For a host of political reasons, change in the education sector comes slowly. Despite breathtaking technological inventiveness in other sectors in the past century, the traditional factory-based classroom system has retained its form.

What can catalyze the process and replace more classrooms with a student-centric design? The pattern of history is that disruptive innovation is behind every major industry transformation. According to Professor Clayton M. Christensen, every disruption has three enablers, all three of which must be in place for the disruption to happen:

“The first is the technological enabler that transforms the basic technical problem in the industry into something that is foolproof and idiot simple. And then that simplified solution has to get embedded in a business model that can serve the market in a cost effective way. And then that business model has to get embedded in a complete vertical commercial system.”

But implicit in those three enablers is a fourth element, and one that is sometimes overlooked when discussing the theory. This fourth enabler is the human face behind the disruption—the disruptors themselves. Apple needed Steve Jobs, Wal-Mart needed Sam Walton, and I won’t be surprised if in the next 20 years people realize that massively scaled charter schools are indebted to John Danner.

William Tyndale, c. 1492-1536, is famous for producing the first English Bible that takes advantage of the printing press. One estimate suggests the King James Version of the Bible—the most widely used version in America—is at least 76 percent Tyndale’s. In many ways Tyndale’s Bible was disruptive. It relied on vernacular English, which many at the time considered inferior to Greek and Hebrew translations, and it mass produced using the printing press, instead of much fancier, more costly, handwritten calligraphy. Over time the printed English versions improved and improved until the disruption replaced the scribe-based calligraphic tradition.

Tyndale embodies the idea that successful disruptions would be nothing without a disruptor—a human being—the innovator leading the charge. Hotel rooms have Tyndale to thank for the affordable Gideon Bible convenient in every room.

America is full of smart, capable people. What’s preventing more of them from transforming our classrooms into models that are more appropriate for the era? First, and most significantly, is fear. Fear of teachers, fear of parents, fear of leaving a well-known trail, fear of scrutiny. And that fear is valid. After all, Tyndale died a martyr’s death of strangulation, after which his body was burned at the stake.

In theory, true disruptions are met with little resistance, and certainly not capital punishment. Disruptions always enter at the low end of the market or in areas where the alternative is nothing at all. That’s why the traditional establishment is generally not threatened by the idea of letting AdvancePath Academics set up shop on campus to serve dropouts with blended-learning flex labs, while the district focuses on its core students. But even disruptions can meet with significant political and cultural headwind. King Henry VIII felt threatened by that Tyndale Bible. Pockets of resistance are destined to attack new classroom models. School leaders know that, and they are afraid.

Other factors, such as a wait-and-see attitude, financial disincentives, regulatory hurdles, and lack of information are also hindering the way for leaders to champion the newly available disruptive path for classrooms. But fear is high on the list. Fortunately, in the next decade we’ll see hundreds, even thousands of people defy convention and bring disruptive models of learning to students. Some individuals whom I particularly admire right now include Rick Ogston, Diane Tavenner, and Jeff and Laura Sandefer. See also Rick Hess’s just-released book Cage-Busting Leadership about current and aspiring educators who are managing to challenge assumptions and awaken a new paradigm. Without courageous and thoughtful souls, the transformation of the classroom cannot happen. But we’re going to need a lot more people answering the call to step off the regular path and choose a less conventional, more emergent, disruptive trail.


  • Heather Staker
    Heather Staker

    Heather Staker is an adjunct fellow at the Christensen Institute, specializing in K–12 student-centered teaching and blended learning. She is the co-author of "Blended" and "The Blended Workbook." She is the founder and president of Ready to Blend, and has authored six BloomBoard micro-credentials for the “Foundations of Blended Learning” educator micro-endorsement.