I Come to Bury Disruption, Not to Praise It.

One of the fascinating things about language and popular discourse in the age of the internet is how quickly the cycle of expansion-to-repulsion occurs. It usually goes something like this: a word or phrase enters the popular vocabulary and quickly becomes a trendy, go-to word for the “smart set” (which was itself one of those phrases); moves into the mainstream, where it is appropriated for all sorts of purposes not related to its original meaning; and finally, after having reached peak cultural saturation, is banished to the land of annoying cliches, living out the rest of its existence on businessmens’ page-a-day calendars and motivational memes posted by your mom’s Facebook friends. The examples are legion: “take it to the next level”; “think outside of the box”; “at the end of the day”; anything with “silo”; “leverage” as a verb, not a noun—hell, “jump the shark” jumped the shark years ago. I propose we add another one to the pile. It’s a word that has not only become trite, but advocates for outcomes that range from irritating to disastrous. Ladies and Gentlemen: I hereby propose that we ban disrupt. BEGONE FOUL BUZZWORD

Throughout elementary and high school, I embraced disruption–in the original sense of the term.* But “disruption” has been hijacked, like other unfortunate words before it (“silo” and “low-hanging fruit” are nodding in agreement). Its current trendy usage, however, stems from Clayton Christensen’s mid-1990s article on new technologies and their disruptive effects on existing market and value systems.  “Disruptive innovations” are technologies that enter at the bottom of the market (often from small, independent, start-up firms) but proceed to dominate that market, and disrupt the social context surrounding it as well (think cell phones and the land-line market, and then smartphones within the cell phone market). As a theoretical construct, this use of “disruption” does much to account for the phenomena Christensen and other scholars seek to investigate. So far, so good, right?


But the concept has been appropriated, removed from these specific theoretical moorings, and deployed as a lazy catchphrase that’s become the rough equivalent of “new edgy stuff.” Hipster start-ups proclaim to disrupt whatever it is they’re getting into. Managers who feel like they need to check off every box of “buzzword bingo” exhort their teams to disrupt something at least once a meeting. But nowhere is this overuse and conceptual ambiguity more mischievous than in education. It’s not news to any us working in education, from pre-K through higher ed, that what we do is going to be–needs to be–disrupted. That is, if it hasn’t been already. Or, maybe we’re in the midst of being disrupted as I write. It depends which “reformer” or think tank we listen to. A Google search of “disrupt education” brings up 30.8 MILLION results. Skimming through the first few pages, one cannot help but be struck by the ubiquity of tech publications and paucity of education sites or journals. That disparity is symbolic of the problem represented by the current “disruption” vogue: the disruption narrative positions “technology” as its protagonist, charged with the heroic quest of “disrupting” education to….you know, fix stuff…and make learning…better? Easier? Harder? Cheaper? Again, depends who you ask. Often, the details are vague. Indeed, some elements of this genre of education-reform literature verge on self-parody: DISRUPTION MUST OCCUR BECAUSE DISRUPTION INNOVATION REFORM NEW PARADIGM ARGLBARGLEBARGLE

But here’s the thing: What if disruption is the wrong answer? In fact, I would argue that if “disruption” is the answer, we’re probably asking the wrong questions. It’s one thing to say that education–its practice, its environment, its structure–are in need of change and/or reform. Indeed, there are very few who wouldn’t argue that very point. But to argue for disruption is also to make a set of a priori assumptions that  are dangerous and counterproductive. If the status quo needs disruption–the “nuclear option” of reform–that’s an implicit declaration that those involved in said status quo are the problem. “So what can they offer in terms of solutions? Aren’t they too wedded to the present to embrace the bold, disruptive reforms needed for the future?” the reformers ask. And this is, I think, why we see so few actual teachers involved in policy making or decisions at the administrative level. They’re not even at the table.

But they are being disrupted. And don’t we see the results of this every day, from the Kindergarten classroom to the university lecture hall? iPads in the classroom, but no professional development or training on using them to supplement instruction. Budgets being expanded for technology at the expense of personnel, allowing class sizes to creep ever upwards. Administrative bloat to create and implement “solutions.” Mandated use of an LMS without adequate faculty training or tech support for students. MOOCs being used to replace instructor-developed content in generic course shells-which are then offered online by the bushel. On and on and on.

What “disruption” has become, then, is a tendency to replace the real work of necessary and positive change with flavor-of-the-month quick fixes. Frazzled teachers and professors never gain traction, yet new initiatives proliferate from on high, and morale plummets. “Disruption” offers the  promise of bold solutions, but delivers a one-size-fits-all model (Clickers/iPads//Laptops/MOOCs!) that pays little attention to institutional culture, student demographics, faculty development, or any pedagogy beyond a superficial level. It promotes a plug-and-play model of teaching–insert device/technique into class, BAM! learning occurs. There’s no differentiation, there’s no attention to relationships, community, or presence. There’s just the tool offered as panacea. That’s not pedagogy, that’s a recipe.

Now, I enthusiastically embrace educational technology; but in doing so realize that it is only a tool. I wouldn’t use a hammer to remove a splinter, and I wouldn’t use clickers to facilitate small-group discussions. The proponents of disruption do not offer us nuance, and are not sensitive to this type of context or contingency. And since they have the ears of school boards, education departments, and higher ed administrators, that’s a problem.

So what to do? At risk of getting too meta, I propose disrupting disruption. Let’s enter the ed-reform market at the bottom with practical, efficient, and stakeholder-driven solutions** that can propel change and (/swallows hard/) disrupt the discourse of educational “reform.” So what does that look like?

I won’t answer that question.

Unlike the vast majority of the 30.8 million pieces on “disrupting education,” I propose no solutions here, because a brief article or blog post doesn’t have enough space to consider all of the issues that are involved in meaningful and effective change that benefits students, faculty, and staff. Any sweeping declaration of Something Schools Must Do Now would be shallow and insulting. There are no universal cures offered here, because institutional context and demographics matter too much. Effective educational reform in inner-city schools looks different than effective educational reform in flagship state universities. There are common points and frames of reference around which we can gather, but the specific tasks have to be done in the classrooms, conference spaces (online and face to face), and offices in our own and/or similarly-inclined institutions. This is nothing more than the pedagogical “best practice” of differentiated instruction writ large–and who better to model this than those with classroom experience?

So rather than disrupting education, I propose instead that we simply respect it. Let’s stop focusing on illusory quick fixes and instead grapple with the deeper structural issues of socioeconomic inequality and slashed-to-the-bone funding. Let’s stop excluding educators-those with the most skin in the game-from discussions of What Is To Be Done and instead let them help guide and implement meaningful solutions. Let’s hold our politicians and legislatures to a higher standard when it comes to education (and right now, that bar is awfully damn low) and hold them accountable when they disparage its practitioners and attack its democratic mission. Let’s stop using buzzwords that hide deeper flaws and instead confront those problems honestly and constructively. Let’s build a community of reform rather than a culture of disruption.

You know, that might end up being the most radical disruption of them all.

*I would like to take this occasion to apologize to pretty much every teacher I’ve ever had.

**See? I can speak corporate, too! Wheee!


6 Replies to “I Come to Bury Disruption, Not to Praise It.”

  1. Thank you. That was great. In fact, I’m tempted to send this to the dean of my college, who’s full of Biz school BS buzzwords and doesn’t really know what we do.

    I came across your blog some months ago, but stopped reading it pretty quickly. At the time, you seemed to be someone who had drunk the koolaid. There are too many adminicritters at my 4th tier school like that. If I wanted to interact with someone who didn’t respect what I do, I can just go to work.

    I’m glad to see that I was wrong.

  2. I don’t pretend to understand Google search but I think you searched on the individual words disrupt and education. This returns ~26 million or ~30 million*:


    When I search on the phrase (using quotes as part of the search) “disrupt education” Google returns ~25k results. Try this and let me know how many results are returned:


    That said, I agree the term should go.

    *Strangely the results differ if starting from the search box on http://www.google.com or using the resulting search box at the top of the results.

  3. Could not agree more! We have sold our souls to the latest technology du jour and in an attempt to stay “ahead of he Joneses,” we will buy anything that comes out heralding itself as the “new and improved” way of getting more out of our students (read, higher EOG scores) when the schedule could do with a little less disruption in favor of a little more face-to-face teaching. Put down the iPad and step away from the laptop!

    1. Agreed! Technology is a great servant, but a poor master. If it helps us do what we do even better, great. If not, then it’s not the right tool! The more we avoid a one-size-fits-all approach, the better off we and our students will be.

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