top of page

Seeking an Alternative to the "Disruptive" in Disruptive Innovation

I have a confession to make. I like the concept behind disruptive innovation. This confession seems necessary because I have noticed that, when I use these two words with teachers, principals or other district level leaders like myself, I receive a reaction that can best be described as quizzical.

The words we use to frame concepts are important because they can trigger emotions that impact our ability to consider the merits they purport to represent. Perception becomes the new reality.

Perhaps the reason I like the disruptive innovation concept is because it is a system concept and I tend to be a systems thinker. The idea behind disruptive innovation, a term coined by Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson in their book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, is that change to our education systems can be driven by the incremental growth of student centric technology. In short, to serve students effectively, learning should be both personalized and customized.

Disruptive innovation builds on the idea that our educational systems can apply technology effectively and strategically by first targeting those students who are not being served well by the current system – the “non-consumers”. From this starting point, systematic growth can be seen, understood and effectively managed. This is a powerful system concept. Too bad it contains the word “disruptive” because I have noticed that the people working in our educational systems generally don’t want to be disrupted. They want to be supported – with intentional clarity.

So how can we separate the intentional and strategic system change efforts behind the disruptive innovation concept from the basic human need to make sense of the work that we do, without feeling like new things are being forced upon us? Here are a few suggestions that, from a system perspective, can help. 1. Understand that this is about a shift to client-focused service. The disruptive innovation concept works from the basic premise that people learn best when they own the learning process; when they can apply what they are learning to a personal context. From a system perspective, this is a game changer. The reality is, that due to technological advancements, educational systems can now do what was inconceivable only a few years ago in terms of meeting the personalized needs of students. We are talking about the educational system coming to the student instead of the current configuration that requires the student to meet the needs of the system. 

2. Clarify terms. If we want to become something different than what we are now, we need to clearly articulate what that new thing is. By clarifying terms, we can understand and respond to the progress we are making in relation to a defined approach. So, when we talk about disruptive innovation through "personalization” or “blended learning”, what exactly do we mean? I have found that these two terms, often used interchangeably, can be easily misinterpreted and susceptible for misuse in a system context. This report from iNACOL is one example of a good reference that can be used, even as a starting point, to discuss and agree on terminologies. 3. This is about system upgrade, not system re-build. Our educational systems have served us very well for many generations. Let’s acknowledge that success and agree to work together from an inquiry stance. We have the ability to support people based upon a deep understanding of where they are on the learning curve. Most people want to do what is being asked from them. They may just not know it yet, or fear the unknown. Establish the trust and differentiate the support. Acknowledge progress, respect dissent and build the momentum. 4. Promote district level research and development. It may seem counterintuitive, but the evolution to client-focused educational systems means the that the teacher to student relationship needs to be supported through district level data management. The physical walls of the school may always define the social aspect of school life, but those same walls can no longer contain the multitude of academic resources and communicative opportunities available to students. We have the capacity to monitor and support student and teacher growth through district level information processes that can become increasingly intuitive through practical use. This is the new type of applied research that needs to be promoted in our educational systems.

In many respects we are fortunate to have the opportunity to even consider these big ideas. I still like the concept of disruptive innovation. But we also need to recognize that we are seeking the progressive and incremental growth of systems entrenched in centuries of tradition. Behind the disruptive innovation concept is the powerful notion of student-focused service through personalization. This won’t happen without the trust and buy-in from everyone who chooses to actively participate in the evolution of our educational systems.

Perhaps we could find an alternative to the word “disruptive”.

bottom of page