Clayton Christensen is the author of The Innovator’s Dilemma and an expert in disruptive innovation. In 2008, he applied disruption theory to analyze public schooling in the United States.
When I first read Disrupting Class, I felt that Christensen made a lot of bold claims about schooling and education without backing them up. But after reading his book for a second time, I realized that Christensen isn’t trying to build a descriptive understanding of schooling from data, but a predictive understanding of disruption by applying disruption theory in a new context.
According to Christensen, “researchers build bodies of understanding in two major stages—the descriptive stage and the prescriptive stage.” In the descriptive stage, researchers “generally follow three steps—observation, categorization, and association—as they do their work.” Christensen has observed, categorized, and identified key relationships in industries undergoing disruption. Describing disruption from data has enabled him to construct a model of disruption that he is now applying to public schooling in the United States. In the second stage, researchers use their models to make predictions and uncover anomalies. “Anomalies are actually good news because they allow researchers to say, ‘There’s something else going on here,’ and that is what leads to better understanding.” “Researchers use the anomaly to revisit the foundation layers in the [descriptive stage] so they can define and measure the phenomena less ambiguously, or sort those phenomena into alternative categories. Only then can researchers explain the anomaly and the prior associations of attributes and outcomes.”
Christensen writes, “Our approach in researching and writing this book has been to stand outside the public education industry and put our innovation research on almost like a set of lenses to examine the industry’s problems from this different perspective.” Instead of taking a deep dive into education, he is taking a step back to look at schooling from a distance. In many ways, he isn’t saying what will happen based on his understanding of schooling and education; he is predicting what should happen based on his understanding of disruption. If his predictions are accurate, then his model of disruption is confirmed; if it isn’t and anomalies are discovered, then there is an opportunity to improve our understanding of both disruption and the public education system.
I think that there is great value in examining schooling through the lenses of disruption theory. It has helped me to categorize some of my own observations and bring certain relationships into focus. I also think it is valuable to take a fresh look at education from the outside. It is very interesting to compare what an outsider thinks should be happening to what an insider thinks is happening. That’s what I’ll be doing. In a series of blog posts, I will be re-examining Christensen’s examination, but doing it from the perspective of someone who has been much closer to the ground in schools.
In A Square Peg in a Round Hole, I examine why disruption theory may not apply to what is happening in public schooling in the United States today; in Underlying Assumptions, I examine some of the assumptions that Christensen makes in predicting how schooling will be disrupted; in Anomalous Readings, I discuss some of the anomalies detected in Christensen’s analysis; in Gazing Into the Crystal Ball, I compare and contrast Christensen’s prediction with my own; and in Removing Our Blinders, I examine how blinders could be preventing us from creating disruptive innovations in schooling and instruction.