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Disruption: Education Done Right

Mika Nash

In an article that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education several years ago, the author relayed her experience teaching a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) for the first time. The instructor's review was mixed - in that there were things she learned from her involvement that will inform her next forays into new technological initiatives, and there were things that happened that she felt undermined both the learning experience for students and her own ability to teach effectively. In the current landscape of de rigueur gushing about the efficacy and relevance of MOOCs, the author's honesty was refreshing and gave one pause, encouraging a deeper, more meaningful discussion than is currently happening in higher education. However, toward the end of her essay, she took issue with the language of "disruption," asking "how such a term - meaning disorder, turmoil, destruction - became the preferred way to talk about improving education?" Without becoming entangled in the obvious semantic discussion of how definitions shift and evolve with users and intention, we should consider the implications of this small but powerful assertion in an otherwise very well-written article.

Disruptive innovations are, by design, meant to cause people to think completely differently about something - a product, a behavior, a demographic, a service. Disruption is a natural outgrowth of a realization that it's time to shift away from conventional thinking. Disruption makes many of us uncomfortable. It can make us angry. It can be frightening. For a time, it makes most of us cling ever more tightly to what we know. For this reason, disruption is exciting. It's provocative. It makes us question the ground we walk on. It makes it impossible for us ever to see the world through the same eyes again.

Guess what? Education, done right, does the same thing.

Think about the last time you had a great class. For some of us, it was yesterday or this morning. For others, it was that incredible experience right before spring break last semester or last year. When we've done it right, we often hear from students, "You totally ruined everything for me." These students tell us how they'll never be able to watch TV or read a work of fiction or hear about another strong storm or have an argument with a loved one again. Our anthropology or sociology or biology or communication lesson changed their lives. It disrupted their experience of the world. That is how learning takes place.

In higher education, it's entirely too easy to impart knowledge that causes no disequilibrium at all. In fact, it happens all the time. The passive stares and unquestioning note-taking? That's not learning. The transfer of information from an instructor's mouth to the student's pad of paper and back into the blue book at exam time? Also not learning. Ask these students what they remember one year after they left that course, and they will shake their heads with the same blank look they exhibited day after day as they sat, soulless, in that classroom.

But take something a student knows to be true and turn it on its ear? Rip it apart, deconstruct it, and then offer a new theory, a new lens through which to see the world? That, my friends, is learning.

We can all agree that education, done right, is by definition, an epiphanic experience for students. It is a time for them to interrogate their understanding of the world, even as they grasp more tightly everything they know and hold constant. A quality academic experience is designed to acknowledge this dynamic and to ask students explicitly to be aware that they are engaging in it, to watch their own process through it, and to be open to ongoing dialogue and growth. This mindful, reflective process is uncomfortable. It's disruptive.

"Tried and true" works; I don't disagree that there are some things we know to be effective and we do best when we exploit those methodologies in our classrooms.

But when we talk about improving education, yet we are skittish about disruption, we immediately narrow ourselves to the known, which does little to model innovation and critical thinking for our students (who are, after all, going to have to learn how to exist and, hopefully, to thrive in this constantly changing world).

It may be that the author's reticence was about disruption as applied to technology in education, and she would certainly not be alone in that thinking. But it is technology - and the technology innovators and early adapters - who will continue to push us to improve the work we are doing in our classrooms. These are the technologies students expect and are asking for, and they will continue to find exciting and useful ways of interacting with new content.

If you think back to the most effective lessons you've learned, whether in a classroom or the workplace or in a bar or on the playground, they are memorable because you were forced out of your comfort zone and into a new way of looking at the world. Disequilibrium, discomfort is where learning takes place. This can happen only through disruption. In education, we want to strive toward making our students uncomfortable with the status quo. This is the beauty of disruption and why we want to think about it as the primary approach for improving education.

This piece was originally published on the Huffington Post's blog on September 12, 2013. Sections have been updated for relevance, currency, and clarity.

About the Author

Mika Nash