Oct 19, 2010

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to hear David Dockterman speak at a technology conference hosted by Tom Snyder Productions. During his speech, Dockterman shared a story about the origin of the blackboard in K-12 schools that I thought illustrated well why “cramming” a potential disruptive innovation into an existing system doesn’t transform anything.

The invention of the blackboard dates back to the early 19th century when a geography teacher in Scotland reportedly took all his students’ slate boards and hung them on the wall. He then used this make-shift blackboard to write out geography information that all the students could read at once. Adoption of this new idea came quickly. The first recorded use of this style of slate board in North America was in 1801 at the United States Military Academy in West Point. Before long, other colleges and universities had picked up on the idea as well.

Having observed that the blackboard had transformed the teaching and learning processes at the college level, school administrators soon decided to install the new technology in their schools. By the late 1800s, most schoolhouses contained a blackboard, but the classroom looked relatively the same and the teaching and learning processes had changed minimally. In fact, blackboards went largely unused in most schoolhouses because teachers had difficulty figuring out how to use them. Why hadn’t blackboards transformed the teaching and learning processes in schools as they had in colleges and universities? According to Dockterman, the problem was that the existing structure of schools at that time couldn’t support the new technology. The prevalent model of public education during most of the 1800s was the one-room schoolhouse—where all the students, regardless of age or grade level, met in a single room and were taught by a single teacher. This meant that rather than teaching all the students the same subjects, in the same way, at the same pace—like in today’s schools—the teacher rotated around the room and worked individually with small groups of students. As a result, the blackboard didn’t make much sense in the context of the one-room schoolhouse because the teacher rarely, if ever, stood in front of the class to lecture.

It wasn’t until the early 1900s when the public education system changed to the industrial model that still exists today that the blackboard became a staple of American education. With teachers now focusing on just one set of students of the same proficiency, teachers realized the convenience of using the blackboard to teach lessons to a large classroom of students.

Similarly, over the last two decades school administrators have spent upwards of $60 billion placing computers in schools, but classrooms look largely the same as they did before the personal computer revolution, and the teaching and learning processes are similar to what they were in the days before computers. In fact, despite these investments, students report using the computers sparsely in their schools. This is because schools have “crammed” computers—like they did with blackboards—into their existing structure, rather than allowing the disruptive technology to take root in a new model and allow that to grow and change how they operate. As Christensen, Horn, and Johnson point out in Disrupting Class, “[c]ramming what should be a disruptive innovation into an existing marketplace is fraught with expense and disappointment because new disruptive technologies never perform as well as does the established approach in its own market.”

Perhaps school administrators could learn a few lessons about not “cramming” computers into their schools by studying the history of the blackboard.