Disruptive Innovation. A guide to a more sustainable approach to learning (part 1)

The basic premise

If we want to break the cycle of endless ineffective educational reform we need to look to new models of learning, what Clayton Christensen labels, ‘disruptive innovation’. While I do not agree with all of the arguments in his book ‘Disrupting Class’, his basic premise is both a compelling and a liberating one.

Never has the need for alternatives to traditional models of education been more pressing.  New models for learning will not solve all of our societies’ problems, but if we are to escape the unsustainable economic and environmental situation we find ourselves in then it is a good place to start.

What are the features of disruptive innovation in education?

Building on Christensen’s call for disruptive alternatives and adapting ideas from the research of Charles Leadbeater, nicely summarised in this Ted Talk, I think the following is a useful set of questions to help educators reflect on their projects, courses and institutions to assess the effectiveness of their innovations.

Does my learning project/ course/ institution…

(a) address the destratification of society?

(b) have curricula that focus on real world problems and questions that emerge from them?

(c) have a pedagogical approach including the system of assessment that supports the curriculum focus on problems and questions about real world problems?

(d) have an adaptable flexible structure

The idea for using a set of questions as a reflective tool for sustainability comes from the unlikely source of Walmart who asks their suppliers these 15 questions.

How will asking these questions help?

We need to be innovating in ways that enable more people everybody to access high quality learning and we need more educators engaged in this challenge hence the need to ask question (a). Expensive tuition fees and high stakes content focused examinations are two enduring obstacles to developing a culture of social sustainability in schools. We urgently need more educators disrupting the current patterns of access to learning.

I should make it clear that I do not expect a set of questions or any single reflective process to send large numbers of schools and universities rushing to completely rethink their approach.  However, what I do predict is that we will see an increasing shift by progressive educators towards smaller disruptive projects that will broaden the options open to learners at all levels of education and, eventually, change the entire sector.

What are the learning projects that demonstrate the type of disruptive innovation being proposed?

As Charles Leadbeater points out in his talk some of the most disruptive and transformative innovation taking place in education is being pioneered by educational social entrepreneurs in the developing world. People like Rodrigo Baggio who started CDI, an organisation that took computers donated by corporations and started learning centres in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and has now grown to 13 countries or Madhav Chavan, who started Pratham, or Sebastiao Rocha, in Belo Horizonte and Sugata Mitra with his hole in the wall project and what I think he correctly identifies in all of these projects are attempts to marry a practical problem based approach to learning with innovative uses of technology.

What if i am in the developed world, are there examples from there?

Leadbeater mentions the following projects he thinks are pushing education forward in the US, Europe and Australia: The  Harlem Children’s Zone led by Geoffrey Canada, Reggio Emilia in Italy, Kunskapsskolan schools in Sweden, Jaringan in Northern Queensland and High Tech High

He explains have the common features of being ‘highly collaborative, very personalized, often with pervasive technology, learning that starts from questions and problems and projects, not from knowledge and set curriculum.’

So are you suggesting I need to leave my job in a conventional school or university to disrupt the education system and help build more sustainable models?

While a start-up mentality does seem to be increasingly appealing to progressive educators, for many this is a step too far so instead they attempt to disrupt from within. I would put the courses like CCK11 by Stephen Downes, George Siemens and the inventive #DS106 run by Jim Groom in this bracket. Their open online courses are for me not just pedagogically and creatively interesting, but also economically as they involve a combination of fee paying students taking the courses in their universities with open participation to anyone with an internet connection. By experimenting as they are doing, they are finding ways to push the bricks and mortar universities with their financial barriers to participation in new and interesting directions.

Another two educational disruptors who run bold and innovative projects are Vicki Davis and Julie Lindsay.  In their Flat Classroom Projects middle and high school students from different places work in small teams using collaborative and creative technologies to tackle important real world problems. This type of model that uses accessible digital tools to enable students from different countries to collaborate on projects is a good example of the potential of disruptive educational innovations by those working within conventional schools.

And while still in the early stages our own organisation The Learning Project Asia came into being in order to address issues of access and sustainability in education. Our approach is to work in partnership with schools, universities, companies and development organisations to develop learning projects that focus on real world problems. We just finished our first project that you can learn more about about here.

In part 2 of Disruptive Innovation. A guide to a more sustainable approach to learning – I look at the role of technology in building disruptive learning projects.

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