National School Choice Week

Whatever Happened to the Classroom of the Future?

Clayton Christensen, father of the theory of "disruptive innovation," predicted that half of high school classes would be delivered online by 2018. What went wrong?


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The runaway success of Khan Academy, which launched in 2008, showed the potential of online learning to revolutionize K-12 education. It meant that a great classroom lecture could be experienced by anyone, anywhere. The same year, the legendary business consultant and academic Clayton Christensen—who passed away last week at the age of 67—co-authored Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, applying his most famous theory to K-12 education.

When used "disruptively," software could solve the problem of students learning at different speeds. Christensen and his co-authors wanted to "flip" the structure of the classroom to make it student-centric. Students would watch online courses given by the world's best instructors. Educational apps would gamify learning, help track progress, and personalize content. Teachers could then use classroom time to help students tackle bigger, more conceptual problems.

Christensen and his co-authors predicted that by 2018, about half of high school classes would be delivered online. And they dismissed the objection that government bureaucracies and teachers unions would stand in the way of rapid change. But 12 years later, classrooms mostly look like they always have.

What went wrong?

"I would say the big lesson that I've had, is not that I'm disappointed, but just that it takes a long time to do this because you're trying to overthrow literally a century of policy and practice around our current school system," says Michael Horn, one of Christensen's co-authors and a Harvard MBA who specializes in education technology. "And all of a sudden we come along and say, 'wait a second, we're not doing it the right way.'"

Emily Raskin, a high school math teacher in Washington, D.C., says that the idea of a flipped classroom ignores the realities of student behavior.

"I think we look at the next big thing that seems great to adults, and assume that it's going to be the same thing for kids," she says. "So if you assign [students] to watch a video…if they are not really interested, they just kind of zone out, and they come to school the next day really believing that they have watched the video."

Were Christensen and Horn guilty, as the saying goes, of mistaking "a clear view of the future for a short distance," or were they fundamentally wrong?  The current classroom model may survive for a long time to come—at least until software gets better at approximating student-teacher interactions.

And when change does come, chances are it will look nothing like what we had imagined.

Written, shot, and produced by Olivier Ballou; narrated by Nick Gillespie.

Reason is celebrating National School Choice Week. This story is part of a series that will be published over the course of the week highlighting different K-12 education options available to children and families.

NEXT: Population Control Isn't the Answer to Climate Change. Capitalism Is.

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  1. The same thing that went wrong with the prediction that Britain would be “siberian” by this year, or that the Great Lakes water level would be down by almost 1/3rd by now.

    Or to be more topical, the same reason I don’t yet have a flying car.

  2. I took American History on TV in our classroom in 1965. It was great because the lecturer had props, photos, books, etc and a dry wit and slight accent. Our regular teacher was a humorless automaton.

    Why after 50 years have we not adopted this model?

    Teachers’ unions might have something to do with it.

    1. I believe that’s it. Bureaucrats don’t want change unless it’s more power. Look at the quote from that teacher — sounds like a timid excuse to not try anything new, and an excuse to justify teaching a subject that is not really useful. Most people never need algebra or geometry, let alone trig and calculus. If the subject bores kids, why teach it?

      It’s just more rationalizations to prevent students and parents from taking charge of their own education. If Johnny wants to study math twice as fast as Suzy, who wants to study chemistry twice as fast, why should the government get in their way?

      Some of the smartest people I knew dropped out of high school to get on with their life.

      1. In all fairness, so did some of the dumbest people.

    2. Teachers’ unions might have something to do with it.

      Don’t forget construction trade unions. There are important ways in which the function of the public education system is to find reasons for public construction projects. This “classroom of the future” thing is really no use to the construction industry at all.

      My local district, for example, is a bunch of crack-smoking gang-bangers being taught by illiterates in some of the beautiful and expensive buildings you’ve ever seen.

      Gotta keep those hammers swinging.

      1. Spot on. Seen the same.

    3. That’s basically a flipped classroom. Homework is watching the lecture, which is performed by a (hopefully) world class lecturer on the topic. Class time is spent answering questions, discussing the topic, and solving problems, etc. I don’t know why it’s not done more often.

    4. All about the unions 100 percent. Pure collectivism.

  3. “I would say the big lesson that I’ve had, is not that I’m disappointed, but just that it takes a long time to do this because you’re trying to overthrow literally a century of policy and practice around our current school system,”

    Mike, meet bureaucracy and the Teacher’s Unions.

  4. Whatever Happened to the Classroom of the Future?

    It’s not the future yet.

    1. Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life.

      Words to live by.

      1. Unless today is the last day.

    2. It took 36 years to get us to 1984.

      1. But only 20 to get us to Space 1999.

        Time is speeding up!

  5. re: “you assign [students] to watch a video…if they are not really interested, they just kind of zone out, and they come to school the next day really believing that they have watched the video.”

    Yeah, because kids in traditional classes never zone out during a lecture. Or while they’re doing assigned reading for homework.

    There are good criticisms of Christensen’s view of a classroom. That wasn’t one of them.

    1. There’s probably some significant difference. People have somewhat more hesitance to tune out an actively speaking person than they do a recording. More importantly, an active teacher has more of a personal stake in picking on a student that they can see is ignoring them. A teacher running a video can just tune out with everybody else.

      Though I fully agree that this is a poor argument for having a half-assed, union dues-paying teacher getting preference over a recording of someone who’s actually trying.

    2. What is missing is not a flipped classroom, but a sudbury type school.

      Traditional methods until 4th or 5th grade for basic language and math skills. After that all sudbury style schools in which the student becomes the driver of what he is learning – that which interests him.

      The ‘adults’ in the room are only there to mentor the students along the path they choose using those ‘world class’ digital resources.

    3. The ability to engage and have a back and forth with students is literally on the teacher evaluation.

  6. “What went wrong?”

    Nothing went wrong.
    Lots of ‘other than the world’s best’ teachers are employed and paying union dues, and voting for democrats. In addition, they are indoctrinating an entire second generation to be socialist zombies and blindly vote for democrats.

    1. they are indoctrinating an entire second generation

      This is the fourth generation. It has been a long march.

  7. What I want to know is why hasn’t some big game developer not tried to replace school with an MMO style game. Seriously, people do hours and hours of mindless repetitive bull shit to get the newest/best gear. Really doesn’t seem like it would be difficult to make that mindless, repetitive bull shit, educational. Maybe it’s the overblown worry about “screen time”?

    1. We’re close to that already.

      It’s already becoming apparent to lots of parents with kids in public school that the time spent in public school is a waste and you’re going to want to supplement that with outside resources, of which there are lots and lots online. My daughter learned more math from the games on that site than she did from her public school teachers.

      Why public school teachers aren’t pointing more people that direction I just can’t imagine.

    2. Gamification of education is actually a big research field. A friend of mine has done some interesting work on the subject.

  8. My kids did plenty of stuff like that. I just see huge potential in something World of Warcraft like. Most of what I’ve seen is all disjointed minigames of the 1990’s quality level. I would like to see something 1st rate tried. Maybe I’m flat out wrong, but I have a hard time imagining that there aren’t millions of parents willing to spend $15+/month on something that could borderline replace school with a real, quality MMO.

  9. “And they dismissed the objection that government bureaucracies and teachers unions would stand in the way of rapid change.”


    There’s also the centralization of education at the federal level, and blind faith/stupidity in the value of Common Core.

    1. They made the mistake of believing that the people actually interested in getting the best education for kids were a significant power bloc.

  10. Let me guess. Unions and bureaucracy happened..

  11. Kids now days learn liberal indoctrination. They learn to be dependent on liberal agenda. That’s why foreigners and their education surpasses our education system. They learn basics like reading, math, science and technology. Our student learn environmental awareness, sex ed for all 84 gender identities, and make sure everyone feels good. The teachers (and union) keep their powers

  12. Public school is a government monopoly. Bad public schools will never close and bad teachers are almost never fired. That arena of government is essentially entrenched against changes of any kind.

    The parents of Asians and rich kids will spend money on supplementary education (like academies and SAT classes). They’ll go to the elite colleges. Everyone else will be released to gen pop or attend diploma mills.

  13. Whatever Happened to the Classroom of the Future?

    It didn’t want to join the union, so…

  14. Teacher’s unions and government bureaucracy interested only in maintaining control and access to your tax dollars.

    1. Thanks for all of your insightful comments- it’s so bloody obvious, right? Every great mind from both the Chicago and Austrian schools has warned about State sponsored education…

  15. Lesson #1: If you can’t do a thing, you can’t do it with a computer.

  16. Thanks for all of your insightful comments- it’s so bloody obvious, right? Every great mind from both the Chicago and Austrian schools has warned about State sponsored education…

  17. OOPS I flagged myself? Sorry- tech error

  18. I can tell you the answer to the question “whatever happened to the classroom of rhe future” in three letters.


    the teacher’s unions are a multi-billion dollar scam, working hard to not only control every aspect of what they call “education”, but also every tax dollar they can get their grubby paws wrapped round. The socialists have had a plot to usurp all authority and control over education, nationiwide, including control of all funding for said endeavour. since the nineteen teens at the latest, and more likely the late eighteen nineties. They’ve succeeded, beyond their wildest dreams and our most shocking nightmares.

    They control content, style, moral values, funding, and every other aspect of the process. They managed to get God and any reference to Him kicked OUT of their domain in the 1960’s. thus setting the stage for total moral degradation and the eviction of all judeo-christian values and history. They now assert (and have corrupted courts upholding them) total control hf each child from at least their fifth year on this planet, and do so in a way that nearly assures none will depart from it, ever.

    So its about the Benjamins, for certain, but also about the minds, hearts, vallues, time, loyalty, of their charges.

  19. Teacher Unions and Schools of Education and the State would never allow the loss of their power and revenue…until public schools are put under the control of town boards…this will never get better.

  20. I am making a good salary from home $1200-$2500/week , which is amazing, under a year back I was jobless in a horrible economy. I thank God every day I was blessed with these instructions and now it’s my duty to pay it forward and share it with Everyone, Here is what I do. Follow details on this web page……. Read more

  21. Same question about why political, economic, and social pundits are so frequently wrong. If inaccuracy of a prediction had any ramifications, then I’ve never seen one. In the olden days, false prophets were stoned. Perhaps that cut down on how many “reasoned voices” that were heard spouting doom and gloom? The only people I’ve heard about who get beat up for a wrong prediction are the poor volcanologists or seismologists who were convicted of manslaughter in Italy … Everyone else in the science, social, and economic community is given a pass.

  22. What happened is teachers unions. You don’t seriously believe that they are going to allow students being taught more efficiently and effectively by machines, instead of union members.

  23. My company builds online educational platforms and delivers custom entrepreneurship curriculum to students. My partner and I have both enjoyed Clay Christensen’s insights into education and innovation. I would disagree that the software isn’t there yet, or that student/teacher interactions aren’t being considered.

    We first tested our online school a couple years ago through a nonprofit’s summer workshop for teens that was being conducted in partnership with Rider College. Quite a few teachers had volunteered their time to these students, and were also very helpful in offering my company feedback. A single conversation with teachers about what would make things better for them and the students had me going back to development to incorporate their ideas, and the experience with students was similar.

    My company is now rolling out online courses in Bermuda public schools, where we just gathered feedback from teachers once again, and I’m once again developing tweaks to improve student engagement as well as teachers’ tools. Our collaboration with teachers has been extremely beneficial, and they report that our willingness to take the time to listen and develop solutions they suggest has been extremely beneficial to them. It has been a time consuming process, but a necessary one.

    I wouldn’t say that Christensen got it wrong at all, but that change almost always takes a bit longer than we think. We just need teachers to be willing to learn to use new tech and developers need to be willing to collect feedback. 🙂

  24. Whatever happens in the future we must prepare ourselves today and hope for the better tomorrow.

  25. Step 1: Abolish public schools.

    I don’t think we’re getting very far on (real, worthwhile) education reform without that. Even if schools are to be publicly funded, they can’t be run by governments and beholden to teacher unions.

  26. “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”, said Nelson Mandela, and we couldn’t agree more.

    Multi-billion dollar capital investments in ed-tech show the demand of the new era. Hi-tech solutions make education much more accessible, effective, and fun.

    Have a look at our new article on trends in educational technology –

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