The innovative educator’s dilemma, part 1

by Steve Wyckoff on February 6, 2010

Clayton Christiansen wrote a book titled The Innovator’s Dilemma. It’s a wonderful book, I’ve listed it in my 10 most important reads. One of the dilemmas facing innovators, as identified by Christiansen, is that if you’re not careful your best customers can drive you out of business.

Let me explain using education as an example. In education our best customers are those students who get the highest grades, participate in the most activities, are happy with their school lives, successful, and their parents are extremely happy with their educational experience. In many cases these kids come from the families that are the most affluent, influential and respected in the community.

These also are the parents least likely to seek systemic change in the educational system.

But we have other kids in the system, many in fact, that are not successful academically, do not participate widely in activities, whose parents are estranged from school (typically because of a poor experience when they were students) and overall dissatisfied with their child’s experience in the school.

The problem is that the highly successful students would most likely be successful in any system. Their success can be directly attributable to influences outside of the school. On the other hand our unsuccessful students have few if any influences outside the school that impact them positively.

So as we try to improve schools the changes need to be designed to make the learning experiences of all kids more fulfilling. Rarely, however, do the parents of unsuccessful kids clamor for real systemic change. On the other hand the parents of our most successful kids will rise up in revolt if they fear that changes may negatively impact their children. And once again these are the most influential parents in the school district.

So while we are catering to our “best customers” our school districts are sinking into mediocrity or worse. And the day our schools get bad enough our “best customers” will abandon us for private schools, leaving us with a system that is perfectly designed to serve the students who are no longer there, and not at all well designed to serve the students who need is the most.- Steve Wyckoff

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