Reimagining Disruption in Education

By now you’ve most likely heard the talk. I’ve heard it so often now I think someone is selling it at a discounted rate. It’s the same speech over and over again: The speaker will caution you against complacency because the world as we know it is changing quickly and in unprecedented ways. Thus, they’ll continue, we need to embrace innovation or be left behind. And they’ll always use the same positive examples: Netflix, Über, Airbnb, Virgin, and Google/ Apple. (With Kodak as the negative example.)

In education, we are told, we need to embrace new disruptive educational technologies in particular, or risk being left behind.

So what’s wrong with disruption as a term in education? 

On the surface of it, not much. In the last half decade, disruptive innovations have certainly improved my life and the lives of many around the planet – in some very profound ways. And disruptive technology in education – things like tablets, ChromeBooks, MOOCs and the like certainly seem to be helping to produce a richer educational experience.

But dig a little, and you’ll find that not all is as it seems.

Disruption is Slow and Persistent

Firstly, true disruptive innovation often starts out being worse than existing systems. True innovators fail, and then improve, they slowly make their alternative better and better until it appears that suddenly they have emerged with a whole new way of doing things. Disruption is thus not a single moment of epiphany, it is a long, hard slog. Real innovation is a slow, patient, deliberate, stubborn, sweat-stained evolution, not an explosive revolution.

And in schools, this is exactly what we need to be encouraging in our teachers and students. True innovation takes time. It takes work. It takes persistence and resilience. It takes collaboration and it takes vision. ‘Disrupting education’ simply by lifting the lid and throwing in new innovations doesn’t work. In order to truly change schools and education for the better, we need to learn from the true nature of disruptive innovation: we need slow, deliberate, sustained revolutions. We need to embrace our failures, and constantly set about improving what we do.

Disruption is Careful

As is the fate of most new and wonderful ideas, ‘disruption’ has now become a wash-out with overuse (and misuse). Mostly, this is the case because ‘disruptive’ companies want to capitalize on the success of the giants of disruption. Hence, now that anyone can ‘disrupt’, innovation is associated with short-term, superficial, faddish products. They do not make a significant change in the way we live and are forgotten within a few months.

In education, we constantly have to defend against these empty disruptions. There are a horde of providers who want to sell us things to ‘disrupt’ our classrooms: From innovative furniture to collaborative learning, from fancy interactive boards to a plethora of ‘educational’ apps. Very few of these disruptive ideas and products are focused on where innovation truly makes a long-term difference. Disruptive education is a slow change towards a more meaningful, flexible system of learning, one in which students are given agency and choice and respect. Only outside innovations which support this vision have any kind of real and sustainable effect. The rest will be forgotten very quickly.

Disruption is Small

Disruption starts in someone’s garage. The juggernauts of disruption we know today all began with one or two nutcases imagining something better. Disruptive innovations start small. They take mad courage and the passion to make the impossible possible. And they are rooted in the conviction that the world can be made into a better place.

Disruption in education is about individuals. It is about the crazy teachers who know there must be a better way. It is about those students who love to tinker and challenge and rebel and try and learn beyond the confines of the syllabus. It’s about those subversive parents and administrators who support these children and teachers. And soon enough, if these people are persistent and patient enough, the movement grows. But it can just as easily wither and die, if the focus is on the wrong things (like tests and grades and ‘disruption’)… And if we bang on the garage door and tell them to shut up.

Disruption is Meaningful

What’s interesting about disruption and disruptive innovations is that they are so seldom applied to what matters: poverty alleviation, gender inequality, environmental despoilation, intolerance, and our general deficit of compassion. We can get a ride somewhere by tapping a screen, we can binge-watch tv on our computers and we can access our files from anywhere with an internet connection. But are we really making the world a better place?

In education, there are disruptive innovations which allow students to search the Internet, we can ‘personalize’ learning with sophisticated software, we can analyze data, we can assess digitally, and we have wonderful apps to tap out amazingly artistic creations. 

But are we teaching our kids to evaluate information, spin, and fluffy reasoning with which they are constantly bombarded? Are we nurturing curiosity and creativity? Are we allowing kids to tinker (with their hands and their minds)? Are we talking through controversial ideas and pushing kids to make unusual connections? Are we encouraging them to find and embrace their own interests? Are we encouraging them to subvert outdated ideas? Are we teaching compassion and understanding? 
These are the real disrupters of traditional learning. And these are the things that will truly lead to a more rational, empowered, compassionate and world-changing generation of young people.

Conclusion: Disrupting Disruption

Schools are not businesses. Classrooms are not startups. Learning is not a commodity. Education is about young people and about doing what is best for them. Education does not need to ‘learn’ from the latest bit of marketing babble. We do not need to ‘disrupt’ education by taking on board all of the latest, shiniest toys. We do need to look closely at the true nature of paradigm-shifting revolutions to effect meaningful change. And if businesses want to be truly disruptive, they would be well-advised to look towards what many progressive schools are doing these days around the world: education is changing in some truly amazing ways: We are shifting our focus away from the product, towards the ‘customer’ experience, we are listening more than we are telling, and we are focused on long term impact rather than short term results.

I’ll let Tom Robbins have the final word:

“In times of widespread chaos and confusion, it has been the duty of more advanced human beings – artists, scientists, clowns and philosophers – to create order. In times such as ours, however, when there is too much order, too much management, too much programming and control, it becomes the duty of superior men and women to fling their favorite monkey wrenches into the machinery. To relieve the repression of the human spirit, they must sow doubt and disruption.”

― Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues


About Sean Hampton-Cole

Fascinated by thinking & why it goes wrong➫ (Un)teacher ➫iPadologist ➫Humanist ➫Stirrer ➫Edupunk ➫Synthesist ➫Introvert ➫Blogger ➫Null Hypothesist.
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2 Responses to Reimagining Disruption in Education

  1. Edumorfosis says:

    Disruptive education does not consist of integrating technological resources into the classroom. It is not disruptive to use technologies to teach and that students passively contemplate their teacher’s speech. The true educational disruption is to incorporate technological tools into the learning formats of students. The role of technology is to expand human efforts to enhance people’s learning. True educational disruption empowers the educator to create his own models and techniques of hyperconnected learning. And it also empowers the student to use it as a cognitive resource for creating, designing, programming, coding, socializing, exploring, researching, experimenting, discussing, disseminating and communicating.

    • I agree with most of what you say. Yet you do not go far enough. Integrating technology is only truly disruptive if it supports disruptive pedagogies, not just the ‘learning formats’ of students. Methodologies, twinned with appropriate technology which supports student agency, and thus independent thinking are what’s truly revolutionary about the wise use of technology. It is not just about the things you mention in your final sentence, it is about changing power relationships at school, and it is ultimately about making a better world.

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