Sunday, November 30, 2008

So Is It Possible that Changing Public Schools Is Impossible?

I'm certain that Clayton M. Christensen's Disrupting Class How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns will be viewed as a landmark - even an icon - in the quest for school reform. In my opinion, it is the "writing on the wall," the "new cheese," the "light on the path,"and the "ultimate reality" that describes the reconstruction of school as we know it. The book is powerful and I am so hopeful that our profession will rush to respond to this map for radical progress. I doubt, however, that Disrupting Class will hasten the reform of our schools. I wonder if Clay Christensen, who really understands the inevitability of his message shares my hopes and my doubts? I think he does. Let me explain.

You see, if our education culture was different, every single educator in the whole wide world (or at least most) would assume responsibility for understanding "disruptive innovation." If members of our profession genuinely understood the phenomenon of disruption, we would all make sense of the "disorienting dilemmas" that have characterized our schools for decades. If each educator truly took it upon themselves to examine and completely assimilate the impact that technology, networking and connectivity is exacting on all factions of our society and all the world's institutions, surely then, the walls of educational resistance to "change" would collapse. Surely, our profession would collectively experience the "perspective transformation" Jack Mezirow describes in his seminal work Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. Our profession might universally begin to see that our 19th century "school view" constrains our understanding of the 21st century challenges that face our institutions. It prevents us from rising to our call. If all of the world's educators truly experienced a"perspective transformation," our profession could enjoy an enlightenment. An enlightened school view would drive the profound changes required to respond to the needs and potential of 21st century students. We might even begin to develop what Christensen calls the "common language" that enables important conversations about 21st century learning and learners. Educators might actually initiate a transformation that leads to renewed ways of knowing and doing school. Our profession might even become a vital, thriving, transforming, empowering, relevant 21st century institution. All of this might be possible - if educators were to embrace their own transformation as essential to rebirth as a 21st century educator.

The key here is that each and every educator must face responsibility for constructing meaning about the disruptive innovations that are transforming our schools. We must be willing to "become the change we want to see." We'll have to live and breathe the attributes of a 21st century learners as we become the self-directed critical thinkers, problem solvers, innovators, and collaborators needed to create globally-focused schools for the 21st century. In other words, we must all be willing to make the transformation to being 21st century educators by accepting the 21st century challenges.

On page 192 of Disrupting Class, Christensen asks the defining question of the book: "So is it possible that changing public schools is impossible?" The authors believe that change is possible if education embraces the three tools that can change schools despite failed past reform initiatives. To change public schools today, Christensen first calls for common language - what he refers to as "a collective framing of the problem," a precondition to deriving useful solutions. I've described the "perspective transformation" educators must make to drive common language conversations. Second, Christensen calls for use of power - calling upon a cadre of school leaders who can amass and wield power to change the status quo. In my entire profession, I have encountered two such courageous leaders. How many can you count? Recognizing that common language and power solutions may fail, Christensen also calls for separation - the third tool which he calls "the critical option in the arsenal of school reform." Separation refers to a "setting up" of new schools in which teachers, parents, administrators are aligned in vision and committed to educating children and doing it very well. And, I would argue that in a global economy, the separated school must do it better than any other school in the world.

So there you have it - Christensen's ultimate vision for a changed public school is a separate school. This vision is born of disruption and characterized by hope and doubt. And, who do you think will lead the separated schools? I'm betting it's those who are willing to "amass and wield the power," and those who speak the "common language." I can't envision a place for the "learned" who refused a "perspective transformation." Can you? They will, as Eric Hoffer predicted, "find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists." The "separated school"... I'm just saying - and I think Christensen is saying - get ready for it.

Photo Credit: be the change in yourself from trailerfullof pics photostream on Flickr.


  1. Beth,
    You're right. There are a lot of assumptions implicit in the road to school change, the biggest one being the assumption that all teachers WANT to be change agents. Does this mean that it is impossible to trigger change in public schools? I don't think so. But perhaps not by accepting that assumption as a given.

  2. Well said! I think you stated what I meant more thoroughly and more tactfully when I wrote on 21st Century Learning:

    Literacy has changed, whether we want to recognize that or not. The simple fact of the matter is that what it means to be literate for our students is not what it meant to be literate when I graduated from college. That shouldn't be shocking or surprising as literacy has always been evolving and morphing. What could be shocking, even terrifying, is to understand what being literate today means and come to the realization that it is a skill set that I no longer possess because I stopped growing intellectually, deeming myself too busy to invest in my academic currency and now find that I am professionally bankrupt.

    I agree with the Common language idea- I think some of us call the common language Buzzwords...but they are really only buzzwords because educators collectively don't understand the concepts they represent.

    I'm just starting Disrupting Class and looking forward to it. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said we have to accept 21st century challenges.

  3. Beth, you are a great writer. Thanks, you get me thinking even more reflectively. You will want to listen to 21st Century Learning show #86, where Michael Horn, co-author of Disrupting Class, is interviewed. Then listen to Sheryl Nussbaum Beach's keynote at our State of Maine Technology Conference, you will find that at BitbyBit, Bob Sprankle's blog,
    Sheryl says we are the last "teachers" to be trained as we have been. No longer will teachers be trained as we have in the past. There is a new dawn for our newest pre-service teachers, they are on a new journey. It is the chilling realization, maybe this is the disruption we need.