Another dot in the blogosphere?

Disruption, really?

Posted on: October 8, 2015

I gobbled up with glee every word of Martin Weller’s thoughts on what disruptors really want. I fully agree that far too many people uncritically put “disrupt” and “education” together without a deep understanding of either.

A disruption in the context of education is not a disturbance like a ripple in a pond. Such a change looks pretty and then goes away.

According to Weller — and arguably even to Clayton Christensen who came up with disruptive innovation — an educational disruption should be like an extinction event in evolution. The dominant dinosaurs went extinct and were replaced with mammals, the top dog being humans.

The now classic example of technological disruption is how digital photography disrupted the photographic film industry. We still have a few people using and processing film, but they are not mainstream and are relegated to the quirky, the specialist, or the artisan.

A problem with thinking about or claiming to have disruptions in education is a misplaced focus. For example, one might consider the mobile phone to be a disruption in education, not because a jangling phone disturbs a teacher’s lecture but because it has the potential to support independent learning.

Such a focus is wrong because the thought process goes something like this: “Wow, I cannot imagine a time without the phone!” or “How did I manage without a phone before?”

The presence of something new, no matter how significant, is not a good enough criterion to be disruptive. We cannot think of a Singapore without the MRT or expressways, but both public and private transport systems co-exist. When there is a disruption, one form gives way to another completely or one form becomes so dominant that the other practically disappears.

Examples of possible disruptions in education might be the death of schools and exams as we know them today. Instead of mass, siloed-subject, and just-in-case schooling, one might imagine decentralized, cross-disciplinary, and just-in-time learning online from master educators, and facilitating, tutoring, or mentoring in-person by people similar to current teachers. Now imagine exams being viewed as quaint and even cruel primitive practices in the face of a new dominant model of living portfolios.

Such arguments about disruptions should not be viewed as academic exercises or semantic debates. Words have meaning and they reflect the mindset of people who use them. Mindsets then shape behaviours.

The people who seem to talk the most about educational disruption might be the least knowledgeable or critical about such change. Sometimes they are vendors who jump on cool or powerful sounding buzzwords. Vendors know this: Throw enough of these buzzwords at people who hold the moneybags and their grips loosen. I would like to see a disruption in such behaviour!

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