Down To Business: Dare To Think Differently About U.S. Education

A new book makes the case for a more tech-centric, individualized approach to teaching. Given the current product and the future stakes, we better start shaking the system up in some way.
My son Jack literally thinks faster on his feet. Like most 12-year-old boys, he's a bundle of energy, but unlike most boys, sitting at a desk cramps his ability to learn. And most teachers, trained to enforce conformity, insist that he sit at attention.

But Jack's sixth-grade social studies teacher took a different tack this year, letting him stand (and shift about) throughout each class. So long as he wasn't being disruptive, why not? He stayed more involved with each lesson, and he studied harder at home to impress his new favorite teacher. Meantime, his classmates quickly accepted the fact that standing was just Jack's way, to the point that when a substitute teacher demanded that he sit himself down, they rose to his defense: "Oh, no, Jack's allowed to stand!"

This one very small example speaks to the power of unconventional education, a subject that's getting more attention as our nation's schoolchildren fall behind those in other countries, especially in math and the hard sciences. In their new book, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change The Way The World Learns (McGraw-Hill, 2008), Harvard professor Clayton M. Christensen and co-authors Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson challenge U.S. educators to consider many of the "disruptive innovation" concepts Christensen exhorted U.S. businesses to adopt in two previous management best-sellers.

This latest book focuses on the failure of the education system to tailor instruction to how individuals learn best. This column can't begin to lay out the book's many recommendations, supported by case studies and research, but it's mainly about using technology to craft customized and "student-centric" curriculums, in many cases outside the traditional classroom structure. Currently, the authors argue, mainstream educators just graft IT onto existing lesson planning, teaching, and testing processes, while still treating each student pretty much the same as they did before. Meantime, more innovative, upstart providers--charter schools, private tutors, companies that provide online curriculums, and those that focus on homeschooling--have carved out a niche with more individualized tech-based instruction. Their more market-oriented approaches, the authors maintain, will become more affordable as they become the norm rather than the exception. The authors predict, for instance, that online courses will account for half of high school enrollments by 2020. It's the way most other industries have evolved with technology, the authors maintain.

Whether or not you buy into this tech-centric theory on improving education--not much is said in the book about the virtues of discipline and other more rudimentary approaches--there's little debate that this country's education system could use a kick in the pants. For example, in the most recent (2006) OECD survey of 400,000 15-year-olds in 57 industrialized countries, the United States ranked 35th in math and 29th in science.

Granted, there's plenty of "back in the good ol' days" nostalgia coloring negative assessments of the U.S. education system. And our falling behind may have something to do with the relative progress being made in India, China, Korea, and other countries barely on the global economy's radar 30 years ago. Make no mistake: The countries producing world-class students aren't doing it with clever software programs or by letting kids stand in class. It starts with cultures where parents emphasize study over video games, sports, and social affairs, and education systems that encourage the best and brightest.

The corollary is that American workers continue to be among the world's most productive, as measured by output per hour. So all is not lost. Even if a U.S. cultural transformation and education system overhaul aren't likely, grassroots partnerships among schools, private companies, and employers are a positive first step. It's worth experimenting. The country's economic future is on the line.

Rob Preston,
VP and Editor in Chief
[email protected]

To find out more about Rob Preston, please visit his page.

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