disruptive innovation

How Disruptive Innovation addresses 3 of education’s most critical issues today


Jul 23, 2019

In the media and in the education conference circuit, it’s almost impossible not to cross paths with three burgeoning issues in K-12 education: Equity, personalized learning, and social-emotional learning (SEL). Amidst the conversations on these hot topics, few bring up the idea of disruptive innovation. But Disruptive Innovation is a force that can unlock the potential of all three ideas to improve student outcomes. Here’s how.

1. Disruptive Innovation is the catalyst for more equitable access to high-touch tutors and mentors

Personal tutelage has been around for centuries, but it is a form of education that has not been equitably distributed. Historically, only the children of the wealthy have had access to this form of personalized instruction. Fortunately, disruptive innovations are now changing the landscape of access to tutors and mentors. 

When new technologies emerge, they are usually accessible only to people with wealth and expertise. Disruptive Innovation is a force that democratizes those technologies. Take computers as an example. In the 1950s, computers were multi-million-dollar machines that had to be housed in large buildings and that could only be operated by people with advanced training in computer science. Today, computers with immensely greater functionality than the 1950s-era machines are being carried around in the pockets of almost every adult and teenager in the world. Disruptive Innovation was the economic force that brought computing power to the masses.

We are now entering an era when computers and the internet are making access to mentors and tutors accessible and affordable to the masses. These disruptive technologies are supplementing and scaling the impact of great mentors and instruction so that their expertise can be available to every student, not just a few.

2. Disruptive Innovation is the mechanism for creating a personalized education system.

An education system that can be tailored to each individual student’s learning needs is clearly an ideal worth striving for. Unfortunately, that degree of personalization has historically been too expensive to provide to each and every student. Instead, for over a century we have opted for a factory-based model of education where schools achieve economies of scale by processing students in batches along a fixed schedule. 

But now, for the first time in history, computer-based technologies are making personalized learning a reality not only through flexible online curriculum, but through the new staffing structures, personalized supports, and classroom redesigns enabled by these technologies. In short, if personalized learning is the goal, online learning is the disruptive technology that makes the goal possible.

3. Disruptive Innovation is the bridge for connecting SEL skills to authentic relationships.

As my colleague Julia Freeland Fisher notes, teaching social skills as part of SEL curriculum is critical; but often the development of said SEL skills occur in a vacuum from schools brokering new and authentic relationships. To unlock the potential of SEL, students must have opportunities to leverage their social and emotional skills toward networked relationships. Particularly if SEL and equity are twin goals, in the albeit-crowded SEL conversation, educators must get clear and bold about where SEL skills and access to networks interact in the opportunity equation. 

As mentioned above, disruptive technologies are now making access to mentors and tutors accessible and affordable for more students. Disruptive technologies are also making it possible to scale a broader array of relationships (overcoming the seemingly fixed reservoirs of trust, bandwidth, time, and money that it takes to invest in relationships) through virtual connections. One example is Empatico, a free tool for teachers to connect their students to classrooms around the world using video conferencing technology aimed at helping students learn together, explore their similarities and differences, and develop practical communication and leadership skills. 

For many stakeholders, tackling big issues such as equity, personalized learning, and SEL may seem daunting. But by understanding Disruptive Innovation, educators can begin to take advantage of solutions and strategies that have the potential to break down the factory model of school by expanding access and eventually improving learning outcomes for all students.

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on using the Theory of Disruptive Innovation to study innovative instructional models and their potential to scale student-centered learning in K–12 education. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system using the Jobs to Be Done Theory.