A recent blog post by Thomas Arnett of the Christiansen Institute asks: Is this the moment in history when K–12 school systems get disrupted? Yes, conventional classrooms being forced online and with increased challenges engaging students has prompted many families and educators to look for alternatives. The article asks if these shifts beg the question: Are we witnessing the beginning of K–12 disruption?
Disruptive Innovation. This concept, from the Clayton Christensen, founder of the Christensen Institute, explains that “Disruptive Innovation describes a phenomenon whereby the incumbent technologies and business models in a sector get displaced by new technologies from new entrants in that sector.” This is when a new idea arises to serve a need. While it initially seems less appealing, it grows to become the more desired solution. Like how Netflix disrupted Blockbuster by initially mailing people DVDs. I know our family hopped on Netflix (instead of cable) early days and still enjoy it today. One of my girls found a Blockbuster gift card last summer, while sorting through middle school mementos. We laughed and noted how much this aspect of entertainment has evolved.
This business phenomenon is the result of the conditions of the time, not necessarily good or bad. The article illustrates this complexity by recognizing new creations, such as social media can connect people but also be polarizing.
Arnett believes our K-12 systems won’t be disrupted, but what happens inside the schools may shift based on the pandemic. That is the perfect segue for my hope that we regroup. Just like many office spaces went from separate offices to more open space, and many homes did the same with more shared space, schools can easily rethink how they use the space to create more community. The pandemic has helped us see that students learn in many different ways. We need to move past the days of the assembly line—especially with so many kids who have fallen off this assembly line during the pandemic. No more passive learning where every 9th grade student is in sit-and-get mode for identical content to be dispensed. No more shackling teachers to the priority of getting THROUGH content rather than getting TO each learner as an individual.
It would be a dream come true to use the hard lessons learned from the pandemic about the huge mental health needs and diversity of learners to disrupt the status quo within the classroom. I harken back to the Big Picture Learning model, where students follow their passions and work with mentors in the community. And we all know that we need intentional time for social-emotional learning and to tend to mental health and self-care. Research supports us changing what happens in the classroom in many ways!
Then, what if we looked at the structure within the school differently. For example, there are many benefits in multi-age classrooms or having the teacher move up at the end of the year and stay with a group of students. Some schools, including Big Picture Learning, have the same advisor and advisory group for a group of students for the three years of middle school or four years of high school. Community. Relationships. Being seen, heard, and valued. We can eliminate the feeling of being anonymous or uncared for in our larger schools. Restructuring and reprioritizing what happens during the school day can make the difference.
So, where do we start? With a mission.
Take these five graduate aims from my friends in Edgecombe County Public Schools, created as a whole community, as they anticipate what their graduates need now by envisioning who they can be at 25.
I want to unpack Edgecombe’s aims, because to me, these are the reasons we want to push disruptive innovation in the schools.
- I know my purpose and what I’m passionate about, and I’m living this out. How do we want our students to navigate life at age 25? First is purpose and passion. Think of all of the listless young adults who lack this clarity right now. Knowing and living my passion? That is so different from our young adults taking a job they hate to pay off crazy student loan debt. The former creates a much happier society and I can only imagine it is more productive, with people working in fields they love. Wouldn’t it be great to let our K-12 teachers foster this purpose and passion?
- I possess global awareness and agency. Global awareness and the agency or empowerment to make change. This CAN’T be instilled in school if we don’t give it regular time and empower students to find and serve global causes. This needs class time, not just a Thursday afternoon service club time slot. In interdisciplinary studies, we can get to these important topics, and then weave in some standards and content. Next week we’ll hear from two of our LEADPrep humanities teachers, Casey and Jacob, on their full-day interdisciplinary themes.
- I engage productively in my community. In non-pandemic times, this is a regular Friday occurrence at LEADPrep and in a week of spring environmental service. Being “place-based” and connected to our community is an important win-win.
- I can return to my community. This is a locale-specific aim; however, as a community, being “place-based” gives all our students an anchor of support. Now and later.
- I am resilient in the face of new challenges. Boy, is this a biggie. Our crazy world and uncertain times make this more important than ever. Schools can teach and practice the tools in experiential and engaged learning that help kids gain this resiliency. Learning from mistakes. Getting “do-overs.” Practicing empathy for self and others.
Might there be a silver lining of this time of painful awareness of institutional racism and injustices, a divided country, and a global pandemic? Might schools have been disrupted enough for the problems to be seen and no longer brushed aside with business as usual? I would LOVE for us to let disruptive innovation–and the knowledge that schools can pivot when they have to–lead us to purpose-driven, human-centered communities of learners. At LEADPrep we take this challenge and are pushing hard with both hands.