditional teaching methods.” Now, I don’t know anything about Jaime Escalante beyond what I learned watching Stand and Deliver, but I’m fairly certain that his lectures had little or nothing to do with the outcomes his students achieved.
I may not expect Christensen to know what Escalante’s secret sauce was, but I do expect math teachers to know. But we don’t. There is a general assumption that outliers cannot be replicated or codified, so they remain unknown and unstudied. If you are more than three standard deviations away from the norm, it is like you don’t even exist. What you do is too strange to ever work for anyone else. We make it a habit to study outliers in other industries, but for some reason, not in education. This is true of fellow educators, academic researchers, and edtech entrepreneurs.
Extra Talk Wires a Child’s Brain for Learning and Sophisticated Thinking
While Christensen is unable to paint a compelling picture of what student-centric instruction might look like in the future or provide any evidence that it will substantially increase intrinsic motivation, he does describe a technology we use now that does seem to work:
“Risley and Hart estimated that by age 36 months, children of talkative college-educated parents had heard their parents speak 48 million words to them. In contrast, children in welfare families had heard 13 million. Interestingly, the most powerful of these words, in terms of subsequent cognitive achievements, seemed to be those that were spoken in the first year of life—when there was no visible evidence that the child could understand what the parents were saying. The children whose parents did not begin speaking seriously to their children until their children could speak, at roughly age 12 months, suffered a persistent deficit in intellectual capacity, compared to those whose parents were talkative from the beginning.”
“When a parent engages in extra talk—speaking 48 million words to an infant in its first 36 months of life—many, many more of the synaptic pathways in the child’s brain are exercised and refined. This makes subsequent patterns of thought easier, faster, and more automatic. The major cognitive task for infants is to develop and use the synaptic pathways that will facilitate their thought processes. A child who has heard 48 million words in its first three years won’t have just 3.7 times as many well-lubricated synaptic connections in its brain as a child who has heard only 13 million words. Each brain cell can be connected to hundreds of other cells by as many as 10,000 synapses. This means that children who have been lavished with extra talk have an almost incalculable cognitive advantage compared to those who have not been. Their brains have been ‘wired’ to think in much more sophisticated ways than those of children whose synaptic pathways have not been extensively developed and lubricated through use.”
“Strong self-esteem is a foundation that can give children the confidence they need to successfully grapple with difficult educational challenges and life issues as they are encountered. When children whose cognitive capacities have been expanded as described above confront and succeed at the initial academic challenges they encounter in school, their sense of self-efficacy—their excitement and confidence in their ability to succeed at difficult intellectual tasks—can blossom. When they enter school without this preparation, their initial academic experiences consist of struggle and failure, which destroy self-esteem and make further academic work seem intimidating and unexciting.”
Christensen presents research that infants who “listen to parents speak to them in sophisticated, adult language” develop cognitive skills and intellectual curiosity that can set them on a virtuous cycle of lifelong learning. But there is no evidence that this process is student-centric in any way. While these conversations are one-on-one, it doesn’t seem as though parents need to tailor what they say for an individual child. In fact, the whole point of extra talk is to generate new pathways in the brain, not reinforce existing ones.
Toward a Root Cause
The fact that instruction is not improving is an anomaly. Given competition, instruction should be improving in private schools and personal tutoring, if not in public schools. Some believe that the technology of instruction is mature, and that it is simply a matter of getting people to use best practices. But if that was the case, then instruction in private schools and personal tutoring should be more modular, and the research should have entered the prescriptive stage. Why hasn’t this happened? If the technology of instruction is immature, why is it still immature and why isn’t it improving?
In order for instruction to be more effective, we need to know what works and under what circumstances. We also need to study the outliers—those educators who have an intuitive expertise in instruction—so that we can codify their intuition and turn it into understanding. This isn’t happening either. These anomalies indicate the presence of a root cause preventing instructional improvement. We need to address this root cause if we are going to have any hope of disrupting schooling. The research on extra talk shows us that there may be promising paths forward if we can get moving and start thinking in new directions.