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The disruptive innovation framework (theory, toolset) outlined and explored by Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and Curtis Johnson in their seminal book Disrupting Class will be one of two primary frameworks that we’ll use to discuss the future of education.  The other is the Basic Elements Framework.

Disrupting Class examines the transformation of institutionalized education from the perspective of innovation strategies in complex systems.  It's one of the best books we've found on the transformation taking place today in learning and education.  It provides broad, but yet meaningful, and objective coverage of the topic.  In a very natural way, they start out by looking at the ‘intent’ of education, then examine some of the problems, and also discuss the problems with research in the field to date.   Within the context of Dr. Christensen’s disruptive innovation framework, they look at the boundaries of the system, the motivations of the actors, and how the systems(s) can successfully evolve to meet the long term needs of learners worldwide.

The following is a summary of the key concepts and constructs in the framework they created:

  1. Applicability
    1. The Disruptive Innovation Framework can apply to any institution (the “system”), be it for-profit or non-profit, governmental, or non-governmental. 
    2. Three general types of business models are defined.  (Solution shops (e.g. McKinsey), value chains (e.g. Ford), and facilitated networks (e.g. LinkedIn))
      • Education is currently in the early stages of a transformation from a value chain model to a facilitated network.
    3. Disruption can occur within any of these, or disruption can have the consequence of one model, being displaced by a new model. 

  1. Sustaining innovations are those that are simply performance improvements on existing systems, using existing performance metrics, for a market that already consumes a product.
    1. The performance metrics for sustaining innovations help define the dynamics of the system.
    2. The incumbents nearly always win in the market when a new player is trying to sell a sustaining innovation (one that makes improvements upon existing performance metrics)

  1. Disruptive innovations are those that are sold to a new, but adjacent, population of consumers, where different performance metrics and expectations are the measure of success for the product.  The new population is one that is not well served by the existing products.  Often times, this new population is too small (initially) for the incumbents to pay attention.
    1. Disruptive innovators redefine the performance metrics for the system.  (The old performance metrics are not very relevant for the new consumer base.) 
    2. Disruptive innovations always originate at the bottom, or the simplest segment of the market that is not currently being served (selling against non consumption).  Disruptive innovations are typically low or no cost, of lower quality, but good enough for those that are over served, or effectively not served at all, by the incumbent's product.
      • All people learn differently.  This fact, indeed requirement, is not well served by our incumbent educational systems.  In Disrupting Class, the core disruption that Messrs Christensen, Curtis, and Horn outline in education is the ability to provide each individual learner with an education that is customized for their personal intelligence type, learning style, interests, and passions.   Online tools are not enough.  These tools must enable personalized learning.  Early elements of online learning are already eroding away the existing offering, but for the most part, there is little personalization.  This will come.
    3. Disruptive innovations first capture the market of new consumers, and then they move up market.  In fact, messrs Christensen, Curtis, and Horn even put forth a formula to predict the rate of substitution.

  1. Separation
    1. ‘A problem cannot be solved with the same level of awareness that created it’ - Albert Einstein
    2. “In every organization there are forces that shape and morph every new innovative proposal so that it fits the organization’s own existing business model, rather than fitting the market it was intended to serve.” - messrs, Christensen, Curtis, and Horn in Disrupting Class kindle location 1436
    3. Disruptors cannot operate within the existing system.  There are laws of physics that govern organizations.   Disruptors must be effectively separate from the existing system.  They can never successfully fight the system.   They must go under, or around it. 
      • This is why school districts and governments are not the parties the disruptors need to sell to.  They need to sell directly to the ‘non-consumers’ of the existing product, the students, parents, and teachers who act on behalf the the students, not the institution. (Pockets of non-consumption include courses that only a few people in a specific geography and age group want to take, or certain types of special needs children.  They are not effectively served by the existing system.  The existing system cannot cost effectively scale for special cases.)
      • Many school reformers have failed trying to work within the system, or fight the system head on.
      • Over $60 billion dollars have been spent on putting computers in our classrooms.  For the most part, they are not being used to deliver instruction in a different, and highly personalized way.  They have been co-opted by the existing system.  That is the wrong model.
    4. Organizational design can either enable or hinder separation.  Types of teams that Messrs Christensen, Curtis, and Horn define are Autonomous, Heavyweight, Lightweight, and Functional
    5. Networks of people are the equivalent of breakaway entities.  They enable separation from the existing system.
      • Online networks (the “mesh”)  are liberating many consumers in many domains.  Personal learning networks are doing the same for learners (and the teachers and parents who support them).

  1. Interdependence and Modularity
    1. This deals with a different type of ‘separation’:   The separation of layers and components within a system.
    2. If the modularization, or granularity, of different system components is well architected, then you can minimize interdependency, or at least unpredictable interdependencies.  Each module can evolve at their own pace.  This enables new systems to be built of component parts, or on top of each other, quickly, and it also enables independent, decoupled development of new products that were often never even envisioned.
    3. If one component’s interdependency on another component is completely predictable, then the components can be designed in isolation.  If not, components need to be designed together, and this radically increases complexity as well as slows down the rate of system evolution.
      • In software this equates to well described, well defined, stable APIs (application programming interfaces).
    4. Three types of interdependence relationships are specifically identified:
      • temporal - time (more kairological - course prerequisites or ‘learning maps’ for example)
      • lateral - relationships in the curriculum for example
      • physical - space design for different teaching methods for example
    5. Modularity and predictable interdependence can provide an industry with a higher level of adaptability, increased potential for innovation, lower costs, and higher growth rate.

  1. Prescriptive versus Descriptive Research
    1. Don’t just infer conclusions from correlations of broad based categories.
    2. Incorporate deduction into the research methodology.
      • A large population of education research to date, doesn’t go beyond inferring cause based on observed correlations.  The results are well suited for grabbing headlines, but are bad for coming up with granular innovations.
    3. Correlations versus causality - ensure you distinguish.
    4. Categorization:  Choosing, and refining the right categories is key to prescribing effective solutions.  These become design factors in the solution.
      • One issue in our value chain based education system is that it was designed with three categories or attributes as central design factors:  location, age, and  years of study allowed for each given level of certification.
    5. Prescribed solutions can get highly granular, because of the large number of factors (categories, attributes) and the large number of combinations of these factors.  Determining the right solution for a given context or case, may resemble the process of medical diagnosis and treatment selection.
    6. See also The Cycles of Theory Building in Management Research

  1. Leverage the Right Tools of Cooperation and Change
    1. If you want to get a large institution to achieve an objective, then there are tools that changemakers can effectively leverage, depending on where that organization is on two dimensions.
      1. Dimension 1 (Y axis):  The amount of consensus on what the goal is
      2. Dimension 2 (X axis):  The amount of consensus on how to reach that goal
    2. Tools include management tools, leadership tools, culture tools, and separation.
    3. See also Tools of Cooperation and Change in Harvard Business Review
    4. Refer to kindle location 3272 in Disrupting Class

  1. Design Centers
    1. This is  another way to look at who your market really is.
    2. In order to choose the right performance metric(s) (the value at the essence of the innovation) you need to have an understanding of who the innovation serves.   The design center is  the actor ultimately served:  the consumer, ‘user’, or persona3
      • Education is transforming from a system that formerly served the requirements of the state (which supposedly represents the needs of society in general and industry) to one which more directly represents the needs of the individual learner.

The Disruptive Innovation Framework outlined above, in the context of education, provides hope for innovation in (actually around) a system that is highly complex, vast, stagnant, and increasingly outdated.  I encourage you to buy and read Disrupting Class if you are serious about understanding how to create and enable a future of effective education for learners at any stage of life. 

We’ll be drawing upon this framework throughout when writing about and talking about The Future of Education4.


  1. See also, Michael Horn at TEDx, San Francisco
  2. See also, Ben Nelson at TEDx San Francisco
  3. We describe two basic frameworks to help parse complexity and provide a common language.  However, Design Thinking is a third toolset incorporated into the very fabric of our effort.   We do not dedicate a separate entry to it.
  4. This entry is part of The Future of Education series.

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