#5 Notes from ISTE (Disruptive Innovations entry 1)

The start of the school year is always a busy time for me as a teacher and as a father. I did not finish my ISTE entries as quickly as I would have liked, and before I knew it, school was upon us. My apologies for the delay.

For this entry about ISTE I would like to share the start of a correspondence that has been taking place between Dr. Teresa Foulger and myself. Dr. Foulger is an associate professor at ASU Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College (http://education.asu.edu/faculty/teresa-foulger). I had the pleasure of attending a panel discussion she facilitated on the topic of disruptive innovations. I was somewhat familiar with the concept prior to the discussion, but I was curious to see how it was being applied to educational settings.

In the opening comments Dr. Foulger laid out the definition of disruptive innovations. She defined it as something that is, “intrinsically motivated, it is enticing, it takes root, it improves, it spreads, and it can kill the leaders”. Obviously these kinds of innovations begin with a perceived need or desire and the vision and capacity to fulfill it. The spread of the innovation as stated above is intrinsic. Someone tries it out and decides for himself (or because of his peers) that it is worthy of continued use. In this regard the innovation requires a groundswell to become disruptive. In other words the innovation is adopted from the ground up. It creates a subculture of users and continues to grow until the usage reaches a level of critical mass. At this level the innovation begins to affect (disrupt) the larger culture in a significant way.

What I noticed, however, was that there was a difference between this concept of disruptive innovations and what the panelists were describing. The people making up the discussion panel represented brave individuals who were pushing the envelope in their various capacities within education. The common theme among their stories was they discovered, or were introduced to, a problem that needed a solution. These problems varied from low levels in math competencies to preparing Chinese high school students for American higher education. In each case, these individuals saw a way to address the problem(s) and took steps to present their solutions to those that would need to be involved or who would need to give permission. Invariably there were pushbacks to these solutions. Change is hard. It is even harder for those who are complacent, those who are afraid, and those who are at the top. The panelists persisted, and eventually change began to take place.

As disruptive as these individuals may have been, I do not believe we can call their solutions disruptive innovations for two main reasons. The first is that although the supporters of the innovations were intrinsically motivated, many others that were involved were not. For some (i.e. those not wanting change) the innovations were only accepted for extrinsic reasons, such as receiving a more positive evaluation or keeping their job. If an innovation must be accepted because it is a requirement then, by definition, I do not believe we can call it a disruptive innovation.

The second reason I believe these are not disruptive innovations is because they do not start from the bottom and create a groundswell in the sense that has been described above. Although the solutions presented by the panel had to be approved by various administrators or board members, they were essentially applied in a downward motion. For example, the panelists from a Texas University were brought in to help with deficiencies in mathematics. Their solutions were implemented with classroom teachers. This was a top-down implementation of a solution, not a bottom-up groundswell due to intrinsic motivation and enticement.

An example of what I would consider to be a disruptive innovation is what Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams did in their high school chemistry classes. They were faced with the problem of students missing a great deal of school due to sports and other activities. In 2007 they began recording their lectures and posting them online so students would not fall behind. This, and the subsequent shift in the classroom dynamics that came about as a result of these recordings, became known as flipping the classroom (2012). This technique started in two classrooms in one high school because of a need. The success of this technique for these two teachers caused them to begin sharing their technique with other educators. These educators became intrinsically motivated and enticed to try it for themselves. The technique began to take root, to improve, and to spread. Other than killing the leaders, the technique of flipping the classroom meets all of the criteria of a disruptive innovation.

            Since I am suggesting that what the panelists described were not disruptive innovations, I would like to share my thoughts on what I think they are. Although this may not apply to every situation that was presented, I believe these are examples of performance technology. According to D. Van Tiem, J. Mosley, and J. Dessinger (2004), performance technology is defined as “the systematic process of linking business goals and strategies with the workforce responsible for achieving the goals” (p. 2). For our purposes the word “business” in the previous definition could be replaced with “educational”. The authors also list six main objectives of performance technology:

  • Analyze observable workplace behavior.
  • Associate the behaviors with related environmental factors, such as organizational culture and mission.
  • Determine the causes of exemplary and problem behaviors.
  • Design possible solutions, called
  • Put the interventions into action.
  • Monitor and measure the results to document the effectiveness of the intervention toward designed change. (p. 2)

The strategies that were described by the members of the panel seem to closely follow these objectives, especially what was presented by the group from Texas. These interventions are applied from the outside-within and from the top-down, or at least the middle-down. These interventions, when applied correctly, can be very effective, although we could not call them disruptive innovations.

I suggested to Dr. Foulger that it might be fun to try and come up with a name for what the panelists were doing. They might be called Educational Performance Technologists, or EPTs. Or, we might could say they specialize in educational performance technology. Actually, I don’t know if that term has ever been used, so we may be on to something with that one. Who knows, maybe some day sessions will be offered on educational performance technology at an ISTE convention.



Bergmann, J. & Sams, A. (2012). Flip your classroom: Reach every student in every class every day. Eugene, OR: ISTE.

Van Tiem, D. M., Mosley, J. L., & Dessinger, J. C. (2004). Fundamentals of performance technology. Silver Spring, MD: ISPI.


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