A New Geometry Class
Imagine a high school geometry class where the room is laid out like a lab. Picture four computer workstations on a square lab table. Students work through proofs using an educational cocktail of approaches: they write a line-by-line geometric proof using full sentences in Googledocs. They use the well-known software package, Geometer's Sketchpad, to solve problems visually, moving points around on a grid, measuring angles, construction "what-if?" scenarios. They view animations and listen to podcasts downloaded from the class site.
The class site is the text for the course, a cloudbook, comprising postulates, corollaries and explanations in written sentences like your grandmother's geometry book, but also drills, animations, and podcasts that are visual-spatial, manipulable, and auditory. The cocktail of approaches accomodates almost all different kinds of learning.
Each student works at his or her own pace, mastering each step along the way using self-assessments. There is an FAQ section on the class site where kids have posted questions and the teacher has posted answers. They can also ask their lab partners to the left and right of them.
The teacher goes from lab bench to lab bench checking on progress and making sure kids are staying focused and not fooling around. He answers questions in person as he goes and sometimes, if the question is a really good one or one that he has been asked frequently, he asks the student to post it to the FAQ.
Clayton Christensen: Disrupting Class or Changing Class?
This is my vision of how a class would be organized under the revolutionary model proposed by Clayton Christensen in his book, Disrupting Class : How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. Christensen is an economist and brings economic models from the business world to bear on education, and particularly public education.
The model is compelling. Disruptive technologies begin as cheap consumer products and eventually overturn whole industries by attracting "non-consumers" -- people who did without a product before it became cheap and easy to use. So personal computers eventually overwhelmed mainframes. People who had no access to computers bought cheap, low-powered PC's and Macs. The personal computer gradually improved and became more powerful until it overturned the entire industry.
Christensen applies this to the example of Advanced Placement courses or courses in rarely-taught languages that a student may want to take but may not find available at his own school. More and more students are taking these courses online. They are good courses given by good teachers, and the students have access to the teacher just as they would in a regular class.
Is Christensen's Model Predictive for Schools?
The question I have is whether Christensen's model, and his tone of certainty about the future, are right. His model is elegant and supported by abundant data and deep reading; the beginning of the trend is evident; but is it the right model for this industry?
His categorization of "non-consumer" to the population of learners who are not getting what they want is particularly vulnerable. Virtually every child in the country is currently consuming education, even if the quality of that education is sorely lacking. And, for the most part, that education is free. Hard to beat that price.
The PC revolution is a great example. But another example he cites is the Linux operating system, which I see as a counter-example. While Christensen argues that Linux exhibits the adoption by non-consumers, he does not address the fact that Linux is nowhere in terms of replacing Windows, Mac OS, or Unix. It has revolutionized the development of various computing appliance, but it has not replaced a paradigm.
Computer-based courses, like the online courses Christensen cites and like the one I describe, may be excellent educational alternatives. They may change the manner in which we teach and learn in many settings. But the model of disruptive change seems like a stretch when applied to the state of education in this country.
This post was written at the half-way point in the book, so stay tuned for an update once I am finished. One thing I would like to see is a set of examples of non-disruptive change, where an industry gradually adapts a new technology without a revolution. It would also be good to set forth more examples like Linux, where a new technology is adopted and exists parallel to the traditional business models without being either adopted or crushed.
So far, Christensen's approach is to propose one model and try to persuade the reader that he is right. A better approach might be to propose several models and show that the disruptive model is the best.