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. Continue reading