Catalysts for Social Change: Tapping Christensen’s Insights on Public Education

Thought Leaders, by definition, play a valuable role in helping to shape our perspectives. It’s not that they have all the answers. But they can serve as a catalyst for new thinking. The very best ones will challenge our world view, reframing our old paradigms and giving us new tools to attack long-standing problems.

As Ecosys continues to explore the many challenges of our Education ecosystem, we see value in “checking-in” to those insights.

Our discussions can’t help but be enriched and further informed.

Tonight, WEDS 10/6 at 9pET, we will look to the work of Clay Christensen in “Disrupting Class” (2008) to discuss his deep and thought provoking insights on social innovation, in the specific context of public education.

Click here to join the conversation.

It’s worth noting that Christensen’s heavily circulated work on ‘disruptive innovation’ (which we’ll discuss) is not limited to education, but also areas like healthcare. This is significant, because our foundational ecosys framing shares a similar broad base. The thought process? Large, complex, interdependent ecosystems of people and organizations have trouble working resolving conflict. The larger and more mature the ecosystem, the more deeply the traditional beliefs and paradigms are held. Environments and social realities change, but often, the ‘system’ struggles to keep pace.

We can’t do justice to “Disrupting Class” or disruptive innovation in one 2 hour chat. But let’s try to get our arms around the following main points.

Q1 Learning Intelligences & Custom Learning (ch. 1)

  • Is there consensus on different learning styles & intelligences per Howard Gardner (80’s)?
  • To what degree are the benefits/advantages of custom learning embraced?

Q2 The “Factory Model” of Public Education (ch. 1)

  • Want to discuss foundations of the standards movement in historical context, fueled by rapidly expanding populations. Over the ensuing decades, what has scaled? And what hasn’t?

Q3 Textbooks & the Establishment (ch. 5, 7)

  • It seems important that uncovering prevailing paradigms & understand resistance to change, per Kuhn (60’s)
  • Is there an appetite for evolving how teachers teach (“coaches”, “content architects”), and how students learn?

Q4 Disruptive Innovation (ch. 3, 4)

  • Christensen suggests local innovation focus where there is no prevailing competition. Do his target examples resonate? (Pre-K, home school, tutoring, AP, credit recovery, special needs)
  • Is “student-centered” learning viable and what is the potential of technology to enable this?

Q5 Framing Success (p. 185-190)

  • Engagement is critical, because “where people are plotting change, they are often talking past each other”. Agree? How do we get there?
  • Need common solution language, so we must “negotiate” and use diverse change tools – to coerce, guide & inspire (as appropriate)

Do Christensen’s perspectives resonate with your experience?

We’ll spend 20 minutes framing and discussing each of the above 5 topics tonight, and will capture what can be captured in our wiki. There will certainly be more to come after that.


While this is just the inception of our Thought Leader series, you can probably tell from our framing how much work lies ahead.

As always, we’re up to the challenge.

We hope you’ll join our conversation.


Framework for Ecosystem Change (2): Evolution

Below I introduce a framework for Ecosystem Evolution, a collaboration-based process to achieve innovation in our social ecosystems, which includes complex spaces like Healthcare and Public Education.

Our thought process has been evolving since August 2009, and can be tracked in this stream.

This problem-solving approach is intended to be comprehensive in its objectives and capabilities, yet straightforward in its design. It is made possible by incorporating insights from complexity science, as well as the rapid evolution of the social media platform, which allows cross-disciplinary subject matter experts (“SME”s) to work together in an efficient, virtual manner.

Paradigms: the Way Things Work

At the core of this framework is a realization that there is a current way of doing things, and multiple, new, innovative ways of doing things better.

Using paradigms to frame and analyze developing ideas is important, especially in early stages, when the alternative solutions are still formative [1]. It provides an intuitive frame of reference for discussing ecosystems: boundaries, rules, behaviors, and outcomes, all important elements that describe the complex systems we will be tackling. This “way of doing things” (both current and improved) is often the source of significant debate. Semantic challenges abound. Traditionally, problem/solution scenarios are written down in many ways, ranging from pure text (popular in legislation) and napkin drawings all the way to complex diagrams and flow charts, using a multitude of formats and tools. We will need to keep the process focused on ideas and content, not tools.

Due to the complexities of our social ecosystems, the nature of changes involved must go far beyond any notion of incremental adjustments. Contemplating the “game changing” notion of a paradigm shift precedes any fundamental, structural changes in our current paradigms [2]. To innovate, we’ll need to challenge conventional wisdom in each domain, or subject area. This approach will help us achieve that.

Let’s take a look at my proposed Ecosystem Evolution model, which provides a collaborative overlay to the Current State view that I originated in my last blog post.

Ecosystem Framework pt 2

Ecosystem Framework pt 2

The over-arching characteristics of this new model are:

– All stakeholders will have opportunity for input
– Social media plays a critical role as “open collaboration forum” for idea exchange
– Invested producers with a financial stake will have more limited roles
– Consumers (most impacted by ecosystem outcomes) will have a voice in articulating outcomes
– Consumers will get final validation (via “rating”) of proposed solutions
– Several open-loop cycles ensure iterative improvements toward final innovation
– Multiple iterations or “feedback cycles” ensure consensus

There are a couple key points to take away from this.

(1) Actionable Scope (need to be realistic). A framework like this is a representation of a complex set of relationships, interactions, intermediate steps, and deliverables. The simplicity of the model should by no means imply trivial efforts or shallow treatment of the topics. Rather, considerable work is implied. This model creates the process backbone for a series of connected collaboration teams. Further details on “how” will be forthcoming.

(2) Adaptable, Scalable and Efficient. This approach creates the means by which the rigorous and appropriate discussions might evolve uninterrupted, through a “hub and spoke” model of work group replication. In other words, any number of problem-solving teams may be spun off from the core problem team within the ecosystem, to work on sub-issues, and report back. This makes the Ecosystem Evolution process adaptable, scalable, and via multi-tasking, quite efficient. Given the complexity of our ecosystem issues, this is perhaps the ONLY way problem solving could be meaningfully performed.

(3) Focus and Rigor. We will begin to ask the right questions, and record all viable answers.

(4) Meaningful Social Innovation (“disruptive”, and otherwise). Using this model, we can embark on a journey of discovery and social change that has heretofore been unsuccessful. It will be powered by people, connected using social media, supported (with further discussions) by both government and industry, and ultimately, embraced by all stakeholders. Clayton Christensen has made strong and insightful statements about the need for “disruptive innovation” to achieve change from outside ecosystem walls, and the many mechanisms required [3]. I think his vision is the right one, and this Framework intends to achieve it. However, with participation from producers and consumers alike, the degree of “disruption” can be minimized, and simply acknowledged as a working objective. After all, we won’t score a “win” if we create economic chaos. I believe the collaborative approach is the disruptive innovation that has been needed. The approach itself is an innovation in collaborative techniques imagined by Don Tapscott, but not (as yet) fully implemented [4].

(5) Who benefits? First and foremost, it will be the consumer, as this approach is designed to achieve their objectives. But in the end, all stakeholders will win, because we will have created a viable, optimal, balanced approach for delivering services.

This is clearly ambitious. Why am I so optimistic?

Because there are lots of smart people out there. We simply need to engage them to start solving the tough problems.

It’s time for our second test (and this is a non-rhetorical question): Can we make this work?

[1] Kuhn, Thomas, Structure of Scientific Revolutions. (1992).
[2] Meadows, Donella. Leverage Points (web, 2008).
[3] Christensen, Clayton. Disrupting Class (2008): McGraw-Hill, Ch.8, pp. 179-196.
[4] Tapscott, Don. Wikinomics (2006): Penguin, Ch.6, pp. 151-182.