Disrupting Innovation

The buzz word everywhere is “innovation.”  You can’t avoid it.  And who wants to?  It means positive change, connotes growth and goodness.  It’s a wonderful word.  Who can possibly be against innovation?


So last week I went to the Michigan Innovative Schools Conference.  (The conference was at least partially hosted by the Michigan Center of Innovation for Education.)

Let’s call it a growth experience.

The main speaker was Michael Horn, the author of Disrupting Class, who spoke on the “need” for “disruptive innovation.”

Please feel free to go more deeply into Horn’s ideas.  They are readily available as applied to the private sector and, because they are now boundary hopping into the public sector, are ideas educators need to become aware of.

Horn, obviously an education expert- he has an MBA from Harvard, spoke for a while on such things as the importance of educational areas of “consumption” vs “non-consumption,” and “input” vs. “output.”  Most importantly, he ended with a plea towards policy that will allow state funding to “follow the student.”  At this point in his talk, deep into my growth experience, I wasn’t surprised.  (Remember Skunkworks?)

What did I learn?

That all too often, the way “innovation” is spoken of in education refers  to nothing new in terms of  learning theory and offers no groundbreaking approach to working with students. Rather, it refers to a disruption of funding mechanisms aided by shifts in technology and by weakened support of public funding.  The intent in using the language of innovation is to address the supposed “necessity” of “thinking differently” in this time of weakened funding.  The argument goes that schools must begin to think differently about how we serve students because we have much less available funding, and technology makes this all the more palatable.  What it fails to consider is that this decreased funding is not a necessity, it is a choice.  And this move towards disruptive innovation is another choice that will exacerbate the disappearance of public spaces, and one that decidedly ignores the impact of poverty.  What these educational innovators all too often are referring to is not improving public schools, but increasing the number of charter schools and further privatizing the public.  It is pattern we are  familiar with.  (See more here.)

Profit motive anyone? 


Let me unpack this a little more.

There is absolutely nothing new in the way students learn.  Any student-centered approach towards education begins with John Dewey and has been around for close to 100 years. So any focus that marks student-centered approaches as innovative is naively, or intentionally,  ahistorical.

I delineate at least three differences between Deweyian, historical conceptions of student-centered  vs. “innovation” as it is branded in education today:

1. Dewey proposed an education for the purpose of the development of citizens (not consumers or status seekers) that is thus entrenched in, and strengthens, community.  “Innovation,” an individualized/privatized conception as it used, allows for children to be used as a source of profit and thus destroys community.  Note that “innovation” is void of an intended purpose for education beyond the language of “necessity,” a tell-tale sign market fundamentalism. Also note that “any time, any place, any way, any pace” necessarily imagines learning as simple content acquisition, and abstracts concrete relationships in favor of virtual reality.  It is the worst of what I’ve written of previously in regards to learnification.

2.  Dewey’s understanding of learning was not only student centered, but constructivist.  Current brands of innovation limit their understanding of learning to content acquisition, which can be easily measured and compared for in the never-ending competition called “quality control.”  (This what Horn was referring to when he spoke of “output.”  Others call this form of measurement and comparison “high stakes testing.” )  It is a highly constricted way of imagining learning, and one that doesn’t serve children well.  So, though the current innovation brand emphasizes “choice” and student centered approaches, it does so via a menu limited to content rather than offering an authentic vehicle for student transformation.

3.  Technology is certainly different.  Technology does allow students to make real world connections in ways that were previously impossible.  It has the potential as a wonderful resource that strengthens the power of Dewey’s approach.  It also has the ability, if used incorrectly, to be a means of undermining community and strengthening the power of those who seek to profit from the untangling of the sanctity of the common good as represented in public spaces.  Note that the positive use of technology is not necessarily disruptive, but is an extension of what has existed for a long, long time.  It is important that we remember our history.

The person who introduced to Michael Horn at the conference was David Seitz.  Seitz has a long history in educational policy and helped write NCLB.  He has many Republican connections in the state of Michigan.  He also sits on the Board of Directors of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.  His current employment is as  market strategist for Apple.  (I’m not sure why Seitz was chosen to introduce Horn- transparency is clearly over-hyped.)

Why would Apple want a person influential in educational policy and many political connections as an employee?  Why would Seitz invite Horn, (I’m assuming Seitz had something to do with the invitation) who would then use his talk as an attempt to influence policy from a conference located just outside Michigan’s’ capital?

Profit motive anyone?

Maybe I’m paranoid.

But be aware.  Be very aware.

2 responses to “Disrupting Innovation

  1. Excellent analysis, Bill.

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Juleen Jenkins-Whall

    I was talking with a colleague at the dinner table about this exact speech tonight! And your “little” cousin Jim did the dishes whilst that occurred. Great blog! Found it tonight and passed it on.

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