Kevin: : When the COVID pandemic disrupted the world, education moved online, and many leaders were forced to think differently about what it means to go to school. Even as students returned to the classroom, teachers and administrators were faced with new challenges to maintain health and safety while still delivering a quality education.
It's clearer, now more than ever, that our approach to teaching must change to meet each student where they are. In our changing world, are we sufficiently equipping our children to reach their full potential? How can schools design better experiences for students to succeed in a growing digital economy? This is what I want to know. And today, I'm joined by Michael Horn to find out.
Kevin: Michael Horn is a fellow at the Christensen Institute, a nonprofit think tank dedicated to improving the world, including education through disruptive innovation. He's a prolific author on topics related to education, including his newly-released book “From Reopen to Reinvent: (Re)Creating School for Every Child.”
An expert on innovation, online and blended learning, and the future of education, Michael is a strategic advisor to many education organizations. Today he joins us to discuss how we can rebuild our education system to improve the life of each and every student, and what is in store for the future of schooling. Michael, welcome to the show.
Michael: Hey, Kevin. It's a pleasure to be with you.
Kevin: I'm so familiar with your work, but I never really understood how you made the transition from business to education. So, talk a little bit about that journey, because it is important for people to understand how folks like you really got committed and dedicated your life to this work.
Michael: My background prior to business and business school was in the public sector and working for David Gergen, actually, for several years, writing and researching for him and helping manage his life. And I went to business school to escape it, if I'm being perfectly honest.
And then I stumbled into Clay Christensen's class on disruptive innovation, which you know well. And Clay, literally at the end of class one day, said, "Anyone interested in writing a book with me on public education, stop by." And I stopped by. And it took him a few months before he signed me up.
But then he said, "We'll write the book in one year, and then you can go on and do whatever it is you actually want to do." And as is so often the case with these things, the book took two years to write. And by the end, I was so taken with the idea of serving each and every child and personalizing learning to what they needed, that it became a mission and a calling for me really. And I couldn't imagine not doing it.
Kevin: I want to talk more obviously about disruptive innovation and the work you and Clay did. This whole process of starting a book like that — talk about that. You said it took two years. I know I've written a couple of books, but the idea of figuring out how to take on the task of putting pen to paper around what would make schools work for every child … When you started, did you know where you would end up?
Michael:I certainly did not. But I will say he had this pretty strong template in his idea, in his mind, of how a bunch of the theories that he used to make innovation far more predictable and successful in the business sector, and with a range of organizations in healthcare and some other walks of life, could help to unlock the promise of each child. And we really needed to put the theories of innovation first, because that's our expertise.
Our expertise is not the education, but let the educators and the smart people there really figure out how to use these theories to unleash the promise of every child. And basically, what we did is we took a problem, and we put these lenses on almost like a set of goggles or lenses, and we looked through and said, "What does the theory have to tell us about how you would organize schools to go tackle this challenge?"
Right? And so a core one was: kids have different learning needs at different times. I mean, you know this well. They have different background knowledge; they have different working memory capacities, they have different home lives that mean vastly different things. They have misconceptions from outside of school that maybe interfere with school.
On and on and on, you can go down the list. And the reality is the one-size-fits-all school system that we have built, which is intricately interdependent. And so, how do we use the theories to help what feels to many educators like they're stuck, right? — in their silos, in a bureaucracy, against policy.
How do we help them see that actually there are ways that they can get started and they can start to innovate? And by the way, introduce a common language so that policymakers and educators can start talking with each other instead of past each other as they seek to solve what historically have been pretty intractable problems.
Kevin: And how was the book received? I know from, let's call it the education reform community — they embraced it. But for rank-and-file school leaders around the country, what kind of feedback did you get?
Michael: People in the districts, really, I actually thought embraced the book because...
Michael: It said to them, "This isn't your fault, right? The fact that you're struggling with these things or to move these initiatives forward, it's not your fault. Actually, you've been doing an amazing job, given the constraints. And here's some language, though, and some ideas of how you can structure things differently or use some of these innovations to target what we call nonconsumers of the mainstream offering. Right? And give you room, in effect, to break out of the tried and true things that have really been holding you back."
And I think it was in many ways gratifying to them that we weren't blaming them but instead giving them a way forward. Because they were struggling, right? They were under the weight of a lot of expectations from all corners. And I think innovation came along at a time when they needed it to figure out what tool set we use so that we can make progress for students in our communities.
Kevin: I'm struck by your basic premise that you and Clayton started with: "How do we help each and every child?" I mean, I think that still kind of gets lost in the discussion around how to fix things.
Michael: It's not the job of institutions to protect their historical legacies, right? It's the job of institutions to support the growth of each and every child. And if there is a better way to do it, if they're actually focused on the job to be done in our language, what we've seen is that organizations in all walks of life are remarkably able to ditch the old ways of doing things and sub in new technologies or processes or methods or what have you to help people make progress.
Kevin: So, we're going to role-play a little bit. I know that we need to embrace innovation, but also, I have a school board or I have other administrators who say, "Look, stick with the program. Rank and file. Do it this way. By mid-semester, you should be here, there." How do you marry the philosophical with the practical?
Michael: So, my new book really tackles that question head-on because I think it's right. There are so many pressures bearing down on district leaders from their school boards, from community members, from loud parents at school board meetings, whatever it is. Right? That it sucks up the oxygen and often can constrain or prevent them from innovating.
What we've learned from innovation is actually strikingly incremental in its approach despite how radical and transformative I think reading me can feel. The approach is incredibly incremental in the sense that we say: don't try to change everything at once or try to upset your school board members that fervently believe X.
Instead, carve out little areas of autonomy where you can just get a coalition of the willing who are on the same page, who believe that they have the same goals, believe that the world works in a similar way, and build little islands of innovation in these different pockets and empower the educators to do that.
I encourage schools to say, let's start small with one classroom, or let's start small with one grade level or one subject, or let's create a school within a school or a micro-school or a virtual school. And just finding these different islands and then being committed to growing them if they succeed and allowing other people to opt into them.
I just think that our one-size-fits-all set of concepts really has to go out the window when we think about schooling. We know where all kids need different supports and services and instruction and the like. And that requires us, I think, to really think of districts more as offering a portfolio of opportunities and school types within them. And by the way, it's okay if it never gets to a hundred percent because not everyone is going to thrive in this environment. We'll do something else for other folks. And I think it takes the pressure and edge off of some of these conversations.
Kevin: You talked about the ed tech world sort of viewing their role a little differently than maybe what you and Clay viewed it. So talk about technology as a tool for change today.
Michael: So, from my perspective, it's never been about technology for technology's sake, and I think a lot of people get stuck in that paradigm. To me, technology is an incredible enabler. Right? It can allow teachers to provide experiences that students otherwise would not have access to.
They can go on virtual field trips; they can have classes that they would never have access to. They can connect with experts, right? That they would never be able to. They can connect with students around the world and have incredible conversations and do projects that they would never otherwise be able to do. I think technology is incredible at allowing us to vary the path and pace of learning for each child.
It allows them to go at the pace that makes sense for their learning, to be able to get that just right moment as they learn content and things of that nature. And I think technology's really good at automating all of those manual, annoying tasks that are often on teachers’ plates and administrators’ plates that they probably don't want to be dealing with.
Kevin: What about online learning in the virtual education experience?
Michael: Virtual schooling is an incredible option for some students. The thing about online learning is it's so flexible and fluid that it enables these different environments for kids depending on what they need. And so ...
Michael: From my perspective, it's killed me, Kevin, during the pandemic, the number of state governors who said, "Districts can't do virtual schooling," or something of that nature. Because, yeah, it didn't work for a whole bunch of families and kids, but we learned that it worked for a pretty strong minority of families. And why should they not have access to that?
Michael: It's crazy.
Michael: I think, in a generation from now, the history textbooks are going to comment on how amazing it was that these tools and services were available to allow a whole bunch of kids to continue learning that otherwise would not have.
Kevin: That's a really good point. What about competency-based learning? I mean, that's one of the things that you've been talking about that I totally embrace. And mastery, competency-based learning, this idea of kids getting there at their own pace — talk to me a little bit about that.
Michael: To me, I can't believe that there's not more of a push still for mastery-based and competency-based learning. Basically, our current school system is the opposite of it, right? It's a time-based system in which you move on regardless of whether you've mastered the results.
And then we act shocked that students don't know how to read or that they have a gap that prevents them from doing higher level math or that they have a gap in their understanding that means they can't engage in the civics curriculum in high school or whatever it is, right? And mastery-based learning essentially says you master foundational concepts regardless of the time it takes.
And for those students who are really struggling, that means that the school can put more resources to keep them on a minimum pace, right? So that we're not letting them flag. But it basically says the purpose of school is to make sure every single child succeeds and learns the core concepts, and we're going to guarantee through mastery-based learning that you do that.
Kevin: So Michael, I just have a couple more questions. First one is, what do you think the impact of the pandemic will have on the future of teaching and learning in America?
Michael: I think as we stand here right now, the jury's still out. But I think there are some hopeful signs. One, parents feel that they have way more power — not just feel — they see they have way more power.
Michael: — In the equation than they ever had. We know that numbers enrolling in traditional public schools are way down. And that could be seen as a threat, but I actually think it's an opportunity for the districts to say, "We’ve got to innovate. We’ve got to create some new offerings that pull these parents back in."
I think the second piece of this is frankly, people. Clayton always said, "Where there are spaces in the brain and questions, now there's room for answers and solutions to slot into." And I think that's where we are. People have some big questions at all walks of life about, "Hey, why is it that my kid is being asked to do something when they haven't even mastered the fundamental step before?"
Or, "Hey, why is it that you require 990 hours of instruction when my kid was able to learn far faster when I homeschooled them last year in half the time?" Right? Big questions like this I think people are asking. And where there are questions, we can come up with novel solutions. And so, I hope we and the educators and parents around us and communities really take advantage of that and cast aside this notion that there's a one-size-fits-all solution to these questions.
Kevin: I'm so glad you mentioned innovation several times in that response, Michael, because that leads me to what I really want to know. And that is, as it relates to education, how would Michael Horn define innovation in schools?
Michael: To me, innovation is basically anything that allows students to make progress. And it's a simple definition. It doesn't have to be highfalutin and advanced and technology-based. It doesn't have to be one of these crazy concepts that a few educators are grokking on in research halls or whatever.
It's just, is it an improvement that allows the students to make progress? And if the answer's no, I don't care how fancy it sounds or how high tech or whatever else, then to me, that's not innovation. Innovation is something that comes from the demand side, I would say, and is defined by the progress that individuals make by using these new and novel ways of doing things.
Kevin: Boy, I love that answer. Michael Horn, you're doing terrific work as a visionary and advisor to many education groups and school districts around the country. I'm so glad and appreciative of you joining us on What I Want to Know.
Michael: Kevin, I appreciate the opportunity and all the work you continue to do as well. Thank you.
Kevin: Thanks for listening to What I Want to Know. Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app so you can explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. And write a review of the show. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using hashtag WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK. For more information on Stride and online education, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining What I Want to Know.
Michael Horn is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute, a nonprofit think tank dedicated to improving the world—including education—through disruptive innovation.
Michael is an expert on disruptive innovation, online learning, blended learning, competency-based learning, and the future of education.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.