When reading Disrupting Class, I detected four anomalies that might cause Christensen’s prediction that schooling will be disrupted by student-centric technologies in the form of computer-based learning to fail. The first anomaly is that the technology of public schooling is immature. Since schooling in this country is over two hundred years old and it has been steadily improving, that should not be the case. The second is that educational research is descriptive, but not predictive. Once researchers have described schools, they should automatically move to the next stage, which is to test and improve their models through predictions. That is not happening. Third, schooling may be improving, but instruction is not. According to Christensen, personal tutoring represents the state-of-the-art in student-centric instruction, but personal tutors today are no more effective than personal tutors twenty years ago. And to raise test scores and meet targets established by No Child Left Behind, schools are changing everything but instruction. Fourth, instead of studying outliers who may be doing something different to get extraordinary results, we assume they have a ‘secret sauce’ that cannot be codified and will not scale.
Just because these anomalies exist, it doesn’t mean that disruption won’t occur; it just means that disruption may have to proceed a little differently. It may be possible for schooling to continue improving without ever improving instruction. It may be that we are all playing a giant game of chicken, and once all other avenues have been exhausted and improving instruction is the only way forward, then we will improve instruction. But I’m skeptical. Personally, I believe that, to disrupt schooling, we need a disruptive innovation in the technology of instruction, and we won’t develop that innovation until we have identified and addressed the root cause that is causing these anomalies.
In earlier posts, I have postulated reasons why instruction may not be improving (core beliefs about what we can learn and getting stuck at local maxima). I don’t know if those are root causes or only additional symptoms of a deeper root cause, but for some reason, it is common in education to see what we believe to be true instead of what is happening right in front of us.
For example, many educators believe that the key to improving schooling is to motivate students by appealing to their interests. Christensen writes, “When there is high extrinsic motivation for someone to learn something, schools’ jobs are easier. They do not have to teach material in an intrinsically motivating way because simply offering the material is enough. Students will choose to master it because of the extrinsic pressure. When there is no extrinsic motivation, however, things become trickier. Schools need to create intrinsically engaging methods for learning.” Motivation is essential to learning. There is no question about that. But is motivation on its own enough? Sometimes I think that people fixate on motivation because it allows them to not think about the other components in learning.
Christensen writes: “We believe that a core reason why so many students languish unmotivated in school or don’t come to class at all is that education isn’t a job that they are trying to do. Education is something they might choose to hire to do the job—but it isn’t the job. While we continue our research to understand this crucial issue, we hypothesize that there are two core jobs that most students try to do every day: They want to feel successful and make progress, and they want to have fun with friends.” “Furthermore, when we use the phrase ‘want to feel successful,’ we do not mean the kind of surface-level idea of success that constitutes praising a child no matter how she performed on a given activity under the mistaken idea that building ‘self-esteem’ in this vein is a good idea. Instead we mean true success, where the student in fact accomplishes and achieves something real and makes progress.” If you listen to and work closely with children, you will know that this is exactly right.
Imagine that you have a medical issue, but your doctor doesn’t listen to you and appears to be utterly incompetent. To get what you need, you end up scouring the internet for information, performing your own diagnosis, and essentially telling the doctor which treatment you’d like to be prescribed. This may be better than nothing, but if you were paying for these doctor visits out of pocket, you’d be very angry and very unhappy. You hire the doctor to guide you as a medical expert, not to function as an expensive prescription pad and referrer. Students don’t hire schools to purse their own interests and engage in pastimes. Schooling is way too expensive for that. We can do that in our own time and there are other activities that can do that job much better than schooling can. We hire schools to help us be successful and to prepare us for the future, and we expect schools to have some expertise in those areas and to give us expert guidance. Students may settle for pursuing interests in school because it is better than nothing, but in the long term, it is de-motivating. “All students are likely to be equally motivated to feel successful. For some, school is a viable candidate to hire for this job. This group likely includes those whose parents provide a clear link between academic achievement and career success; those whose intellectual capacities were honed through repeated, sophisticated verbal interaction with adults before the age of three; and those whose way of learning or passion matches that of their particular teachers. The students who do not hire school to feel successful are not unmotivated to feel successful. They just don’t or can’t feel successful at school—often it makes them feel like failures.”
The evidence that students want to be successful and not only pursue their interests is right in front of us, but too many people ignore it. Christensen sees it, but then he has his own blinders on. Christensen starts by building the case that “schools need to create intrinsically engaging methods for learning,” but then he leaps to the conclusion that student-centric technologies will make that happen. “When prosperity has removed this source of [extrinsic] motivation, the solution must be to make learning intrinsically motivating. Student-centric learning will play a key role in addressing this challenge. If children are motivated to learn, and if we enable each one to learn effectively, we will have an education system with a great performance record.” How does student-centric instruction—teaching students according to how their brains are wired—cause an activity to be intrinsically motivating? It is certainly plausible that, if an activity is more accessible to our way of thinking, it will be more interesting and engaging to us and we will be more successful at it. Instead of proposing a mechanism that only increases a student’s motivation (appealing to student interests), Christensen is proposing a mechanism that increases a student’s motivation and makes it easier for that student to learn. That is certainly a step forward, but it is still only a theory without any supporting evidence. Student-centric technologies may enable more students to learn, but will they enable every student to learn?
Is there an activity that enables every child to learn and be successful? Christensen believes that there is. “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. 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.” And “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.” The correlation between extra talk and cognitive development is strong enough to suggest that children in every demographic can be successful in school if they are exposed to enough extra talk at an early age.
What else does the evidence suggest? That interest and student-centric models are not the primary drivers for learning and success. Extra talk had the most impact in the first twelve months of a child’s life, before the child can verbally respond to the extra talk. This indicates that the content of the extra talk was irrelevant. Extra talk appears to be successful because the child and the parent are both highly engaged by it. Children strive to connect with their caretakers as an evolutionary survival mechanism. That connection makes it more likely that a caretaker will care for and protect the child. A second crucial factor in extra talk is its level of sophistication. “Hart and Risley observed two sorts of conversations occurring between parents and their infants in their study. Parents they described as ‘taciturn’ often limited their conversations with their children to ‘business.’ Business conversations with infants are not rich or complex; they are simple, direct, here-and-now conversations. The words that truly matter are spoken in a posture that Hart and Risley term ‘language dancing,’ where the parents engaged face to face with the infant and speak in a fully adult, sophisticated, chatty language—as if the infant were listening, comprehending, and fully responding to the comments. It is deliberate, uncompromised, personal adult conversation.” This suggests that learning is most effective when it fulfills the job that it is hired to do and when it is rich enough to establish new sophisticated pathways in the brain, leading to increases in intellectual capacity, self-efficacy, and curiosity.
It almost doesn’t matter what we do to improve schooling if we don’t give children tasks that cause them to create new pathways and think more sophisticatedly. Right now, schools aren’t doing that. Some project-based schools are trying, but if you look at their curriculum, you will see that tasks are sophisticated for children, but not sophisticated for adults. That won’t work either. Vertical learning is the approach that I’ve been developing for the past two decades to enable students to work on increasingly sophisticated tasks and feel successful. I describe this type of learning as vertical because thinking, performance, and achievement build and accelerate over time. If you’d like a hint of what this kind of learning looks like, take a look at a 90-minute learning session we did at Computing Explorations. If we are going to make meaningful improvements in schooling and instruction, then we need to take off our blinders and focus on what really works instead of fixating on the things we believe should work.