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Close to Home: Disruptive innovation in education

  • The Press Democrat, 2011
    Students walk to their classrooms during a passing period at the Sonoma County Office of Education Amarosa Academy campus.

As we advance into the 21st century, new technologies are transforming the world as we know it. Think of the impact that cell phones have had on the land-line phone business and how online shopping is gradually displacing brick-and-mortar retail sales.

These are examples of “disruptive innovation,” a term coined by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen. His theory is that, through a series of small innovations, a new business market is created that disrupts or displaces an earlier technology.

Today, this disruptive process of change is occurring in the field of education. A growing number of small innovations are taking hold in schools and displacing our old ideas about education. The methods for how teachers teach and how students learn are changing.

It is important to note that the mission of public education has not changed from its original Jeffersonian public access model. The core purpose of public education is to produce a well-educated and literate society that will help sustain our democratic republic.

Our goal today is the same, but how we accomplish that goal has changed.

For the last several years, the Sonoma County Office of Education has been introducing local educators to new teaching practices. Through a series of teacher trainings and summer professional development institutes, the Office of Education has emphasized the importance of focusing instruction on the skills and knowledge that students need to succeed in the 21st century.

For example, we have highlighted the 21st century skills known as the 4Cs in our teacher trainings: critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. These skills are key to success in the workplace and in our modern-day world, so they are essential for today’s students to learn.

Examples of instruction centered on the 4Cs can be seen in schools across Sonoma County. As these instructional practices multiply and become ingrained in the classroom, change is occurring. A new style of education emerging:

• Instead of working quietly in rows of desks, students are spending a significant amount of time interacting with one another and completing complex projects that engage them in “learning by doing.”

• Finding the right answer is now just one part of solving math problems and completing science experiments. Students are also learning to articulate what they did to find the answer, why they did what they did and whether their strategy was the most effective.


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