The 180 Podcast: Michael Horn
Michael Horn: A Time for Disruptive Innovation in Education
What’s next? In this uncertain time, the question impacts nearly every aspect of our lives.
But as learning has moved out of schools and into homes – off chalkboards and onto Zoom – the question of “what’s next?” seems particularly central to our existing approach to education and how kids learn.
Few raise these questions – or search more for answers – than Michael Horn. Among other roles, Michael is a senior strategist at Guild Education and is co-founder of and a distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. Michael also serves as an executive editor at Education Next and is the author of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools, and most recently, “Choosing College.”
From technology to policy to distance learning, does this moment offer opportunities for transformational change or simply greater risks? Does this disruption offer a unique, generational opportunity to rewrite the existing rules?
Chris Riback: Michael, thanks for joining me. I appreciate your time.
Michael Horn: My pleasure. It’s great to be with you.
Chris Riback: You have written widely on the subject of disruptive innovation. What is disruptive innovation in education? Do you see this moment as laying a foundation for the ideas you’ve written and spoken about for so long?
Michael Horn: Yes, it’s a great question, particularly because I think disruptive innovation is this concept that has been misinterpreted and popularized to mean things in popular culture that are very different from what the original idea was. So, disruptive innovation very simply means new services coming into the world that are more affordable, accessible, convenient, and simple to use than those that had existed before, that were limited in scope to those people who had a lot of expertise and a lot of wealth, and disruptive innovation in essence is the process of decentralizing access to these services by far more affordable, accessible offerings. But what’s also true is that these services start as primitive relative to the best of the best of what existed.
Michael Horn: So, the people that are maybe using existing services, they look out at these disruptive innovations and they say, “That’s not all that attractive.” But what they don’t understand is that for someone who literally has no access to say tutoring or something like that, it’s better than their alternative, nothing at all. And disruptive innovations, they get their start there. And they reliably and predictably get better and better and better, powered by technology enablers that take into effect research, and the up market, if you will, trajectory of technology to get better and better and serve more demanding use cases. So in education, broadly speaking, we’ve said online learning and online activities allow us to disrupt the historical way to access education and can serve as a disruptive innovation to start to give the power of a tutor to every single child. And that’s what’s so exciting.
Michael Horn: What’s interesting about this particular moment we’re in, is that obviously all learners are now for better or worse learning online. And it’s certainly in many cases, more primitive than what they had, if it’s existing. I think the answer to, is this a moment, is a yes, it is, and no, it isn’t at the same time. What I mean by that is, I think in the “no, it isn’t” camp, there are some people who are just thrust into this new world of remote or online learning, and they’re not really using the tools that are available out there. They’re not using the pedagogy and science of learning that have been built into really high quality products. So they’re going to come out of this and say, “Gosh, never again. I can’t wait to get back to the traditional classroom.” And it’s really going to leave a sour taste, I think, in some people’s mouth.
Michael Horn: On the other hand, I think you’re going to start to see school districts and some teachers, and some parents start to question first principles and say, “Holy cow. We need to be investing in these services in case that happens again.” That will have, I think, very big benefits as it starts to bleed into the classroom. I think there’s a bunch of folks who will say, “Why is it that we think that we should deliver the same lesson to every single kid in the same day, in the same way, when that’s not clearly not how they’re learning and online it’s really absurd and maybe allow them to start questioning some first principles and get some experience with some digital tools that are really, really good and start to do things differently.” I don’t think Zoom is the answer for this world, but there are some amazing digital tools out there that I think could start to radically transform how people think about this moment.
Chris Riback: How much of a key to drive disruptive innovation is disruption? The tools that we have right here right now are spotty, and one district may have great tools, other districts not, even within districts some families might have better access to certain capabilities and other families not. But the opportunity for disruptive innovation, in listening to you, maybe it requires disruption?
Michael Horn: Yes. So there’s no question in this sense, which is one of the reasons that schools have been impervious, I would argue, to disruption generally has been that we all have access to schooling. In the United States that is, right? In developing countries it’s a very different story, and there’s some very interesting innovations going on. But we have a full established system with no non-consumption of schooling, and so it’s actually really hard, and I would argue disruption actually literally cannot function within that system. So that’s why largely we’ve written about disruption occurring at the level of classrooms, but not of schools and districts and things of that nature.
Michael Horn: The longer this pandemic stretches on, the longer that remote learning becomes a reality, I think your point is spot on, which is that favors real disruptive innovation because the other option that we had is literally not there anymore, and so the alternative is nothing, and we’ve got to do better than what we’re doing right now and will force us to innovate. So in my mind, the shorter this moment is, the less likely it’s going to result in transformation. The longer it stretches on interestingly enough, the more it will force our creative juices to come together and reimagine how we do things.
Chris Riback: How are you feeling about the vast differences that we’re all hearing about, seeing about, learning about, between various districts, between families, among families within districts themselves? Are you seeing signs that that will push towards greater opportunity, greater innovation for those folks who might not be having those opportunities right now? Or do you feel like that risks being seen as a limit and a limitation to the power of, and the opportunity around, innovation?
Michael Horn: Yes. I hope it creates energy and fuel for remedying some of those inequities and creating a bigger platform to do things differently. The fact that 9 million kids don’t have access to high speed broadband or internet, connected devices to be able to do remote learning and the like, I think should be a wake up call that we need to get a foundational infrastructure in place in these homes environments even if things go back to business as usual, just to address the homework gap and the ability to prepare and so forth at home. I hope it’s a wake up call because the funds exist actually in the current system to remedy some of those problems.
Michael Horn: It’s literally some policy and regulatory hoops that we could drive through just to basically close that gap and then create a platform, I think, from which we could really innovate in some robust ways for people that don’t have access to tutors and homework help and things like that, can be a tremendous platform. So I hope it shows us that it’s within our grasp, that the problem of access is actually not that interesting a problem we could solve, but if we don’t solve it, it’s really interesting in the sense that we don’t get the ability to tackle all the things that we could do with these modalities in terms of personalizing learning and being able to solve for different student challenges that they present in the like.
Michael Horn: So we’ll see how this shakes out. The long-term trends on this I think are quite good in the sense that mobile devices are much more equitably distributed. They’re much lower cost, access is less of an issue and so forth, but we also don’t have products and services in the education realm that are by and large at this point developed for those devices in any productive way. So to get something that works for laptops and high speed internet connectivity and the like, I think is incredibly important over the next five to 10 years, and this moment reveals just how important it is.
Chris Riback: How worried are you about learning loss, and what should schools be most concerned about in your view when they reopen?
Michael Horn: I’m tremendously worried about learning loss. I think there’s no question that millions of students are essentially having no experience whatsoever right now. And a lot of districts, I think in a misguided sense of equity have said, “If we can’t deliver for everyone, we’re going to deliver to no one.” Whereas I would take a different view, let’s deliver for as many as we can, and then for those we couldn’t reach let’s double and triple down when they come back in and really spend our support and resources on them. The second part of your answer, though may surprise some folks who just heard me say that, which is to say that I do think before you think about the academics, make sure that the foundation is there in terms of the social, emotional side of the student, in terms of the health factors, in terms of all the ground zero things that are important for someone to be able to learn, you need to at least be thinking about those.
Michael Horn: And it’s a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in some simplistic way, right? Which is, if you don’t take care of first principles, they’re not going to come in ready to learn. At the same time, I think you can assess all those things as students come back in a holistic way, which is to say, if I were a district, I would spend a lot of time upfront, the first couple of weeks of students coming back into physical school, whenever that happens, trying to figure out what was going on in their home lives, what was going on from a health perspective, were they experiencing trauma? What was going on socially? What was going on emotionally? What was going on with their relationships? Were they asked to do things? I would also be doing intake on where are they academically? What have they mastered and what do they not mastered?
Michael Horn: I think that one of the travesties of the move to pass fail has been that, we’re not going to actually have a very good understanding of what students know and can do out of this. Whereas I would have gone the reverse, which is to a mastery-based system where I would say, “Okay, we’re no longer going to look at A B C and D against a class, instead, I want to know within certain concepts, are you building mastery and fluency in them so that when you come back it’s easier for me to understand, hey, this is where I need to spend my time with you.” Student X, well fed, health is in a good place. Family was around. It was actually a really joyous time. They didn’t learn a thing, but they come back to me in a really good mental state, if you will, ready to learn, but I see all these gaps and I can know that pretty quickly, student B, lot of gaps, maybe they did actually learn something. I’m going to have a very different approach for that child.
Chris Riback: So, what’s your guidance to educators in one, a resource constrained world, and then as well to the extent that you feel you’re able, guidance to parents? Because what I’m hearing is with learning loss, the school administrators, teachers are surely going to be under tremendous pressure to make up that gap. “Hey, my kid was out, I got to make up that learning loss.” At the same time, there’s the soft skill part, let’s call it the soft stuff, and you were just talking about it, do an evaluation for the children, what did they lose? What’s your guidance? If teachers, educators, administrators are going to be under dual pressures because of the learning loss, what’s your guidance to them on how to work that balance?
Michael Horn: What I would do if I were the educators is step back. Those first few weeks I would be going back and deciding what are the core competencies from an academic perspective that students really need to know and be able to do. And what are the things that like, yes, in an ordinary year, we would have love them to master, but it’s okay. Right? For their academic careers, if they don’t get that.
Michael Horn: In mathematics, probably a bunch of those skills are going to be core things that they need to still learn, whereas history, social studies, they’re going to be things that, yes, I wish that they had learned, but it’s okay if they didn’t, but there’ll be some things that germane to the community or the conversation or whatever in social studies and history that I’m probably going to say, “I absolutely want to make sure I know every single student knew and got this.” Right? Same thing on the social, emotional health side and so forth. What are the core things that we want to be in place or know about for students? I would start with a very frank week long conversation around that.
Michael Horn: The second week would be then, “Okay, how are we going to assess those different items?” And some of those, they are very good instruments that exist that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel on, and some of them, honestly, you can just do an oral assessment where the teacher talks to the kid for 30 minutes and gets a sense for gee, they actually have fluency with these things, I’ve got a sense for their home life, this seems to be a real challenge, and therefore we’re going to do X, Y, and Z. Right? The key is not to come up with the plan right now, it’s just to come up with how we are going to assess the gap and what’s there and what’s not. Then from there you would start to build what’s our new academic model to handle the fact that all these students need personalization and different interventions for different students, and honestly redesigning at that point their classroom model to disrupt, if you will, class the way we’ve always done it.
Chris Riback: What would you argue we should be funding and prioritizing in the CARES Act and other federal policy? Are there things that we should be focusing on right now that can maybe not only get us through this period, but then can become maybe building blocks in terms of disruptive innovation going forward?
Michael Horn: One of the things I think is honestly, we need to move the posture of the federal government from looking at point in time assessment, and assuming, just because you’re a certain age that you will have mastered a certain set of concepts, which I think is absurd on the face, given the different backgrounds people bring to begin with, but it’s really absurd right now. I would much rather move toward a growth oriented view of students from where you are, where have you moved toward, and that to me is in some ways the biggest move that we could do. Because then, schools would stop feeling some of this pressure to just get someone up to a certain arbitrary level, and instead start to say, “Okay, what’s the right thing for this child?” Let’s make sure the foundation is in place, let’s start to think about growth measures.
Michael Horn: If growth is important, we have some time because we have a whole school year to do that, let’s take care of first principles first so that we can sow the seeds for growth. And in some ways I think, more than funds will obviously be important and support in that way. But I also think starting to really move much more aggressively to a non-grade level growth oriented posture, for schools is something that the federal government ought to move more aggressively toward.
Chris Riback: If you feel like equity is a gap that exists, how do we protect going forward against a widening in that equity gap?
Michael Horn: So this is actually maybe the question, the wonderful question that connects a lot of strands, because here’s what’s interesting, if schools and government do nothing, right? Those with the most resources will continue to find ways to learn regardless. I’m in this position, right? We are capable of providing the resources both analog and digitally to my kids so that they continue to make incredible progress. I mean, my kids, the progress that they’ve made from a reading perspective over the last two months has been magical from my perspective. They’re doing incredible in my mind. But a lot of families are not in that position. Right? And so that is why schools and government to provide financing to make sure that schools can serve those without access to resources or without the time or inclination or know how to get those resources is so very, very important.
Michael Horn: There’s an interesting stat on the digital divide, which is that in certain ways, it’s reversed, and I alluded to this earlier, which is that youth teenagers specifically from low income backgrounds actually disproportionately have access to mobile devices connected to the internet than upper income students. But what’s also true is that they use it in very counterproductive ways, they’re up to late hours, two in the morning, certainly not doing educational stuff on those devices and quite destructive, and so you say there’s two reactions to that. One is ban devices, get them out of their hands. And to that, I’d say wonderful, but good luck.
Chris Riback: Yes, good luck, that’s what I’m thinking.
Michael Horn: And two would be, well, schools actually, they’re going to have to … here’s another place they’re going to have to integrate in and teach them how to responsibly use them in a healthy social way. So, I think to your equity question, if we’re serious about it, schools have to tackle these questions and society and governments will have to tackle these questions, because families like mine, we talk about balance all the time, right? We talk about how to use a tool respectfully in the way it was designed, we make it social. We are able to pull in even today, like I was working on seasons with one of my kids. Pulled in a simulation from the Khan Academy and the two of us were going there debating on, the angle of the earth and the tilt and the direct sunlight and not, and so forth. That’s a conversation we can have because I’m aware of those things. That’s where schools need to help the large percentage of students who do not come from families that can have that conversation.
Chris Riback: Yes. I know the very last thing you need is another job but I’m certain that any parents listening to this are going to want to know. So, very quickly, and if there’s any guidance you can give. One, what are the ages of your kids? And two, are there any tips, guidance that you would give? Not from an “I know it all” perspective, but from-
Michael Horn: I definitely don’t.
Chris Riback: I’ve been doing some things over the last month and they seem to be working okay.
Michael Horn: Yes. I definitely don’t know it all. Some of your listeners will laugh because … So I have twins, my own randomized control trial in my house, but-
Chris Riback: How old?
Michael Horn: They are five and a half years old. So they’re young, on the very early end. The biggest thing we’ve done is put a schedule in place, and by schedule, I mean, routines and stuck to them so that they have some measure of control sitting in some measure of recurrence and certainty about what will be there. Then a clear sense of what they get to decide, right? Within that schedule. I thought one of my kids was going to work on thank you letters for someone during today, and instead she chose to read for an hour. Totally great, right? That’s a choice that she made. But I think a sense of routine is extremely helpful to the family and functions and a clear sense of what they can expect. Because uncertainty can drive anxiety and it creates challenges.
Michael Horn: The other thing I would say is, we’re also very clear that they are going to get outdoors for certain amounts of time, that they’re part of the family unit and they have to help us walk the dog and certain things like that. It’s not all academics by any stretching imagination, we’ve actually de-emphasized in many ways. Then they’ve just driven it because they’re curious. To me it’s really balanced routine and consistency are the biggest things you can do for kids and give them the security to explore and be on their own. So you as the parent, don’t have to be answering every single thing for them or doing everything for them. We’ve created a snack cabinet for them, they can have control of that over, though sometimes they splurge too much. Sure, but that’s the tradeoff we’re willing to make because it gives them some measure of control over something, which I think is wonderful. So, those are, I think, the top line advice, pieces of advice I’d give.
Chris Riback: Yes. I hate to say it, but the Horn Home School, there’s another business there for you.
Michael Horn: It’s kind of you to say, I hope my wife agrees.
Chris Riback: No, I’m sure everyone there, I’m sure at least the two of you are looking to get out of the business as soon and hand it back over to the professionals.
Michael Horn: Exactly.
Chris Riback: Michael, to close out our conversation, you give off the sentiment, the feeling of an incredibly positive person. So, I would have to assume that you are a glass half full type of a person-
Michael Horn: I am.
Chris Riback: As you’re looking at the situation that we’re in, everyone wants to know what’s next. What are the silver linings
Michael Horn: I think the silver linings are frankly, the questions that you’ve asked over the last 30 minutes, which is to say the lid has been lifted and what school actually looks like for a lot of families. And they’re asking questions about, does this make sense? Why is my kid still doing worksheets, right? Ad nauseam, why aren’t they motivated to do X, Y, and Z? All these questions about why it did something function the way it does. I think the fact that we now have the room and necessity to ask these questions will hopefully lead to innovation because that’s where innovation starts, is asking a good question. So I’m hopeful, well, I don’t think every place will innovate and rethink schooling tomorrow. I do think a handful and more than a handful of places will make some measurable progress, because there’ll be asking some really important questions and come up with some new ways of doing things that benefit more learners.
Chris Riback: Michael, thank you. Thank you for your time.
Michael Horn: Yes. Thanks so much for having me, and for cultivating this conversation.