Christensen believes that the only way that public schools can fulfill these two new jobs is if schooling is an intrinsically motivating experience. “Motivation can be extrinsic or intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is that which comes from outside of the task. Intrinsic motivation is when the work itself stimulates and compels an individual to stay with the task because the task itself is inherently fun and enjoyable.” “We all know that becoming a great athlete or a great pianist requires an extraordinary amount of consistent work. The hours of time required to train the brain to fire the synapses in the correct ways and thus hone the necessary muscle memory and thinking required is no different from that needed to learn to read and process information or think through math and science problems.” “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.”
Christensen argues that U.S. schools perform poorly because our prosperity has reduced our extrinsic motivations to learn. “When Japan was emerging from the ashes of World War II, there was a clear extrinsic motivation that encouraged students to study subjects like science and engineering that would help lift them out of poverty and reward them with a generous wage. As the country and its families prospered, however, the external pressure diminished. Some people who are wired to enjoy science and engineering in the way schools traditionally teach it—and therefore are intrinsically motivated—or those who have other extrinsic motivation in play will study them. But many no longer need to endure studying subjects that are not fun for them. The same downward trend is now beginning in Singapore and Korea.”
So how do we make schooling and core academic subjects intrinsically engaging? By tailoring instruction to match how each student learns. “In summary, the current educational system—the way it trains teachers, the way it groups students, the way the curriculum is designed, and the way the school buildings are laid out—is designed for standardization. If the United States is serious about leaving no child behind, it cannot teach its students with standardized methods. We must find a way to move toward what, in this book, we call a ‘student-centric’ model. We use the word ‘toward’ intentionally here because this is not, at least immediately, a binary choice. A monolithic batch process with all of its interdependencies is at one end of the spectrum, and a student-centric model that is completely modular is at the other. How might schools start down this promising path? Computer-based learning, which is a step on the road toward student-centric technology, offers a way.”
Christensen makes a number of assumptions here. First, he assumes that all students will learn if they are intrinsically motivated. Second, he assumes that “allowing students to learn in ways that correspond with how their brains are wired to learn” creates intrinsic motivation. Third, he assumes that we already know how to tailor instruction for every student. Christensen writes:
“In the 1960s and 1970s, society began requiring schools to customize offerings for students deemed to have special needs. Students who qualify for these designations typically require individual approaches, codified in an individualized education plan (IEP). In another special case, educators place immigrant students from non-English-speaking families into custom-designed English language learner (ELL) programs. Customization is almost surely an important advantage for both these categories of students, but it is also terribly expensive.”
“In the one-room schools that characterized public education during most of the 1800s, teaching was customized by necessity, at least by pace and level. Because the room was filled with children of different ages and abilities, teachers spent most of their day going from student to student, giving personalized instruction and assignments, and following up in individually tailored ways. But as classrooms filled in the late 1800s, this method of teaching changed as larger enrollments forced schools to standardize.”
“The second phase of the disruption we term student-centric technology, in which software has been developed that can help students learn each subject in a manner that is consistent with their learning needs. Whereas computer-based learning is disruptive relative to the monolithic mode of teacher-led instruction, student-centric technology is disruptive relative to personal tutors. Tutors today are largely limited to the wealthy; and for those privileged few, good tutors come as close as possible to helping students learn each subject in ways that match the way their brains are wired to learn. Like all disruptions, student-centric technology will make it affordable, convenient, and simple for many more students to learn in ways that are customized for them.”
Christensen assumes that student-centric models already exist in special education and personal tutoring, but that we don’t yet have the technology to bring these models to scale. That is where computers—and student-centric technologies—come into play.
Christensen acknowledges that, at the moment, computer-based learning is not competitive with teacher-led learning. “If the history of these types of innovations can serve as a guide, the disruptive transition from teacher-led to software-delivered instruction is likely to proceed in two stages. We call the first of these stages computer-based, or online, learning. In this stage, the software will be proprietary and relatively expensive to develop. It will also be relatively monolithic with respect to students’ preferred methods of learning in that the instructional methods in this software will largely mirror the dominant type of learning method in each subject.” “Currently, according to reports, online learning works best with more motivated students; over time, it will become more engaging so as to reach different types of learners.” Right now, students who lack motivation to learn are even less motivated by online learning. Christensen assumes computer-based learning will get better as it is adopted and refined in markets where teacher-led learning is unavailable. These markets target nonconsumers, people whose only option is to use either computer-based learning or nothing at all.
Christensen expects computer-based learning to improve along a specific trajectory. Experts in student-centric instruction will use the technology to take their models to scale. As the technology matures and this instructional expertise is codified, instruction becomes modular. “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. As products and their markets mature, technology grows more sophisticated, as do customers. They begin to understand their unique needs and to insist on customized products. Technological maturity makes customization possible. Product and service architectures become more modular in this environment.” Modularity enables a product to improve more rapidly and inexpensively because the entire product does not need to be redesigned every time. If instructional expertise then becomes commoditized, then user-generated instruction can be delivered via facilitated networks and the existing value network can be disrupted. “In this second stage of disruption, the existing value chain, which we call a ‘value network,’ is almost always disrupted as well. It is rare for a disruption to appear in just one part of a value network without the rest of the system changing, too. It is the disruption of the full value network that ultimately enables these modular solutions to emerge. Embedding a disruptive product in an entirely disruptive value network is key to achieving a less expensive solution than was possible in the first stage of disruption.”
Unless computer-based learning competes on a different dimension (not just in a different market), it will not be disruptive. If computer-based learning simply does the job that schools do now, only better, it will be adopted by schools as a sustaining innovation and nothing else will change. To become a disruptive innovation, computer-based learning must evolve into a student-centric technology, enabling every student in every demographic to reach proficiency in all core academic subjects. But that can’t happen unless the instructional expertise to create student-centric learning models exists to be codified and commoditized. Christensen assumes it does exist, but I don’t. I don’t think we can afford to make that assumption without some evidence.