Struggles Can Breed Innovation: An Interview with Clay Christensen and Michael Horn

A recent issue of Newsweek Magazine asked ‘What to read this summer?’  And the answer included Disrupting Class, the provocative book by Clay Christensen, Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson.  Disrupting ClassI talked with two of the authors–Clay and Michael–about the book, the economic crisis and the importance of innovation in education.

My interview with Clay and Michael is particularly relevant now that Arne Duncan has unveiled ambitious plans for the so-called Race to the Top and the $4B in stimulus money.


Everywhere I go these past months, I’ve met people who were reading “Disrupting Class” and/or talking about your ideas. When you decided to turn your attention to schools, traditionally one of the most hidebound of our institutions, did you anticipate such a positive reaction?

When we published the book, we really didn’t know what to expect. It’s been a pleasant surprise that so many educators have been mostly excited by the vision we put forth. Many educators realize that everyone learns differently from each other, and many wear the battle scars from their largely futile struggles to customize learning for every student from within a factory-based system built for standardization. It seems that our message struck a chord as it suggested a way to deliver innovation in a sector that has been so lacking in it and offered a vision for how to transform learning from our current monolithic world to a student-centric one that could spell great relief from these struggles.

In a recent column in the New York Times, Tom Friedman urged America to innovate, innovate, innovate, if we want to survive and prosper. You have, of course, made a persuasive case for innovation and provided recipes and a road map. In the book, you urge educators to innovate. Are educators listening, or are they so wrapped up in trying to survive that innovation is just not on their list?

Many of Friedman’s themes in that piece have echoed our own thoughts and writing–from why America seems to have been the only country to be able to disrupt its own economy in the past to how necessity in times of struggles can breed innovation (a step beyond invention). In many pockets it really does seem as though educators are innovating in creative ways. For example, the main disruption we identified in the book–online learning–is booming at the moment as it is growing well over 30 percent a year, and many educators are pushing it well beyond its initial versions to allow it to serve many more people with quality options. Doing this is vital so that we can offer more with less.

That said, in other quarters we fear you are right. Many are so focused on surviving, treading water, and dealing with problems confronting them right now that they are in fact doing more damage by not thinking creatively and using these times as an opportunity. Budget cutbacks of the same old variety that don’t think strategically and creatively about how they might in fact further transformation aren’t advancing us anywhere. And just flooding in money to allow districts to continue to do the same old thing doesn’t seem to be particularly helpful either.

My wife, a distinguished educator, believes that today is an opportunity for those in education to ‘rethink, not retrench,’ and I know you agree. But do you have sympathy for educators who are, as the cliché goes, “up to their nostrils in the swamp, making it easy to forget that they are supposed to drain it”?

Absolutely. When things are falling all around, it’s only natural to hunker down and protect the ship. With pressing problems constantly arising and needing immediate attention, it’s hard to get above it all and give yourself the time to breathe, think strategically and question your own implicit assumptions about how the world works–and not simply retrench.

This is among the reasons why creating autonomous organizations that can prioritize disruptions is so critical. Otherwise, there’s always something else that needs attention that is part of your well-defined, every day job. Executing bold steps that may not have any pay off for some time to come (if at all) isn’t all that intuitive when there’s something more immediate facing you down.

Disrupting Class urges innovations ‘on the margins.’ What subjects are ‘on the margins’ in schools? Where should we look for innovations?

That’s a good way of putting it. Transformational innovation rarely starts square in the bulls-eye of where people are looking. Those “at the margins” areas in education or of “non-consumption” in our parlance are the places where schools are struggling to serve would-be students with any option at all and are in fact relieved to be able to not have to offer something. Some of the bigger areas on which we should keep an eye in education are advanced courses in rural schools in particular, credit recovery in urban schools in particular, dropouts, and home schooling.

A few other ones are tutoring, after school or in the home, summer school (particularly in these budget times), and even such creative areas as the long school bus commute in many rural areas. We’ve seen some very interesting ideas in all of these places.

Tell me more. Specifically, where should we journalists be looking for these good stories?

There are some great online learning innovations that are targeting these areas right now with a totally different model to boost achievement and graduation rates by providing access to quality learning opportunities for anyone anywhere. Florida Virtual School is one of the most exciting state models. It’s now serving somewhere around 100,000 students, and the school just launched a new American History course that is taught completely through an online game. It’s pretty exciting.

In addition, there are many companies doing some great things in the space, from K12, Inc. and Connections Academy to Advanced Academics and Apex Learning, which is launching a series of Foundation courses specifically geared for the middle-to-high school transition years and has taken off with helping dropouts through alternative school models.

There are so many interesting things going on, it’s actually quite hard to keep track of it all right now. More research is certainly needed to push these providers more, but they really have created some great models.

Clay, when you spoke at the annual meeting of the American Association of School Administrators in San Francisco earlier this year, you urged the school superintendents to use the current economic crisis and the federal stimulus money as an opportunity to innovate. I was sitting with you the next day when AASA’s leader told superintendents to–here I am paraphrasing–‘spend every dollar and keep good records.’ That is, he said nothing about trying new things. I don’t know you well enough to say you were ‘seething,’ but you sure seemed upset. Here’s your chance to set the record straight. What were you feeling?

We both remain quite worried on this point, you’re right. I’m not sure what the right word would be, but worried or “concerned” probably points us in the right direction for how I feel on the topic. I think the big thing to keep in mind is charging education is not changing it. Charging education is simply using borrowed money that we really don’t have to maintain the status quo and business as usual. It allows us to escape the hard choices that these times of necessity would otherwise impose on us. It allows us not to change– and doing that would be a dangerous waste of a crisis that in fact can be a rich opportunity.

Want to know more?  Get the book online here.

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