Disrupting Class: Chapter 1: Why Schools Struggle to Teach Differently When Each Student Learns Differently



Like good business professors, the authors begin this chapter with a case: The school’s star forward is struggling in chemistry class, while others around him seem to get it. His teacher, unable to cater to the needs of every student, attempts triage by presenting the material as best he can so that most students will pass; unfortunately, not every student will catch on. At home, the struggling soccer player’s father teachers the material in a new way, and this time it clicks. This case illustrates the main ideas of this chapter: Schools have a hard time customizing learning for each student, even though we all know intuitively that people learn differently.

To discuss how people “learn differently,” the authors draw on Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, although they admit that there is some debate in the field of education about this and similar ideas. So while they don’t necessarily have a stake in whether or not this is the best theory for explaining differences in learning, they consider it a useful lens. Recognizing that people have different intelligences, different learning styles (which might change with the content being learning), different paces of learning, and different starting places for learning, it is obvious that we cannot possibly teach every student effectively in exactly the same way. When we should customize, we standardize. Why?

Their answer: schools have an “interdependent architecture” rather than a “modular” one. Interdependency in schools means that on multiple levels, the way things are done in any one part of the school system depends on the way things are done in other parts. There are various kinds of interdependency: temporal (“you can’t study this in ninth grade if you didn’t cover that in seventh”), lateral (“You can’t teach certain foreign languages in other more efficient ways because you’d have to change the way English grammar is taught”), physical (“many schools can’t adopt widespread project-based learning because the layout of their buildings simply can’t accommodate it”), and hierarchical (“changes in the curriculum would also require changes in standardized tests and admissions standards”) (p. 33). With all these interdependencies, customization is difficult and expensive (and the extra cost of accommodating special education students attests to this expense).

It is practically impossible to provide customized learning for all students within an interdependent school system. If we had a modular system, on the other hand, we would have a better chance of customizing learning and developing a “student-centric” model. The chapter ends with the promise that the proper use of technology (i.e. computers) offers a chance to modularize the system and move in that direction.


Some big questions here. The main one: What accounts for differences in student outcomes? So far, their answer is: the (mis)alignment between students’ intelligences/learning styles and the teachers’ pedagogical approaches. This seems to rely on an understanding of learning and knowledge as individual cognitive possessions–something that sociocultural theories would contradict. The idea that motivation follows from this kind of alignment also seems to be a bit of a leap. If something is taught in your favorite learning style, will it automatically be motivating? I’m not sure.

That said, I found some of the ideas to be intriguing. The tension between customization and standardization is interesting and certainly relevant to school systems (as is the related tension between efficiency and quality). I also found the discussion of systemic interdependency vs. modularity to be insightful. “Modularity allows for customization” is a concept to remember.


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