Thursday, January 01, 2009

Clayton Christensen's Theory of Disruptive Innovations in Education

I recently read Harvard Business professor Clayton Christensen's book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, written with Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson. The book extends Christensen's famous theory of disruptive innovation to education (just as another book does as to healthcare).

The "disruption" will be computers. The problem with education today, say Christensen/Horn/Johnson, is that it is too standardized and cookie-cutter, even though students all "learn in different ways." Computers will be more tailored to students' learning styles and capabilities.

To amplify, Christensen/Horn/Johnson give credence to Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences (such as linguistic, logical, spatial, kinesthetic, musical, etc.), which they rapidly conflate with the claim that everyone has a different learning style. Their main evidence as to learning styles consists of an anecdote about a sixth-grader who didn't read or write, until her perceptive teacher realized that she was a kinesthetic learner and needed to create a special "dance" for each letter of the alphabet, whereupon the girl "practiced all her spelling words through dancing." (I think this anecdote is of limited generalizability at best.) Thus, they claim that education should be customized to everyone's learning style, something that can allegedly be accomplished via computer programs.

But as noted educational psychologist Dan Willingham of Virginia has pointed out, there is really no evidence that "learning styles" exist, not in the strong sense that is often claimed. Yes, some people are indeed better at learning kinesthetic skills (such as dancing or sports) than they are at math. That does not mean that if math is taught with a kinesthetic element, such people will learn math better than anyone else. When a kinesthetic demonstration is helpful -- such as using blocks to teach kindergarteners the concept of subtraction, or conducting a chemistry experiment -- it will be helpful for everybody, not just for so-called "kinesthetic learners."

On top of that, even if people really did have different "learning styles," and even if it made sense to think of subjects such as history or literature being taught in a "kinesthetic" manner (or perhaps via "music" or "math," for people gifted in those areas), I'm dubious that computers would be suited for delivering such instruction. Computers aren't really kinesthetic at all -- the motions of clicking a mouse or typing on a keyboard don't have much of anything to do with the actual content of a math or physics problem that might be presented. Nor, for that matter, would a typical student find a computer of much use in dancing the letters of the alphabet.

All of that said, I do think that Christensen and his co-authors are right that computer-delivered instruction can have quite significant benefits in certain subjects and in certain respects. The most obvious example would be a math program that provides math questions based on each individual student's past pattern of right/wrong answers, thus providing instruction that is perfectly tailored to what that student needs to practice. Such programs already exist, and a new study by a few respected economists provides evidence that they are very effective.

On the whole, it's a valuable and thought-provoking book.



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