Putting It All Together

Exiting a fitness class recently, the instructor mentioned her upcoming plans post college graduation.  Fellow class members hoped she would be sticking around, however she replied, “I’m taking time away. Probably to go somewhere like South America, spend some time traveling and being in the mountains.”  Ah, we thought, good choice, travel and explore while you can. Then she continued the thought and announced pretty emphatically, “I need a break, in particular I need a digital detox.”

The instructor was 21-years old, a digital native, a social media natural, a college student who had experienced digital and face-to-face elements of her higher education experience.  And she was aware that she needed the mountains of South America to recover from . . . what? College? That’s understandable, it’s intense. From the online aspects of college? Perhaps.  From the overarching digital reliance on, or demands of, being a cyber student and cyber citizen in 2018?  Or was it recovering from growing up in the 21st century?  I know that statement is slight hyperbole but it’s worth musing about. The instructor understood hard work to attain her diploma goal, and she also expressed understanding of the need for balance, recovery, and restoration after hitting work hard.  Many of us don’t have or have lost that understanding.

To those of us born in the still middle range of the 20th century, it often seems recovery and restoration were more naturally integrated into growing up.  Family, home, chores, school, homework, dinner, and then your mother sent you outside until dark to play with the neighbor kids. And she locked the doors so that she could clean the house.  Then Atari arrived. With great anticipation, we installed and hooked it up to our black and white TV. Breathlessly, my brother and I grabbed the controls, and we played Pong. For 10 minutes.  Then we went back outside to jump in the creek, play tag or football with the neighbors, or just sit around on the porch giggling with the kids next door.

Apologies for the trip into nostalgia, but it’s worth the reflection to mine the changes that have, or have not, occurred.  Thinking of college, for many students, like the fitness instructor, college is intense. Many colleges had age-old practices that encouraged communing; some of those practices have been transformed in modern day.  The original practices had not been deliberately and specially crafted by the administration to convince students that this was a good thing. They were a part of what members of a college community naturally had done for decades: talked face to face to each other in the presence of curriculum and a professor, in the presence of a big or small classroom of peers, in the presence of food, natural beauty, or a cup of tea.  My college had an old tradition that I at first thought was tragically stuffy: afternoon tea and evening coffee in each dorm living room. I was from the midwest, the college was in New England, and this seemed pretentious. Then I went to “tea.” Everybody went, scarfed a Pepperidge Farm Milano cookie, enjoyed a cup of tea, read the Boston Globe, sat and chatted.  It was a midweek exhale, and I never missed it. A classmate’s daughter attends the same college in 2018. She’s a go-getter like we all were.  She reports that “tea” is long gone, “students became too busy and have internships, so the college ended it years ago.” Ugh. She also complained to her mother, “Mom, I really like the school, but it’s not fun like you describe it as fun in the 1980’s . . .”  Maybe true, maybe not. But it’s worth wondering about how digital learning and communication and being together in the virtual world impacts, even diminishes, any built-in structures (weekly “tea”) for balance, recovery, and restoration. How is family dinner impacted when a family member tends to their cell phone?   It’s worth wondering about how our increase in using the digital and virtual worlds impacts or diminishes a cultural value and natural pressure to tend to such things as balance, recovery, and restoration.

The graduate needed a digital detox.  

Regarding technology use and schooling, I am a bigger supporter of digital learning than I was when I first entered this class.  I now know more. And as I think about increasing tech integration into learning, we also have to integrate digital-use health and etiquette: no-tech days at school; emphasis of and actual use of structures that tend to balance, recovery, and restoration; education on what technology addiction looks like.  Elementary students now identify when they emotionally are in the green, yellow, or dreaded red zones, hence they can also learn how to identify those zones related to digital dizziness or overuse. The examples from South Korean schools shown in Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier illustrate some basic collective methods for elementary students to engage in etiquette.  And for older students, identifying levels of addiction and appropriate responses to digital overuse will be important.  In Digital Nation, Sheryl Turkel and other researchers report on tech overuse and multi-tasking.  In some early research, multi-taskers often have worse analytic reasoning. Turkel warns that overuse and multi-tasking are “creating people unable to think well and clearly.”  She continues, “there are important things you cannot think about unless it’s still, and you’re only thinking about one thing at a time.” These concepts need to be taught experientially to students throughout their school careers, so that students understand them as real and internalize them in practice.  With technology and digital tools, balance, recovery, and restoration need to be taught and experienced by students.

So let’s go all out with integrating beneficial digital learning tools, trust our educator selves to judge useful ones versus duds and to judge the balance between digital and face-to-face.  And let’s concurrently teach digital-use health and etiquette. This way we fret less up front about judging how much is too much tech integration since it’s impossible to understand totally this still new horizon.  We also increase our rate of trial and error with digital tools, more quickly integrating the good ones, discarding those that are not. We increase our ability to find the balance and to develop our educator judgment.

In terms of what has changed and insights I have on technology integration in schooling, many ideas and questions have come together.  The question of technology in schools has been too “big” for me to feel it could be tackled in a coherent manner. The course and readings have de-mystified it in many ways, and thus put me more at ease as an educational leader.  In many ways it reaffirms the core: that it’s about learning and matching the best learning tools. The tools of today must acknowledge how students today learn, which includes through and in the virtual world and with digital media.  My own professional experiences have been at low tech or moderate tech schools. I have not experienced a school or district with aggressive technology goals or usage. One district was stuck even knowing how to talk about it, as one move (i.e. going 1:1 or BYOD) was going to disrupt the organizational architecture, something not tolerated in the district’s school cultures.  Another district is slowly adding teacher tools around the edges, Google classroom, online math and literacy programs as supplements. Teachers are picking them up at their own pace with a low level of mandate from above.

The goals of this course as well as its curated reading list have given me the mental schema and background to put tech in its place, so to speak.  First, technology use is a core competency that must be taught PK-12. Second, technology is a tool for learning, not the learning itself. Guided by the SAMR or TPACK frameworks, schools and districts would benefit from articulating their 5-10 year plan for integration. Any plan that length would be revised as new information and advancement occurred, but organizations need plans that articulate the overarching goals, vision, benchmarks, and success indicators.  The U.S. Office of Educational Technology plan for teacher preparation sheds light on the importance of the rising and existing teaching corps possessing sufficient skills in tech integration.  This document sheds light on the wider issue for the teaching profession – teachers needing to have their own schema for matching learning tools to today’s learners.  Teachers need to know and understand the vocabulary of 21st century learning tools: student-centered learning, personalized learning, and adaptive learning, blended learning.  The pressure to keep up with what can appear an endless list of new methods is overwhelming. It does not have to be. Teachers need the vision and expectations set, then they need the micro-lessons on personalization and tech integration, opportunities for collaboration, experimentation and risk-taking so that they can integrate new methods into their practice now.  They also need time to reflect on how their practice promotes core 21st century competencies, but also balance and restoration.

Ongoing question: What are model schools at all levels that have a tech-competent staff, coordinated curriculum that integrates digital tools, and a level of personalization that is clear and beneficial for all students?


Dretzin, R., Rushkoff, D. (Writers), & Dretzin, R. (Director). (2010). Digital nation [Television series episode]. Dretzin, R., Rushkoff, D. (Executive Producers), Frontline. Boston, MA: PBS/WGBH.

The United States, U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology. (2016, December). Advancing educational technology in teacher preparation: Policy brief. Retrieved October 21, 2018, from https://tech.ed.gov/U.S. Office of Ed Tech.

Personalized & Adaptive Learning

What educator would not want to personalize a student’s learning?  Or to personalize in order to accelerate all students to the depth and distance of their abilities?  It is safe to say that ideal is shared, but “how” becomes tricky. At a meeting of community stakeholders when I was a new school leader, one elected official proposed straightforwardly the goal of “personalizing” learning for all students, and that online tools were an answer.  The official believed that students “connected deeply” online. Both statements were plausible, if not completely informed. To continue the conversation in this school district, however, complex realities had to be considered. The district was working to become more administratively and operationally proficient, but was not quite there.  Digital bandwidth in schools was limited, as were digital devices. Classrooms had TVs, DVD players and very few document cameras. Teacher autonomy was highly valued, which was not a negative, but had to be considered in the planning toward scaled personalization and use of online tools. Personalizing for all students in the general manner the official proposed was admirable, but also seemed far-off, technically speaking.  Carol Ann Tomlinson warns that many good, but complex, instructional approaches suffer when implementation is only “thinly” considered, “the potential of (the) approach is extinguished because the community adopts it in a manner suggesting that changing course in schools is as straightforward as changing socks” (2017, p. 15). I was skeptical. This was not an idea to present lightly.

Schools are complex organizations that have what Clayton Christensen calls “interdependent architectures” (2011, p. 31).  A school’s organizational architecture includes numerous critical parts such as the schedule, bargaining agreements, special education regulations, and curriculum, to name a few.  The parts must mesh together, and changing one part likely disrupts others, thus any change suddenly requires consideration of the puzzle of all the many parts. Tomlinson notes, “Even modest departures from the familiar often cause disquieting tremors throughout the system” (2017, p. 11).  Small shifts need some planning; big shifts need deep consideration of the why, what and how. In my example, the elected official proposed a “what” as opposed to the “why.” At that time, personalized learning with digital tools was new and trending; pushing it was edgy and seen as innovative.  It was attention-getting. But would it root and grow; was this school district’s context ready or receptive? Schools often begin with the “what” since new programs and approaches are usually highly visible and project the image of forward thinking.  However, the “why” requires most time and thinking, and productive organizations focus most time on “why they’re taking a particular course of action” and let this inform the rest (Sinek, 2009).  Tomlinson cautions to not mistake personalized learning “as the goal rather than as a means to a much larger end: linking students with meaningful learning” (Tomlinson, p. 14).

As schools and districts explore digital tools to personalize student learning, I believe adaptive learning and personalized learning can work together.  Personalized learning is one ideal, and adaptive learning is a means to that personalized end. But there are other considerations to this equation, mainly the sustainability of any new approach.  My elected official did not know what the implications on the ground were for her proposal of “personalized learning” for all. A shift to personalized learning had to be defined, the “why” articulated, and it had to be sustainable.  A teacher writing 25 individual lesson plans for each student’s day would not be sustainable. Therefore, what standardization of methods and tools would assist the teacher in her task, but would also keep the experience unique for each student?  Paul Emerich France describes classroom practice that has standardized tools and processes so that students can jump from the base they provide to more personal agency and critical thinking (2017, p. 2). He argues that personalized learning can come from within a classroom context of standardized tools (rubrics, exemplars, online learning programs, etc) and processes (classroom procedures, drafting and writing processes, etc).  He warns against personalization that provides too much student choice or too few structural constraints; these deficits can confuse kids. He notes, “Children are constantly developing a mental model for the world, and as a result, they’re looking for structures on which they can rely to feel successful” (France, p. 2). Classroom routines and processes provide a structure. Benjamin Riley also argues for sustainability emphasizing cognitive science.  He questions a tenet of personalized learning: that students should have control over what they learn, maximal student choice. Cognitive science and the science of how people learn suggests that doing the hard work of putting facts into long-term memory actually frees up working memory – the creative part of our thinking. Hence, making short-term use of facts a student pulls from the internet without committing that information to long term memory can amount to not really having learned the information (Riley, p 2). There is some value to the often laborious and tedious “learning” and memorizing of math facts, history and science facts and vocabulary.  Once in the long-term memory, easily recall can incorporate them into bigger thinking and connection making.

So coming full circle, maybe it is the understanding and remembering levels of the learning pyramid (the lower levels) where adaptive learning can be leveraged, potentially at all levels (K-12).  A digital tool that tutors and teaches the basics and also checks for understanding could be an asset for the teacher. Such a digital tool could help students to master the basics in math or history, then the teacher is freed up to introduce, coach, and support students with the deeper and creative application aspects of a learning unit.  This is a better use of student and teacher time. And if the adaptive tools used are connected to wide student pools that pull data about how kids learn best, and they feed back information to the teacher and to the student, if they are used in reasonable and limited manners, then they can be an asset to learning.

In the end, learning is both individual and community based.  Showing up for one another at a school and in a classroom is probably the most valuable act of learning, especially from ages 5 to 16.  The world is lived with other people, and school is where children learn how to do that living.

Summary of Critiques – Disrupting Class

Since its publication in 2008, the book Disrupting Class has gained the attention of the education world and made a valuable contribution to the school reform debate.  Its three authors hail from the business school world, and they apply a business theory lens to the system of K12 education.  Educators in both K12 and higher education have responded with mixed reviews; some appreciative of the illustration offered and others claiming the authors misunderstand and underestimate the complexity of the K12 system.  The reviewers’ insights are valuable to the school reform debate on two fronts. First, they affirm and elaborate on the use of disruptive innovation theory as a lens to learn about schools and how kids learn. New lenses almost always offer new insight, and some reviewers build on the new views.  Second, other reviews offer a valuable counter and caution to ideas espoused in Disrupting Class when those ideas are taken to logical conclusions.  Some reviewers are skeptical of the business motive for the disruptive innovation theory, and they criticize the authors’ failure to acknowledge schools as far too human, dynamic, and context-dependent to resemble for-profit organizations and business theories.  

Authors Christensen, Horn, and Johnson are consistently recognized for describing accurately the history of American schooling and its current key challenges.  In terms of consensus, most reviewers find agreement with the authors’ recognition that the education system has in fact grown, changed, and adapted over decades in response to increased state and federal demands.  There is also general agreement in baseline concepts presented in the book such as: a) students do not all learn in a similar manner nor at a similar pace, b) today’s school system is geared toward standardization, and c) the target for change is pedagogy which is outdated and in need of modernizing in order to serve the 21st century learner, as opposed to the content and curriculum (Abboushi, 2009; Ackerman, 2008; Balaban, 2009; Carmody, 2009; Hand, 2008; Norris, & Solloway, 2009; Sener, 2009).

Our ability to increase student-centered learning is often challenged by the embedded structures of traditional schooling.  Laurie Carmody (2009) appreciates disruptive innovation as a framework and the importance noted by the authors of ensuring “intrinsically motivating student-centric classroom(s).”  The authors’ recognition of the deep structural barriers to whole school change is elaborated by multiple reviewers. The changes sought are essential though. Changes in organizational structure are needed for schools to increase student-centered instruction.  David B. Hand (2008) describes schools as having “innovation disabilities” that are often a result of stuck structures that deliver monolithic instruction to groups. He agrees with the book authors that it is time for schools to “innovate right structures and embrace disruptive innovation” to improve instruction.  Hand also comments from a higher education perspective and notes that the more that K12 students are exposed to computer-based learning, the more they will expect–even demand–it in higher education.

Reviewers oppose the authors’ limited analysis of computer-based learning’s impact on teachers, the suggestion of leadership coercion to force change, and the lack of recognition of schools as different from business, as highly dynamic, intensely human, and context-dependent.  Teachers ideally will flip their time ratio, from majority monolithic, full class instruction, to majority individual assistance to students (Balaban, 2009; Christensen et. al., 2011). However, the authors do not elaborate on the negative impact on the teaching profession or how to envision this change process (Balaban, 2009; Sener, 2009; Norris & Solloway, 2009).  Sanda Balaban is skeptical at the authors’ suggestion that when democratic negotiation for school change has maxed out, then using the “power tools of coercion” is an option for leaders. Moreover, Balaban continues, true sustainable change happens less through coercion and more through shifts in the hearts and minds of those on the frontline. She uses the examples of school system leaders Joel Klein in New York City and Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C. as examples of disruptors who touched coercion only with marginal success.  The book authors are criticized for not fully discussing what the school change process looks like when disruptive innovation takes hold, also for not acknowledging the “human dynamics of disruption” (Balaban, 2009; Sener, 2009).

Balaban (2009) and Sener (2009) dig the deepest into the layers of impact that disruptive innovation can have.  Balaban cautions that the use of computer-based learning in a standardized setting, although increasing a school’s ability to match a particular learning style, could lead to more efficient “sorting” and “separation” of students in a manner that is nowhere near the equitable practice for which public schools’ strive.  Sener amplifies the criticism claiming that Christensen et. al. give no example of a for profit organization actually having done the transformation that they advocate for schools. If schools are to flip flop their core structures so as to receive the benefits that disruptive innovation brings, then where is an example of a business that did a similar massive structural revision?  Sener goes a step further still. The true innovation, he argues, will not be “customized inputs” with “standardized results,” as computer-based learning promises. He argues more widely that the very definition of success and “smart” be widened in order to capture fully the diversity of individuals and interests. He says, “A better answer is to expand the notion of what constitutes high achievement so that there are multiple paths of recognized success besides, for instance, knowing calculus or being college-bound” (2009).

When it comes to business theorists commenting on the education system, the discussion can quickly devolve into a turf battle.  Educators are quickly protective of their practice and the profession, finding numerous reasons to oppose any utterance from a business professional.  Yet while Clayton Christensen et. al. have left some key issues unexplained and “sidestepped some core conundrums” (Balaban, 2009), they have still provoked the reform debate in interesting directions.  Leveraging online instruction that helps students reach core competencies is already happening today in 2018 in many schools. Blended learning, a combination of face-to-face and online instruction, has reshaped schooling anywhere from slightly to substantially depending upon the school context.  In alternative, non-consumer spaces, online instruction has taken hold in K12 education. San Francisco’s Flex Academy, a self-paced alternative high school, and the Florida Virtual High School are examples of computer-based learning serving students well. A less examined aspect of computer-based learning is an explicit examination of “what is lost” when this instruction is used.  Depending on the context and integration of teachers, very little may be lost. However, for a heavily online format with limited face-to-face group communication, there are real losses of habits and experiences that students have traditionally been wrapped in in a traditional school. How do these habits and experiences translate to online learning and communities? Can they? This offers an area for continued research – to examine skills lost and gained when participating in computer-based learning.


Abboushi, F. (2009, February). [Review of the book, Disrupting class: How disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns by C. M. Christensen, M. B. Horn, & C. W. Johnson.]  Choice, p. 1155.

Ackerman, G. L. (2008, October).  [Review of the book, Disrupting class: How disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns by C. M. Christensen, M. B. Horn, & C. W. Johnson.]  Education Review.

Balaban, S. J. (2009). [Review of the book, Disrupting class: How disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns by C. M. Christensen, M. B. Horn, & C. W. Johnson].  Encounter, Vol. 22, no. 3, pp 44-47.

BizEd Magazine (2008, September/October).  [Review of the book, Disrupting class: How disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns by C. M. Christensen, M. B. Horn, & C. W. Johnson.]  BizEd, p. 72.

Carmody, L. E. (2009, February 15).  [Review of the book, Disrupting class: How disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns by C. M. Christensen, M. B. Horn, & C. W. Johnson.]  Education Technology Research & Development, 57:267-269.

Christensen, C., Horn, M.B., & Johnson, C. W.  (2011). Disrupting class: How disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns. New York: McGraw Hill.

Hand, D. (2008).  [Review of the book, Disrupting class: How disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns by C. M. Christensen, M. B. Horn, & C. W. Johnson.  Journal of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning for Christians in Higher Education, Vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 14-17.

Norris, C. & Solloway, E.  (2009, September). Disrupting class misses the point.  [Review of the book, Disrupting class: How disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns by C. M. Christensen, M. B. Horn, & C. W. Johnson.]  District Administration, p. 82.

Sener, J. (2009, December).  [Review of the book, Disrupting class: How disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns by C. M. Christensen, M. B. Horn, & C. W. Johnson.] eLearn Magazine.


Book Review: Disrupting Class and Clayton Christensen

In Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns (2011), the authors’ ambitious goal is to uncover the deep causes of the difficulty that American schools have with school improvement.  More specifically, the purpose is to explain why and how the schooling experience has not been an intrinsically motivating experience for American students (p. 10).  Authors Clayton Christensen, Michael B. Horn, and Curtis W. Johnson apply the lens of their innovation research onto schools, noting that this application has proven successful in uncovering “complicated problems” within other industries (p. 6). Their base premise, that individuals learn differently, and they learn at different paces, is hard to argue against.  We know this to be true. So why in K12 education do we have a large degree of monolithic instruction and grade-level advancement based on seat-time as opposed to demonstrated competencies? The authors successfully answer this question by introducing key parts of the disruptive innovation theory, elaborating with examples of product development from familiar businesses, then mapping the theory onto situations in today’s schools.

Christensen, Horn and Johnson are careful to make sense of K12 education today as a result of its history rather than to criticize it roundly.  The book explains current school organization and its history, and the monolithic instructional systems which support standardization. These early chapters explore how schools can and are migrating to more student-centered instructional models with technology as a tool.  Historically, standardization began in earnest in the late 1800s when American public schools responded to mass migration and to the noble goal of educating more students for a democratic society and for jobs to support the economy. Schools were enlarged, students taught in batches, and curriculum became standard across all classes and students.  This was a departure from the 18th and 19th centuries’ where many students experienced personalized learning in very small schools, which by necessity contained mixed grade levels. The personalized learning from over 100 years ago has been long lost on the grand scale, and it is an irony that we seek its renaissance now. And educators believe one avenue to do so is by developing meaningful computer-based learning opportunities.

A strength of the book is the authors’ illustration of why schools are so stuck and how disruption works within them.  Schools have become incredibly complex organizations with what the authors call “interdependent architectures” that have stunted their evolution.  A school’s organizational architecture includes numerous critical parts such as a school schedule, the sharing of teachers across schools, collective bargaining agreements, special education regulations, common curriculum and accountability measures, limited resources.  The parts must mesh together for the institution to function. Changing one part likely disrupts others, thus any change suddenly requires consideration of the puzzle of all the many parts. So why bother? However, “modular architecture” in organizations and businesses is another model, which is flexible and open to being customized.  It signals a maturity in product and process: the parts can be changed without changing the whole system (p. 31). Christensen et al. describe the interdependent stage as part of product evolution,

In the early days of most new products and services, the components need to be tightly woven

together to maximize the functionality from an immature technology that is not yet good enough to satisfy customer needs. Customers are willing to tolerate the product standardization . . . (p.31).

As products mature, production processes become more nimble and affordable, and customization for customer need takes place.  Customers no longer need to tolerate a standardized product. In schools, however, customers have tolerated the standardized product for a long time, and it persists.  The organizational architecture remains tightly woven due to school budgets, complexity, increased mandates, accountability, and stasis. The result is that schools are stuck in a low level of organizational evolution.  The bright light of Disrupting Class is the idea that despite this history and complexity, learning can be customized for the needs of the K12 learner, provided a modular instruction method is integrated into the system.  Technology helps provide that modular answer.

The disruption that technology brings is a good thing for schools and is advancing their organizational evolution.  Disruption takes the schooling industry, whose complicated products and services do not serve well or all students, and it finds alternatives.  One of the alternatives is to integrate online learning, which is the “modular, student-centric approach that technology can offer” (p. 11). Until now, technology has not been integrated modularly for student-centered learning, but crammed into the old model of classroom learning.  Nor has it transformed instruction; it has simply eased a teacher’s grade-keeping, video projection, or allowed students to word process their written work. Disruptive innovation takes root in an industry with what the authors call non-consumers; in K12 education this would be students not served well by standardized, batch learning. This could include dropouts, homeschoolers, credit recoverers, and those seeking specialized instruction their schools do not offer such as A.P. courses.  These “venues of non-consumption constitute a booming market in which school districts can welcome computers as the primary delivery platform for learning” (p. 95). The authors note that online learning platforms are improving rapidly, and combined with their convenience, the cost savings to districts, an impending teacher shortage, and true customization of learning, they will soon form a large percentage of high school coursework. In 2011, the authors predicted that 50% of high school courses would be online by 2020, and 80% by 2024, and that this would be a “breathtaking flip” (p. 102).

All students want to feel success, progress in learning, and have fun with friends.  Much of school instruction does not allow all kids to feel successful. Traditional instruction is geared toward the dominant learning style and does not give quick feedback on practice and learning.  As a result, many students find other arenas that suit their learning style and dominant intelligence in order to find success. Schools, therefore, now compete for students’ attention with those other more interesting arenas.  The authors correctly argue that a new leveraging of student-centered online learning will give better feedback, better diagnose learning difficulties, track competency attainment, and motivate students for success.

The main shortcoming of Disrupting Class is its quick treatment of the impact of student-centered online learning on the teaching profession.  The teacher shortage may be real or imagined, time will tell. But the authors offered a less-developed statement of how a teacher will become more of a coach, individualizing support for students one-by-one.  And by the way, the authors note, teachers will have larger caseloads. All may be true, but this area of disruptive innovation theory for schools will need to be experienced and crafted further with teacher unions in order to be palatable to educators who care deeply about student learning.  Also, the enormous benefits of student-centered online learning notwithstanding, there will always be value in students learning at the elbow of their master teachers. So to staff an online learning room of 16-year olds with a teaching assistant who is not expert in the field, would mark a notable loss to American schooling.  This aspect will need experimentation and fine-tuning. Another area to note is the question of how an increase in online learning as “school” will impact school communities, in particular at secondary schools. Since the inception of American public education, one key role has been for schools to be places where students learn democratic practices and participatory citizenship.  What’s the online component for that? Or, more likely, what is the blended, brick and mortar, component that will remain essential? Academic competencies and critical and creative thinking skills are key to develop in all students, but there is also critical is soft skill development such as collaboration, community participation, and service.

Christensen, Horn, and Johnson achieve their purpose in discovering why schools have been slow to improve at the core and in forecasting promising transformative learning technologies.  One of the key promising aspects is their discussion of the facilitated networks concept. This is the third plane of disruption that is most personalized to student need, akin to the tutoring concept.  This virtual and potentially massive collection of learning strategies for different topics, at different age levels, for students with varied dominant intelligences appears to be the frontier. The authors propose that this is how schools will change, when these methods are discovered, socialized on a manageable network, and adopted by teachers in ways that customize the learning to individual learning styles, needs, and intelligences.  Daunting at the outset, but likely doable. Less daunting, and happening increasingly now, is the blended learning concept that Disrupting Class describes.  The book’s articulation of leveraging online student-centered learning no doubt informed and pushed the blended learning concept at the date of its publication and beyond.  The authors have contributed a valuable framework and lens through which to view and analyze the continued transformation of instruction going on in K12 education.


Clayton C., M.B. Horn, and C.W. Johnson.  (2011). Disrupting class: How disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns. New York: McGraw Hill.

The Prediction: Disruptive Innovation

Taking It Further: The Prediction                                 Blog Post and Video

Clayton Christensen et al published Disrupting Class in 2011, which is a long time ago in terms of the pace of technology change.  It’s believed the book informed federal Education Department thinking under the Obama administration with the administration’s emphasis on online personalized learning.  The business theory about disruptive innovation taking root in the area of non-consumption is trickier in education, however the list of public K12 education non-consumers is growing (home-schoolers, drop outs, course recovery, rural students, etc).  My wonder is whether the number of non-consumers is actually increasing daily in front of our noses? The number could include the students, especially secondary level, actually attending school, but not picking up what we are putting down, however advancing nonetheless.  Is this number growing? When a student can find satisfaction, challenge and learning success via a multitude of other modes, those modes and environments will come to dominate one’s time, respect, and interest. Historically, most students, certainly not all, have respected school as a truly primary place to learn and connect with others.  The online digital world now offers a new primary place to learn and connect and at a pace that students can control.  How to keep school as the primary place where students still want to learn? A place that combines critical community and face-to-face interaction and learning with use of digital tools and online learning experiences and online communities.  What are the optimal blends? As I ponder how many times I have heard that high schoolers are bored at school, I see that the market share for student-learning-interest is facing a serious challenge.

Combine this challenge with the competency-based movement.  With the success and spread of competency-based middle and high school programs and state-approved curricula, “competency” will increasingly challenge the “seat time” measure.  Seems logical, but of course “schooling” is more complicated and more than academic competencies. Nevertheless, some of the non-consumers will include the high school students who push through the competencies at a quicker pace and demonstrate mastery at a younger grade.  So then what?  Educators and parents value competency attainment but also the community experience of school, the very American environment where students practice civic engagement, develop social justice awareness.  Driving rapidly through the vigorous competencies suggests the need for new options post-competency attainment? Extended learning challenges. Civic participation experiences. Apprenticeships and internships. Paid work anchored in scaffolded reflection. It suggests very personalized programs, and while exciting to think about, it brings up endless organizational questions due to the complicated “interdependent architectures” of schools.

Teachers and administrators are all over the place in terms of understanding disruptive innovation and its impact in education.  Some view it as a turf war, as business “invading our space.” Some have seen so much change, it’s just “more eduspeak.”  Some are concerned about and protective of the teaching profession and K12 schooling as we’ve known it.  Many do not see the path forward for integrating new modes and methods.  In fact, no one does, it’s a brand new frontier for everyone.  However other educators, in particular school and district leaders, seem to sense the potential and say “let’s go” even if they can’t completely describe the path to get there.

My prediction is that continuing with the technology integration that many schools now do will lead to even better developed blended learning environments.  Students will demand naturally other arenas to communicate and do “classroom” learn with peers and teacher.  Additionally, as the teaching profession ages, the teacher corps will be more naturally adept and proficient at blending learning worlds.  This combined with improvements in learning management systems will make teaching and learning a more “modular architecture” as Disrupting Class describes.   One interesting item to watch is the use of course authoring software, which seems more prevalent in companies for employee and client trainings.  But how will this tool spread in the K12 market since some course authoring products claim they integrate with Schoology, Canvas, Moodle, and Blackboard?  In what way will the course authoring softwares assist in the attainment of the baseline, the facts, the foundational concepts and calculations requisite to higher level thinking, musing, and applying in a discipline?  In the short video (linked above) the pictures of the “old” chalkboard and whiteboards with lecture notes are mine from about 20 years ago. The whole American history class, with me at the same time on the same day, went through the foundational concepts, baseline facts, which are all part of the glorious but tedious tasks of the historian.  No apologies, but why this method? Course authoring software and blended learning techniques are offering different and personalized approaches to this part of instruction and learning, hopefully freeing up time and space for more vigorous learning tasks for kids.


Christensen, C.M., Horn, M.B., & Johnson, C.W. (2008).  Disrupting class: How disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns (Vol. 98). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Glacial pace and concrete boots

In the field of education it is important to consider that the impact of disruptive innovation will happen at a glacial pace. Public education and public schooling are, after all, the government.  And as such, they are set, stable, and to a large extent unchanging. Government and schooling are vast, complicated, entrenched, and thus resistant to significant or rapid change. It is pretty guaranteed that if you enter any city or town in the U.S. you will quickly find traces of government offices, either state, local, or federal; a Carnegie public library; and a public school.  The essential building blocks of American communities. So, change, writ large, is bound to be slow.

Larry Cuban (2015) notes the paradox of the dual opposing purposes of American schools.  On the one hand, they are conserving institutions, borne to pass down year after year the democratic values of the nation and those of the local community.  On the other hand, in contrast to schools’ conservative nature, nowadays the calls for innovation, reform, and new approaches are loud and expected. Schools are supposed to innovate and change while also staying the same, so as to conserve and preserve the unchanging democratic and community values of a nation and people.  This is organizationally very confusing for institutions and leaders.

One very good high school I worked at as a school leader is a case in point.  It had a very smart faculty, fantastic kids, and very engaged and caring parents who were generous with their financial resources. It was suburban, but on the urban edge and a very diverse place. It fancied itself  “the best”. And yet a deeper look at the data, test scores, and certainly internal practices revealed its delays in many things educational. The “best” narrative had taken ahold in controlling, intractable ways that made key community members impervious to change.  

This public high school even had a fundraising arm, which wonderfully generous parents led. It was named the innovation fund and provided seed money for innovative instructional programs, and it was a wonderful part of the school.  And yet many of what were called innovations tended to be dated. The curricular ideas funded were not transformative, per the models of disruptive innovation or SAMR, but they were mostly new courses layered onto an old schooling model. For example, a new film course gathered enthusiasm with parent funders. Parts of this course, indeed, would put kids in the driver’s seat, however it was still a film and history class, something common in curricula since the 1980s. Another recent funded new “innovation” was a senior year project initiative. And yet, some of the parents on the innovation fund, who were in their late 40s, would describe how their local private high schools had a senior year project back in the 1980s in which they participated.  This was not innovation, but rather necessary catch up.

Going back to the “new courses layered onto an old schooling model” idea.  This idea has an enormous cultural pull at the school. The school was seen by community members as “the best,” and those community members sought to conserve it as such.  To shift their vision of what schooling, or that school, was would be too big of a leap and bound to garner significant resistance. People inside and outside the school were deeply wedded to its history, their unscrutinized vision of its effectiveness, a fictional vision of its leaders as super-heroes, and a vision of how the school should look and operate.  They had many cognitive frames that had a strong hold. Jack Gillette, Dean of Lesley University’s School of Education, describes in a 2017 podcast that isomorphism in fields has a powerful pull. The cognitive frame that communities have of school creates a fixed vision. In this school’s case, the fixed vision was of a high school with classrooms, with 20-30 kids per class, with high level academics that got kids into the Ivy League, and that simply was the “best.”  What the school would look like in the future had to comport with the “best” that it had looked in the past.

To lead a school like this was like having concrete boots.  There were strong cries from community members, parents, and school committee for change and improvement, but at the same time those constituencies still kept a fixed vision of “the high school.”  Without a catalyzing event, there would be little movement, only some creativity on the edges. Which may be all that could be expected.

Larry Cuban (2015) argues that “transmitting the dominant values and beliefs in the culture is far less sexy a proposition–more like watching paint dry–than ‘disrupting,’ ‘transforming,’ and ‘revolutionizing,’ public schools.”  Nevertheless, for some school communities “innovating” or “transforming” means not straying too far from those dominant ways of being that have served the majority of the communities’ children in the past. The challenge for me as the school leader was to look at whose children had been perennially under-served by this status of schooling. And then challenging that.  Jack Gillette (2015), in an interview with the Deans for Impact organization, noted the damage to students in more well-resourced school districts as well as urban, “While much of the focus is on urban, it is just as important to note the flaccid pace that most middle-class communities feed to their children – we systematically under educate all children, it is just that it is immediately disastrous for some.”

Gillette (2017) notes that a “Copernican moment” is needed to improve and to significantly shift schooling, “an intellectual revolution in how people think about education and schooling.”  And as he says, “we’ll know it when we see it” (2017).  Where will the change emanate from?  Public schools?  Private?  Higher education?  Or will young learners, successive generations of digital natives, over time just be learning differently causing schools to naturally have to bend to that tech-agile will?



Arnett, T. (2014). Why disruptive innovation matters to education. Clayton Christensen Institute.

Cuban, L. (2015, March 25). Some thoughts about change, innovation, and watching paint dry [Blog post].

Gillette, Jack. (August 11, 2015). Five Questions for Jack Gillette.  Deans For Impact.  [Blog post].

Horn, M. (2014). Disruptive innovation and education. Forbes.


At first, the clarity of the SAMR model had great appeal: four categories of teacher practice with what seemed to be a hierarchical rise to aim for.  Moving from “substitution” of technology for tasks as an enhancement to “redefinition” of tasks as transformation of learning. Then I read about Mishra’s and Koehler’s TPCK model, which eloquently combines the teacher task of wedding content and pedagogy, but adds the new modern challenge of leveraging technology for learning.  That model seemed to go deeper with its analysis of teacher thinking when designing learning. TPCK seemed more sophisticated. And as Lesley Associate Dean Valerie Shinas points out in the September 2018 podcast, TPCK represents “what a teacher needs to know and be able to do to effectively plan for pedagogically sound, content-specific instruction using technology.”

On the other hand, Lesley professor Sue Cusack describes the SAMR model as a way “to think about and understand one’s use of technology.”  In the same podcast, Cusack notes the scarce research on SAMR, but she likes SAMR nevertheless due to its appeal to a broad range of educators across many levels of schooling.  I appreciate the paradox Cusack offers in her example of elementary teachers using a “handwriting without tears” application on a tablet. The teachers integrate technology into a handwriting lesson aiming to increase or accelerate learning.  The example illustrates that the technology did not enhance skill acquisition because the kids began using their fingers to write on the tablet screen as opposed to practicing with the pincer grip. Developing the grip was an underlying fine motor skill goal, perhaps best practiced with paper and pencil.  Handwriting is a full body to brain exercise. Many things must be felt: the grip, the stiffness of the pencil, the drag of the implement on the paper, the fine motor and muscle control exerted. To do this activity on a screen was less effective, it was straight substitution of a screen for paper, per the SAMR lens.  A so-so substitution or perhaps the “gratuitous” use of “technology for technology’s sake” that Cusack warns against.

Punya Mishra and Matthew J. Koehler (2006) describe the shift in teaching and learning that occurred over the past 20 years; the shift was caused by the growth of technology and the digital world.  What I will call the “old way” was a teacher developing both deep content knowledge and deep pedagogy knowledge. Over a career, the layering on of new knowledge in each area was the ongoing task. Teachers used to be able to be “assured that technological context would not change too dramatically over their career as a teacher” (Mishra and Koehler, 2006, p. 1024).  Old technologies were static: the chalkboard, the overhead projector, the DVD player. This is how I grew up in the teaching profession, until now. The “new way” is the same content and pedagogy knowledge, but add in the disruptor of technology. The teacher must consider how, and if, technology (a device or the digital world) will enlarge or constrain the presentation of information or of a concept.  Technology has been “foregrounded” in unprecedented ways (Mishra and Koehler, 2006, p. 1024) and ways that have become primal to the activity of learning and must become primal to the exercise of teaching. Mishra and Koehler note that it was content that formerly used to drive most teaching decisions, and then the pedagogy supported those decisions (2006, p. 1029). Now, with the arrival of the internet and learning that occurs 24/7 in the palm of your hand, it is “technology that drives the kinds of decisions that we make about content and pedagogy” (Mishra and Koehler, 2006, p. 1029).  This reality suggests a significant “correction” or redirection in the education field.

However, Jason Theodore Hilton’s case study is respectful of both the old and the new realities.  A year-long study of integrating iPads into social studies classes of two experienced teachers reveals the usefulness of both the SAMR and TPCK lenses.  As I currently work with the principal of my elementary school, Hilton’s case study can inform our moves to increase consistent use of running records in reading and other unified literacy tasks.  

Hilton’s social studies teachers likened SAMR to Bloom’s taxonomy with the lower levels (substitution and augmentation) as critical steps for teachers to progress through to reach the higher level (2016, p. 71).  In social studies, content acquisition is at the base level, and that stage contains the more basic understanding skills. The teachers noted that the “more traditional foundational learning tasks were more engaging when technology was included as a substitution or augmentation.” (Hilton, 2016, p. 71).  However, the higher order thinking of practicing a social studies skill, or creating, was best done at the higher SAMR level that involved task modification or redefinition. The social studies teachers saw TPCK as suggesting a constant effort to incorporate technology, which made the theory not fully reflective of their actual classrooms.  They knew that the learning task had to be matched to the tool, technical or not, and thus 25-35 percent of their teaching time did not include work on the iPads (Hilton, 2016, p. 72.)

TPCK provides a more abstract framework to study and measure teacher knowledge and integration of technology.  It is more theory-like. SAMR is more application-like. A developing teacher could choose a series of learning activities, and hold them up to the SAMR model and assess where on the model is each activity?  SAMR could have day-to-day usefulness to practitioners in lesson planning as teachers try to move from enhancing learning to transforming it.. As a current school leader, if I were trying to move the school toward a greater infusion of useful technology, I could analyze staff skills or units of study through a TPCK lens, reviewing how integrated the content and pedagogy was with the technology use.  Exemplars could arise and become models.  My question as a practitioner is – given the staff that I have, where are they with technology integration, and what is the best match of a model to move them to their next level?


Sue Cusack and Valerie Shinas (2018), podcast, Lesley University.

Hilton, J. T. (2016).  A case study of the application of SAMR and TPACK for reflection on technology integration into two social studies classrooms. Social Studies, 107(2), 68-73.

Mishra, P., & Koehler, M. (2006). Technological pedagogical content knowledge: A framework for teacher knowledge. The Teachers College Record, 108(6).

Ideas: where are we headed?

IMG_2299A break at the Iowa State Fair


I am a technology enthusiast.  When I arrived as new high school principal, I used to say to parents and faculty that one of the school’s new guiding values had to be to create more arenas where students could “design, drive, and direct” their own learning.  We put that concept in our short term vision along with “widening the definition of success” and “accelerating our focus on equity for all students.” In part, I would explain, because every student was already “designing, driving, and directing” their own learning “24/7 with or without us,” using their smartphone or other devices.  I would show the picture of the jean-clad boy at the Iowa State Fair stealing some time on his iPad while resting against his slumbering prize pig. Digital learning was everywhere.  

The audience usually chuckled nervously, but tacitly agreed.  They just didn’t know exactly what they were agreeing to. What did those arenas look like where kids “designed, drove, and directed” their own learning?  I argued that they needed to be on a macro, programmatic level, but also at the micro level, the level of the classroom. When the presentation or discussion ended, I would be the one chuckling nervously – how was I going to promote this shift in learning at this very traditional public high school? Learning modes in the wider world had changed and widened, and younger students were native to the digital world in ways I and the majority of teachers were not, so how could and should the school prepare? This was a gargantuan task. This school did not have a 1:1 program, barely had a robust wireless network, and classrooms were not yet equipped with the most basic instructional technology kit of an interactive whiteboard, document camera, and speakers.  Since teachers traditionally got to choose what type of computer they wished to use, some chose laptops, others chose desktops for their offices, thus leaving their classrooms without a mobile teacher device during instruction. Where to start?

So many institutional barriers to this impending change in learning modes existed.  Allan Collins and Richard Halverson illustrate the origins of the barriers in their 2018 book and show schools as conserving organizations.  The American model of government-sponsored mass schooling “governs schools at the classroom, school, and district levels and ties together instructional, curricular, assessment, and behavioral standards into a comprehensive package” (Collins and Halverson, 2018, p. 2).  The authors explain that an equilibrium between complex components has has settled in for school systems, and for schools it has been enduring (Collins and Halverson, 2018, p. 3). As a result, when something new is proposed, “new pieces fit only into gaps and contours shaped by previous practices” (Collins and Halverson, 2018, p. 4).  A proposed reconfiguring of teaching and learning that integrates new tenets of digital learning is almost too revolutionary, en masse.

Cathy N. Davidson, et al (2010) note that the questions for schools around “how we teach, where we teach, whom we teach, who teaches, who administers, and who services — have changed mostly around the edges” (p. 2).  To dive into a full reconsideration of modern teaching and learning necessary for our students, not just “around the edges,” calls into question how we define the traditional high school as an institution. Institutions have been defined in terms of “the structures and mechanisms of control, social order, rules of regulation, and cooperation” that mold behavior and exert control. Davidson, et al propose a revised definition: an institution as a “mobilizing network” that is flexible, has permeable boundaries, is interactive, and prone to incite change rather than restrain it (2010, p. 14). How can this conception of an institution, inspired by digital and participatory learning communities, be a beacon for traditional public high school change? How can it challenge the equilibrium set by the complex school system?

I am still a technology enthusiast, but as a high school principal, I encountered head on the institutional barriers, many unseen, that prevented the deep work needed to transform learning in necessary ways for our students.  The possibilities are endless, but the educational vision has to be set. And not just stated by the leader, as I did as principal, but fleshed out and articulated, with phases proposed, with an understanding that revisions will happen along the way.  The change that digital learning brings to schools and school systems is not about devices but about the way teaching and learning is done. There could not be any more enormous of a task for educational leaders to consider today.


Collins, A., & Halverson, R. (2018). Rethinking education in the age of technology: The digital revolution and schooling in America. Teachers College Press.

Davidson, C. N., & Goldberg, D. T. (2010). Future of thinking: Learning institutions in a digital age. Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press. Retrieved from http://www.ebrary.com.