Harvard's Clay Christensen: Why Public Schools Need Disruptive Innovation

Last Updated Feb 4, 2009 11:18 AM EST

The hot topics of conversation in America's business schools aren't limited to market meltdowns and job searches. Profs and students are also using business methods to diagnose problems with public policy -- and craft solutions. HBS's Clayton Christensen, best known for his books The Innovator's Dilemma and The Innovator's Solution, partnered with co-authors Curtis Johnson and Michael Horn to take a whack at providing some fixes for America's education system. The result was their recent book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.

BNET: Why does the classroom need to be disrupted?

Christensen: We went about examining the problems of public schools through the lens of our research on innovation, to see if we could see things others had not been able to see. And we came to a key insight about the root cause of the struggle to improve public education. It relates to the strong "interdependent architecture" of our schools [where the parts of the system are heavily interconnected and optimized around defined outputs]. The economics of an interdependent architecture makes it very expensive to customize anything for anybody, because if you change one thing, then you have to change everything. In public education, you can't take this subject in tenth grade because you didn't take this other course in eighth grade. And you can't teach foreign language in a certain way unless you change the way you teach English grammar.

BNET: How has this affected the educational experience of students, and what are the implications?

Christensen: We're headed more and more toward standardization in the ways we teach and the ways we test. But that flies in the face of overwhelming evidence that every person learns differently. Howard Gardner has this typology of eight different types of intelligences, and within each of those types you have different learning styles and within each of those learning styles, you have different paces at which kids learn. The fact that all these kids' brains are wired differently really screams for customization in the way we deliver content to students in the classroom. You have this clash between the economics of integrated, interdependent systems that force you to standardize the way you teach, and the reality that every student needs to learn in a different way. At any given point in time, most students in the classroom aren't learning, or they're learning very inefficiently. That's the root cause. We need to figure out a way to "bust" that trade-off.

BNET: Can't students customize their educational experience today? There are plenty of electives in America--there's a vocational track offered at many schools.

Christensen: The vocational track has existed in the past for the kids whose brains are not wired for the dominant type of intelligence, so they get labeled as "not smart" in the core academic subjects. In reality, most of them are very smart, but they are just not getting educated in ways that their brains can learn. And on top of that, many of the professions that the vocational tracks teach are disappearing. So, these kids are not getting trained for the jobs of the future.

BNET: So, what are the ways the educational system and/or the classroom environment needs to change, so each student can be taught in a way that is optimized for him or her?

Christensen: The solution that we kept iterating toward was a much heavier use of computers as the way teaching is delivered to the student. Computers are inherently much more modular and customizable. So you can teach physics to Clay Christensen in a way that works for his brain, which functions with more of a spatial type of intelligence, oriented around seeing patterns in things. And you would teach it to my high-school best friend Rob Graves optimized around his mathematical, symbolic-oriented brain. It would be the same subject, but taught in different ways.

We've spent billions of dollars putting computers in the schools, but almost all of those computers have been put in traditional classroom settings. Never has a teacher said, "Kids, now we have a computer, so you don't need me to teach you." They just support the current system of instruction. Kids use the Internet so they can write better research papers--or they learn keyboarding via the computers. But the computer has not had any fundamental impact on the way students learn.

Next week, we'll hear about the solutions Christensen and his co-author recommend for America's public schools.
Jeremy Dann is a lecturer in innovation and marketing at UCLA's Anderson School of Management.
  • Jeremy Dann

    Jeremy Dann is a Lecturer in Marketing at UCLA's Anderson School of Management and an innovation consultant and writer. He has been a contributor to several business and technology publications and is the founding editor of "Strategy & Innovation."