Disruptive Innovation in Schools From Inside Out – Not Outside In


I’ve been thinking about disruptive innovation in schools. Disruptive innovation has evolved into a buzz phrase with superficial interpretations that can confuse understanding. First, its history. In 1997, Clayton Christensen coined the term to describe the concept’s application in the business sector and defined it in The Innovator’s Dilemma.

“Disruptive Innovation: The theory of disruptive innovation describes a process by which a product or service transforms an existing market by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability. – See more at: http://www.christenseninstitute.org/key-concepts/#sthash.fVqlOlnb.dpuf” (Christensen Institute)

Here’s a few examples. The personal computer replaces mainframes. The cell phone replaces land lines. Online sellers replace department stores. And, a question.

IMG_0571Will maker work replace factory school work?


Math class

In Disrupting Class, Christensen originally hypothesized the rise of online learning as being the big outside disruptor inside K-16 education, believing the exponential increase in virtual coursework would lead to replacement of a significant percentage of face-to-face classes over the next decade. Today, Christensen identifies blended learning models – a combination of virtual with bricks and mortar opportunities – as a key disruptive innovation occurring in schools.

However, I believe there’s more astir within the nature of disruptive innovation in education than simply the blending of technologies and the Internet with school and home to “personalize learning.” I see signs of a different form of disruptive innovation in schools, one grounded not in online coursework but rather in young people working together face-to-face as they search, connect, communicate and make to learn. My perspective is informed by teens who often share their value for the social nature of school communities as they learn with each other inside and outside school walls. I also hear it in their voices as they engage in the creativity processes inherent in making to learn and learning to make. How is this perspective being translated into schools?

The Learning Commons as Disruptive Innovation

Recent dynamic changes in how some libraries are used has shifted them to what now is labeled as the concept of the learning commons.

library studio musicians

Music Industry Studio in the library

For example,  high school librarians in the district where I work as well as in some other districts across the country are providing students with opportunities to do much more than sit silently, research or read virtually or otherwise. Progressive librarians are turning space into areas where students can search, connect, communicate and make throughout the school day and before and after school. A disruptive innovation result? Kids who never stepped into a library unless required to do so now choose to spend hours there.

Librarians who disrupt the concept of library have become hackers alongside students. They encourage slam poets, music makers, videographers, app developers, gamers and design thinkers to share space alongside more traditional readers and researchers. As a result, kids are finding each other and forming social communities for formal and informal learning inside the school’s walls.

ESOL students creating art in the library

ESOL students creating art in the library

What else happens when librarians hack library space? Circulation goes up. Students who never would have visited the library voluntarily do so. Teachers value the library as an active and thriving space for their classes to produce, develop and curate as users, not just consume content. Libraries pick up a “market share” of teachers and students who never before saw themselves as library users by choice.


Libraries in this change process have become far more than a source of static, pre-curated materials used by people in permanent “silent” mode.  Instead, these libraries represent an Agora, a marketplace of ideas, creativity, discovery, and interaction. As  libraries become a gathering space in schools, cultural changes reflect students’ value for formal and informal learning opportunities – only some of which may represent Christensen’s blended learning disruption. Instead, it’s the emerging communal nature of the library inside the school that’s disrupting learning – the evolution of shared and open spaces where young people come together as agents of collaborative learning.

“The Agora (/ˈæɡərə/; Ancient Greek: Ἀγορά Agorá) was a central spot in ancient Greek city-states. The literal meaning of the word is “gathering place” or “assembly”. The agora was the center of athletic, artistic, spiritual and political life of the city. The Ancient Agora of Athens was the best-known example.” (Wikipedia)

 Makers Inside Schools Disruptively Innovate

Perkins+Wills interior designer works with 3rd graders on design thinking bedrooms

Perkins+Wills interior designer works with 3rd graders on design thinking bedrooms

Beyond libraries, what other ways are schools becoming sources of disruptive innovation? Teachers and librarians who see themselves as creatives, designers, inventors, and even entrepreneurs are building start-up cultures in their classrooms grounded in the “make to learn” movement.

rosaura tweet2

learner as teacher in elementary school

In classes with a maker mindset as Dale Dougherty of Make labels it, teachers and students redefine roles of teachers and learners as interchangeable. Students actively steer  their own learning as they work on projects, researching information they need in their “make to learn and learn to make” work using tools such as YouTube while seeking expertise found in interactive social media sites such as Twitter or Instagram. Students in maker-based learning environments begin to see learning as seamless, collaborative, and extended – not defined by other’s goals for them but by their own drive to learn.

 Freedom to Learn from the Inside Out

Educators who disruptively innovate the use of pedagogy, tools, and curricula through a maker-empowerment focus (Harvard Project Zero, Agency by Design) engage young people differently, reaching students who haven’t seen themselves as successful learners in traditional settings. These students may have silently resisted or even actively sabotaged school learning opportunities, regardless of their capability or background. From the maker-empowerment studies, students who experience passion, challenge and a chance to pursue their own learning interests are less likely to “drop out” emotionally and intellectually or to physically check out of school. Instead, “maker-empowered” learners build knowledge, competency and confidence through the relational support of teachers and peers. They come to see their potential to learn far more in school than educational standards prescribe.

The maker movement as disruptive innovation transcends the “personalized” options touted in blended learning or specialized environments such as charter schools. I’ve discovered a surprising number of makers in all kinds of spaces inside public schools once built to factory model specifications for the use of time, schedules, facilities, and learning resources. I’ve noticed middle schoolers taking apart a bike to figure out the physics of its design principles and observed teens repairing a compressor in a re-purposed audio-visual storeroom and using the library as a resource for finding the science, math, and technical knowledge and skills they need.



These are signals that mainstream education is being disrupted by the spread of maker ed, a simultaneous challenge from inside school walls to both the 20th century factory school  and the 21st century virtual learning model. Maker education is a simple, accessible and affordable way to change the way our young people experience learning – and it’s far more compatible with how humans learn than the dominant teaching wall, desk in rows, bell schedule driven schoolwork of the 20th century.

Isn’t it about time? 

Noise and the Power of Pause: Slammed, Just Hands, The English Patient

The moving images of three videos I’ve watched over this break remind me that the noise in our lives can become at times so overpowering that we hear nothing. When we lose our capability to hear, learning slows, perhaps even stops.


Surfing channels, I discovered young teens, children really, garbed in the uniform of the ghetto pitching their poetry into the audience at the 2010 National Slam Poetry Teen Championships. There’s an irony in that the perfect words of Slam poetry get rewarded on TV and punished in the hallways of schools. I turned away from their images, HBOed into fifteen minutes of fame, and with eyes closed, absorbed these young poets’ spoken words of fear, anger, love, respect. They didn’t spout poetry about unicorns or rainbows but rather a poetry of life on the edge where mothers shoot smack and let their children starve while the Sunday TV preacher asks for donations to congregational causes that keep the preacher in a Cadillac and the right people in office.

I am renewed by the fresh images captured in the spaces for learning that these young poets seek and find inside and outside the school zone. Young people bear gifts for those who look beyond the filtering system we apply to them. They refuse to be invisible in a world that expects them to be. Poets live in all our classrooms. We simply need to shut out the noise and listen for them.

Just hands.

Imagine learning from hands that move in syncopated rhythm across the front of the A-Bomb Dome as they tell a family story of Hiroshima, a father lost for all time with only the lock for his bicycle and his gold molar found. I learned about projection artist Krzysztof Wodiczko, Director of the Center for Art, Culture, and Technology at MIT, from my son who is inspired by his work. Jason, a lover of moving image, tells me that projection art provides a different venue in which to learn, a different space to challenge one’s understanding. He shared a video to illustrate the power of projection art as a tool for learning, to help me grasp his own learning work as well as to explore a different entry point into learning outside the traditional boundaries of how we define education.

The bombing of Hiroshima touched lives of the innocent just as the attack, according to American military history, prevented the deaths of American soldiers trying to end WWII in the Pacific Theater. After watching the video documentary about the creation of Wodiczko’s project, I was caught by the power and passion of an artist to present the tension of multiple stories that evolve into differing interpretations of history.

Image has been used by humans since the beginning to tell the stories of our lives, stories that once past become our history.  The stories told through the projected hands of bombing survivors demonstrate how technology creates a different version of rock paintings in the 21st century. I wonder why we continue to value the screed of our classrooms when there are so many intriguing and interesting entry points for our children to use to access the narrative of learning.

The English Patient

The English Patient has become over the years a museum of art to me, each image forming the portrait, the landscape, the poetry, and narrative of man and woman. Doorways and windows frame perfect oil paintings, a chance encounter with light cast just so to create one more scene for the artist to render into a setting. His brush strokes capture the nuances of sun on a kiss, the silvered pitcher caught on the edge of a tub, angled shadowing of window bars.

When I watched The English Patient this time over break, I was struck that technology simply allows creators a more varied palette of colors from which to choose. But, art springs from the soul, not from the technology.  An artist must see ahead of the brush, the camera lenses, the screen to capture that which will move the audience. The English Patient represents an ecosystem of artistry at work; cinematography, score, narration, setting of scenes, dialogue. In my opinion, it may be one of the most painfully perfect films ever made, not because of the technology that allowed it to become a movie, but because of the capability of humans to make visible to others what they otherwise would not see.

In our lives as educators, we learn to filter others, to render some things invisible. The English Patient gives me pause to consider our capabilities to see each frame of the school day as an opportunity to create, to make visible that which we now filter, to activate a camera bag of lenses in our work. The technology at our fingertips can expand visibility, but it can’t force us to see.


Over this break, I have considered noise, listened to it unfold on channels that never cease pouring trivia of the world into our lives in a circadian rhythm of news and reality shows by which we tell time. I’ve also watched the noise we create on a social media path of circular logic along which we tell and retell the same arguments for and against just about everything.

As I sought silence along the edges of a town that sits on white sand, sand which lingered for millions of years under Jurassic ocean waters, I thought about the learning evolution of humans from image to oral story to pressed print to screen to search to image to story.  The whisper of a teen poet on HBO, the ghostly hands of Hiroshima, and each perfect frame of The English Patient reminds me that when I subtract the noise, I rediscover the value of the silent, reflective pause as critical in the cycle of learning. That was the gift of this break.