In their book, Living on the Future Edge, Ian Jukes, use the term disruptive innovations. They devote a chapter (chapter 9) to this concept which they argue is at the heart of why we need to rethink our structures for educating students in the 21st Century. They reference a number of works, most notably, Christensen, Horn, and Johnson’s book, Disrupting Class: How disruptive innovations will change the way the world learns. For more on the work of Christensen, there is an interview in the most recent edition of Phi Delta Kappan conducted by Joan Richardson, Disrupting How and Where We Learn.

An example of a disruptive innovation is the cell phone. The evolution of phone communication followed this sequence: wall phones that had to be cranked; rotary phones that had to be manually dialed; sleek, push-button phones; large, cumbersome cellular phones; and sophisticated cell phones that take pictures, surf the internet, handle tweets, and serve as GPS guides. “Each one of these phones progressively expanded the way we communicate with one another and were disruptive.” (Jukes, The newer versions made the old ones obsolete.

Christensen write, “A disruptive innovation is an innovation that transforms the complicated, expensive services and products into things that are so simple and affordable that you and I can use them.” They make the case that online learning and other types of free curricula, which are relatively low cost, when made available to facilitated networks where people can access, use, and evaluate them may transform how we educate our children. They sight the Florida Virtual School where students only pay for a course once they have mastered the curriculum. Think of how traditional schools would have to change if they needed to compete with virtual schools employing this logical practice. Adapt or parish!

In their book and interview, Christensen make the point that their principles related to disruptive innovations, which were developed for business, apply to education. Schools, like businesses, are places where people work with other people, where ideas are exchanged, where technology is deployed to aid in the work, and where people’s motivation carries them through the work.

Jukes, site other disruptive innovations than the cell phone, such as the way we listen to music, the way we prepare documents, how we get around using maps, the way we buy and sell things, or the way we do our banking. New innovations disrupt our old ways of doing things. They discuss how these disruptive innovations have totally altered our way of living, the landscape in which we operate, or the priorities that guide us. The increasingly rapid rate of change that is occurring requires us to be highly adaptive, but for many of us the pace of change has “outstripped out capacity to cope.”

From this perspective, they argue that the way we educate our children must adapt more readily to the disruptive innovations that are unfolding before us.

When answering the question, what is the job of education, Jukes outline three mandates for public education. I think we could argue these are roughly the same for private education as well.

1. Acculturation of individuals.
2. Cultivate the appreciation for the social, moral, aesthetic, esoteric, philosophical and ethical. We want students to develop the skills that will allow them to be socially functional, good, and productive citizens.
3. To leave school being prepared with the 21st Century skills that allow them to learn to work, work to learn, deal with their career.

If they are correct, they point out that a school with these mandates must adapt to the innumerable disruptive innovations confronting them. We are educating our students in a world where the lines are blurred between work, play, learning, creating, collaborating, producing and distributing information and ideas. Students can do these things anytime, anywhere. For example, online video games can be played between people collaborating, playing, and learning across the globe. Harvard Education Letter, December 2010, published an article by Robert Rothman, that looks at the influence video game technology could have on building more effective classroom assessment that measure the complex skills required to manipulate a video game. Another example of how disruptive innovations could alter how students learn is Khan Academy. It is possible for a student anywhere in the world (who understands English) to take a math course or have math concepts explained by an online teacher using video instruction. Jukes write, “we can’t just pretend that for education and educators it continues to be business as usual in our schools.” We will become obsolete very quickly.

Frank Levy and Richard Murane write in their book, The New Division of Labor, that we are seeing a decline in manual and routine work, but a rise in nonroutine cognitive work. This type of work requires people who can apply and integrate knowledge from diverse disciplines. People who can think critically and creatively with knowledge and technology to solve complex problems. Nonroutine cognitive work requires the skills of the 21st Century. Nonroutine cognitive work is not part of a traditional school’s curricula, especially the curricula that is mandated by state standards or external standards like the College Board’s AP program. See a recent blog entry by Quantum Progress about getting rid of the AP program.

Jukes write, “There is no way to sugarcoat it. The bottom line is that the current school system is just not built for a global digital age and the digital generation.” A teacher-directed classroom that has the teacher in total control of the flow of information does not fit the kind of learning that students of the 21st Century want to engage with. “There are highly disruptive times for education.” So are we going to sit back and wait to become irrelevant or are we going to adapt to the disruptive times we live in, trying to design an education that is engaging and relevant?