Christensen Institute on Disruptive Innovation in K-12 Education

Fresh off renaming itself the Clayton Christensen Institute for DISRUPTIVE Innovation, the think tank formerly known as Innosight appropriately released a very important paper titled “Is K–12 blended learning disruptive? An introduction to theory of hybrids.”

Here’s my beef: when I hear people use the term “disruption” without a firm understanding of innovation theory. For instance, I have heard many people claim that Khan Academy is “disruptive” without clarifying which incumbent it will disrupt. This is at best imprecise and at worst dangerous to the entire personalized/blended learning movement. Do they mean that all math teachers will be replaced by computers in the next two years? Or perhaps they mean that Khan and similar tools will gradually replace lectures and paper-based worksheets, thus freeing up teachers’ time so they can devote more energy to mentoring, tutoring and/or organizing group projects. In both scenarios, disruption is occurring as a result of an innovative technology, yet the nature of that disruption leads to dramatically different education models. Clarity is important.

For that reason, Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn and Heather Staker do the field a favor by clarifying how they believe innovation theories apply in the K-12 sector. Important aspects of this include the notion of “hybrid innovations” that develop within existing systems and distinguishing between what might happen in elementary versus secondary grades.

This should be required reading for anyone working in this sector.



Hardware is Not a Strategy (and Other Advice for School Developers): Part 1

Our team at the Gates Foundation funds a variety of innovative schools as part of our Next Generation Models strategy. Because of that, people who are developing new schools (let’s call them “School Developers”) often ask us how they should get started.

Since these types of questions come up frequently, I thought it might be helpful to write a series of blog posts to share what I know (and do not). In full disclosure, I have never actually designed or launched a school, but I have had the good fortune of funding and supporting many highly capable people who have. Please take this advice with that caveat in mind.

In Part 1, I will start with what I hope is some practical advice to help School Developers get started:

1: Defining Academic Goals

Even though much of my work involves education technology, I often say, “Hardware is not a strategy.” A School Developer should never start with hardware-centric questions like, “Should I buy iPads, Netbooks or Chromebooks for all of my students?” or “What is the optimum device to student ratio – 1:1, 1:2 or 1:3?” For more insight into why these are the wrong questions to ask, consider reading Cramming Computers: It’s the Same Old Story by Michael Horn.

Instead of starting by selecting hardware, School Developers should begin by defining a specific, measurable set of academic goals that they want their students to achieve. This should include a long-term goal that reflects the summative outcome you want your students to achieve (e.g. 100% matriculation to a competitive four-year institution).

In addition to setting clear long-term goals, you should also set interim goals that you believe will directly lead to your long-term goals. These shorter-term goals should also allow you to measure progress frequently, as well as helping provide the data you need to improve your design. For instance, I believe that the most powerful shift that school leaders can make is to set interim goals that focus on accelerating learning growth toward college readiness for all students. Although this sounds logical, this shift represents a major paradigm shift away from our current assessment and accountability system that prioritizes grade-level proficiency over learning growth.

Moreover, we are currently caught in an unfortunate debate – one side argues that schools should focus on foundational literacy and math skills while the other advocates for developing more complex skills such as creativity and critical thinking (as though they must be mutually exclusive). As Alex Hernandez writes in The Future of Education: It’s a Love Story, this does not have to be an “either…or” debate. I would encourage School Developers to set goals that both ensure that all students master basic skills AND develop more complex skills that will prepare them for college and beyond.

Only after School Developers have defined a set of long and short-term academic goals does it makes sense for them to develop their school models. Again, this is one of those statements that seems logical but it’s amazing how many smart, well-intended School Developers start making crucial academic, financial and operational decisions without a clear sense of the outcomes they hope to achieve.

** Note: kudos to our friends at Alliance for Excellent Education for strongly encouraging this “define goals first” approach in their Project 24 initiative .

2: Develop A Set of Design Principles

Developing a set of design principles that can guide the academic, financial and operational decisions that a School Developer must make is an extremely useful exercise. The ideal is that these principles are broad enough that they can stand the test of time, but specific enough that they guide critical design decisions.

For example, we believe that schools that are more effective at facilitating personalized learning for each of their students will be more successful than those that do not. To inform and bound our grantmaking in this area, we developed the following principles:

  • Student Centered: designed to meet the diverse learning needs of each student every day
  • High Expectations: committed to ensuring that every student will meet clearly defined, rigorous standards that will prepare them for success in college and career
  • Self-Pacing & Mastery-Based Credit: enables students to move at their optimal pace, and receive credit when they can demonstrate mastery of the material
  • Blended Instruction: optimizes teacher- and technology-delivered instruction in group and individual work
  • Student Ownership: empowers students with skills, information and tools they need to manage their own learning
  • Financial Sustainability: sustainable on public per-pupil revenue within four years
  • Scalable: designed to serve many more students if it demonstrates impact

For further context regarding these principles, read our blog post on The Next Generation of (Personalized) Learning. Our hope in sharing our principles is not to convince you to adopt them verbatim, but rather to offer an example of the type of principles that are useful in guiding major and minor decisions, both at the outset of the school design process and thereafter as you adapt your model.

3: Design an Instructional Model

Once you have developed specific, measurable goals and a set of design principles to guide your school design, then by all means start designing the school. Organizations like CEE-Trust, Charter School Growth Fund, IDEO, Alvo Institute, 2Revolutions, Silicon Schools, Public Impact and Ed Elements are all starting to offer design sessions to facilitate design thinking among early-stage school developers. There are many ways to approach this process, but below are a few approaches that may be useful for an individual or team interested in engaging in this process on their own:

  • Blank Slate: Allow yourself the freedom of designing a school from scratch. Ultimately, you may have to deal with real constraints that might prevent you from implementing your design within an existing school, but do not start this process feeling constrained by things like bell schedules and facilities.
  • Student-Centered Design: Start by picking 3-4 actual students that are underserved by the current education system, and dive deep into the root causes of why those students struggle. Use their experiences as the driving force to push your thinking about what “school” would need to look like to ensure they achieve the goals you set.
  • Ask Questions, Answer Them: Joel Rose, founded of New Classrooms and School of One, kick-started his design process by asking 700 questions about how it would work. Then, he and his team systematically answered and re-answered each of those questions to develop and improve the model.
  • Design With the End In Mind: Use the long-term goals that will drive your school to inform your thinking about the types of experiences that students will need to have to achieve those goals. For example, if you want students to succeed in college, you will likely need to develop their ability to take full responsibility for their learning. What specifically would your school need to do in order to accomplish that?
  • External Facilitation: Leveraging an external facilitator like the ones mentioned above can be enormously helpful in driving this process. We have seen that a day-long, roll-up-your-sleeves design session can really generate enthusiasm and catalyze a movement. 
  • Look to Others for Inspiration: While I suggest starting the design process with a blank slate, it may help at later stages in the design process to seek inspiration from the trailblazers. I encourage taking a look at the following resources profiles of innovative schools: The Next Gen Learning Challenges: Wave IIIa, The Dell Foundation’s Blended Learning Case Studies and The Innosight Institute’s Blended Learning Profiles. In addition, the blogging site,, features writing from a wide variety of educators that are deeply engaged in this work.

I am positive there are other techniques that School Developers can use to start this process, but hopefully these ideas offer a helpful starting place. 

Coming Soon: Part II

In Part II of this series, I will focus more deeply on blended instruction to provide more detailed guidance to School Developers who are interested in taking that approach.

10 Blended Learning Predictions for 2013 by Michael Horn & Heather Staker

Michael Horn and Heather Staker of Innosight Institute have 10 predictions for blended learning in 2013. The first few predict that more blended learning in different forms will happen (e.g. more rotational models in elementary schools, more flex model prototypes). Based on research that we are doing, I have come to believe that not only are they right in this prediction, but that it is already happening at a much greater rate than any of us would have predicted.

Beyond the growth predictions, I think the two worth highlighting are:

#5: Software with “groupinator” functionality: there is huge potential for software to help teachers both analyze data and make determinations about dynamic student grouping, content, etc. We have only scratched the surface on the potential of software in this area.

#10: More cramming of technology into the existing model: We’ve seen this movie before and know how it ends – billions spent on hardware and no performance gains to show for it. The best advice I’ve heard recently to avoid cramming came from Gov. Bob Wise. To paraphrase, he advises districts to start first by defining their academic goals, then develop a coherent instructional plan to achieve them, and then and only then determine what hardware is needed to execute that plan. Sage advice.

If I have time over the next few weeks, I may put together my own complementary “Top 10” list. Stay tuned.

Race to the Top for Districts: $400m for Personalized Learning

The U.S. Department of Education’s latest Race to the Top application is out. With a whopping $400m for approximately 20 winning proposals from individual LEAs or consortia of LEAs to implement “personalized learning environments” (described below), this is a huge opportunity for innovative LEAs to drive their agendas forward quickly. Grant awards range from $5-10m for schools serving 2000-5000 students to $30-40m for LEAs serving 25,001+.  I think it goes without saying, but this is a lot of money for a concept that LEAs are only just now beginning to embrace.

Absolute Priority 1: Personalized Learning Environments. To meet this priority, an applicant must coherently and comprehensively address how it will build on the core educational assurance areas (as defined in the notice) to create learning environments that are designed to significantly improve learning and teaching through the personalization of strategies, tools, and supports for students and educators that are aligned with college- and career-ready standards (as defined in the notice) or college- and career-ready graduation requirements (as defined in the notice); accelerate student achievement and deepen student learning by meeting the academic needs of each student; increase the effectiveness of educators; expand student access to the most effective educators; decrease achievement gaps across student groups; and increase the rates at which students graduate from high school prepared for college and careers.

If you are interested in applying, you will need to move quickly as the Intent to Apply is due on August 30 and the Application is due October 30. For those of you who decide to apply, I strongly recommend reading at least the following to inform your thinking. The list below is a subset of a larger list of resources on blended and personalized learning that I’ve compiled on this blog.

If you are looking for help with your application, I have compiled a list of both boutique and generalist consulting firms and technical assistance providers that have some background in personalized learning. This list is not comprehensive and is not an endorsement of any of these firms, but it should be a helpful start.

Good luck!

Next Gen Learning Challenges Awards 8 New Winners (13 Total; 7 Remaining)

With support from my team at the Gates Foundation, The Next Generation Learning Challenges: Wave IIIa awards startup grants to and supports community building among “breakthrough school models for college readiness.” To compete for these grants, charter or district applicants must submit plans for bold, innovative whole-school models that leverage technology to deliver personalized, mastery-based instruction to students in grades 6-12. Furthermore, applicants are also required to demonstrate financial sustainability; that is, they must be able to operate the school exclusively on public revenue within four years of opening.

From these applications, The Next Generation Learning Challenges organization selects winners over three rounds. Last week, while I was vacationing with my family (hence the delayed blog post), the second round of winners was announced. Eight schools were awarded grants this round, which brings the total number of winners to thirteen. The complete list of winners is below along with the location, projected opening date and sponsoring organization type:

For additional detail, check out the press release along with blog posts from Michael Horn and Tom Vander Ark.

Note: the final 7 winners will be announced in the final round in October 2012.