The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

Get important education news and analysis delivered straight to your inbox

Choose from our newsletters

It’s almost back to school–a good time to clear out the cobwebs and challenge some conventional wisdom. Hype is seductive, and an enemy of clear thought. Luckily, I’ve recently come across some very well-spoken and thoughtful criticism of long-cherished ideas–even some of my own! Consider it a blast of compressed air for your brain instead of your keyboard.

Educational Innovators

This is the first of two posts. The second will appear Thursday.

1) Disruption. The term disruptive innovation, a huge buzzword in the technology industry, was coined by Harvard business expert Clayton Christensen, whose work in the last few years has concentrated on the advent of online learning alongside other education reforms. Generally, disruptive innovation is a new idea that is so different it creates an entirely new market and “value network.” Often it is inferior to the established players, but is also much cheaper and more efficient. The established players ignore it, and its utility goes unsuspected until it is suddenly ubiquitous, displacing what came before. For example, the mass-produced automobile, personal computing, and later smartphones.

In a New Republic piece calling disruption “Silicon Valley’s most pernicious cliche,” Judith Shulevitz singles out Christensen’s influence on school reform. Her argument: disruption is undemocratic; when it comes to public agencies and public services, stability is preferable to sudden change. “Not all civil services need to be hyper-efficient and bargain-basement and in a state of permanent revolution, especially when the private entities tasked with disrupting government operate largely outside public view. What the institutions of a democracy should do is attend to their many disparate constituents as effectively and inclusively and openly as possible without getting creatively destroyed in the process.”

A recent blog post in Scientific American supplies an illustration in support of Shulevitz’s argument. School choice, and widespread closings of “underperforming” schools, reforms adopted on a market analogy, it turns out, are disruptive in the wrong ways. In Chicago, poor kids tend to stay in their own neighborhoods despite school closings, partly because poor neighborhoods are less accessible by public transportation and more divided by gang violence. And while high-achieving kids are more likely to transfer farther across neighborhood lines into higher achieving schools, low-testing kids are more likely to stay in their neighborhood “subdistricts,” transferring to schools that are only a little better than the ones they left.

2) Digital Natives. A paper published earlier in the summer by Paul Kirschner, a professor of Educational Psychology at the online Open University of the Netherlands, & Jeroen J.G. van Merrienboer at Maastricht University, in Educational Psychologist labels three popular ideas about education and innovation “urban legends.” The first that they take on is the term “digital native,” coined around 2001 to express the idea that young people these days are somehow born knowing their way around a touchscreen. While the term is still in wide use, repeated studies have shown that young people tend to use the Internet in simple and passive ways, that they are not adept multitaskers, and that they rarely use technology to create content rather than consume it. “These researchers found that university students do not really have deep knowledge of technology, and what knowledge they do have is often limited to basic office suite skills, e-mailing, text messaging, Facebook, and surfing the Internet. According to Bullen et al. (2008), “it appears they [university students] do not recognize the enhanced functionality of the applications they own and use” (p. 7.7) and that significant further training in how technology can be used for learning and problem solving is needed.”

3) Learning Styles. The second learning myth Kirschner and Merrienboer take on is the idea of individualized learning styles. This idea goes back to the 1960s, and is extremely trendy today–I have heard high school students in Newark describe themselves as “visual learners.” But as the authors note, “the assumption that people cluster into distinct groups, however, receives very little support from objective studies…Despite decades of research, the field of learning styles has failed to make significant progress and so far it does not yield any valid educational implications.”

Damning words indeed. There is little agreement as to what the learning styles are–visual? kinetic? reflective? impulsive?–and experiments fail to sort people out reliably. Different modes of presentation might be better suited to different kinds of lessons, not different kinds of people. Also, learning is difficult, and giving people instruction in just the style they prefer might not be the best way to get them to stretch to understand difficult material. Just because someone wants to “learn” by watching kung fu movies doesn’t mean that’s the best way to master AP physics.

Tune in Thursday for Part II of “Mythbusting: Educational Innovators Edition.”

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *