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The Global Search for Education: Is Clay Christensen Ready to Disrupt Parenting?

A good life is not one that is free from struggle, but one in which people have the tools to overcome what life throws at them. By that logic, a good parent is one who immerses his child in lots of small, authentic opportunities to navigate and conquer challenges.” 

— Clay Christensen

Clayton Christensen’s bio describes him as a professor, author, entrepreneur, missionary, husband, and father. Clay is regarded as one of the world’s top experts on innovation and growth. The Clayton Christensen Institute was founded on Christensen’s world-renowned theories of disruptive innovation. The Institute has focused on education and health care and the transformational power of disruptive innovation. The Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards (TDIA), an annual gathering of the most progressive innovators in sports, education, media, philanthropy, economics, health care, civic engagement, and social justice, was launched by Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Craig Hatkoff in 2010, in collaboration with Christensen Over the last seven years, TDIA has honored a wide range of disruptors including Bill Simmons, David Lynch, Kanye West, Rick Rubin, Justin Bieber and Scooter Braun, Brian Chesky, Perry Chen and Yancey Strickler, and Jimmy Wales. This year, Alexa Da Kid and Watson, Bryan Johnson, Tory Burch and Jose Antonio Varges are among the game changers that made the cut.

More recently, Clay has turned his focus to the domain of parenting where he’s predicting that we may see disruption. To talk about this as well as other challenges for parents in a modern world, The Global Search for Education is delighted to welcome back Clay Christensen.

Clay, welcome. Disruption is clearly ​underway ​in the field of education. You have predicted we will see disruption in the field of parenting​.​ ​Can you explain ​how you see parenting now, ​the difference​s with​ parenting in your generation,​ and the challenges modern day parenting has created for today’s children?​

This is a big issue and solving it is much more complicated than we can address in the scope of a single conversation. But I think it’s a grave problem facing our families, and it’s something that we can’t afford to wait for someone else to come along to solve. 

In my parents’ generation there was a lot of work that went on at the home. They had to preserve food for the winter; they needed to put coal in the furnace; they even sewed our clothes. Our gardens had far more vegetables than flowers. As a result, in any given home, work was happening all around. Children were immersed in day-to-day projects alongside their parents. This meant that by the time they reached adulthood, children were armed with real skills, and through real immersion, they had learned how to address difficult problems. 

With my generation of parents and since, however, it’s become easier and cheaper to outsource work. We buy our food and clothing at the store. Those who can afford it hire others to care for our homes and gardens. We got dishwashers instead of children to wash dishes. Instead, parents became drivers to soccer practice and ballet lessons. On the one hand, outsourcing work can feel liberating. Maybe it even means, as the data suggests, that many parents are spending more time with their children than the previous generation. But my research in the world of business suggests that outsourcing can cost you in the long run. When companies just outsource more and more and more of the work that they have to do, ultimately they have no ability to do anything. 

What risks do you see when parents outsource the ‘parenting’ work?

I’m afraid that as parents outsource the work in our homes, we risk seeing our children grow up without the ability to address complex, daunting tasks. I worry that we as parents have raised children who don’t have the courage to deal with difficult things. If we think about this through the patterns and processes that guide innovation, I don’t think sustaining innovations—that just improve our ability to outsource more and more work—will solve this problem. Instead, we need disruptive innovations that reprioritize tackling authentic projects at home, with both children and adults working together. This could build up a generation of young people equipped for the future. And to get there we need insights about learning and child-rearing that enable every home to gain a sense of what modern parenting needs to look like in order to not simply eliminate work or inconvenience, but to raise Americans who can compete.

How has online learning changed parenting? How can new technology be leveraged to ​help establish​ better parenting practices or distribute child-care resources?

We need to raise our children to feel a sense of duty, responsibility, and selflessness. Those things became instinctive to our young when children were raised well and immersed in all of the work involved in helping the home run smoothly. As our families have gotten smaller, children are less likely to be working alongside siblings. Today, we need to think about how to create experiences that will build our children’s character at home. I think that online learning could play a role in that. But it depends on the particular programs we use to promote the sorts of offline behaviors. Helping others and persisting through challenges will help children become productive adults.

By bringing online learning programs into the home, parents might have a great opportunity to encourage and motivate their children to persist through the sorts of challenges that might make them both more competitive and caring. I believe this could occur in all homes. But it offers an especially exciting opportunity in those homes where parents may not feel equipped to teach academic material to their children.

Online learning is a big category. When we first set out to study how it might reshape education, we needed to understand all of the different pockets of formal and informal learning it could fill. We landed primarily on online courses penetrating schools as an option where the alternative was nothing at all. For example, over a decade ago the earliest online courses filled a gap in rural schools that couldn’t afford a full-time AP teacher. From there, like any disruptive innovation, online learning has continued to improve to reshape more traditional coursework, offering an easier way to meet each student’s unique needs.

I suspect that we might see that same pattern unfold at home. Children are innately curious but we need tools and processes that harness that curiosity. At the same time, many parents want to help their kids learn, but don’t have the skills or time to do so. As a result, learning may not be on offer at home at the rates we might hope. Can online learning fill these gaps?

The real question for parents is whether online learning—and the experiences it unlocks—could help our children gain a sense of duty, responsibility, and selflessness. I worry that a lot of software programs don’t encourage those things. Yes, a lot of the technical stuff of learning facts and figures—the actual academic content delivery and assessment—can occur through a software program. But I’m not sure that’s enough. Online learning could prove to be yet another way that we start to simplify life at home. If we want to help children to learn a sense of duty and selflessness, we must ask: how might online learning models and designs teach children the emotional wherewithal to conquer challenging tasks and encourage them to help one another?

Although they are far less common, I’m hopeful that some software programs out there can help deliver on these higher order skills. Some programs offer opportunities to help children to feel success every day and to coach each other through difficult challenges. For example, programs like the Khan Academy are structured to create achievement, and the confidence that students can succeed when faced with complicated problems. By its very design, failure within the program is not an option because students have to show mastery to move on, and it shows learners the progress that they are making in real time. And in some models, programs like these can also teach selflessness. For example, groups of children learning collectively on a program like Khan Academy can learn to help one another when they are struggling, supporting each other to learn and master the material together.

How do you see the parent’s role in raising good citizens?

Parents also have a big role in helping to ensure that online learning experiences build good, productive offline citizens. Just as teachers still play a critical role in schools, parents will still have a big part to play to make this feasible. Parents, regardless of their education level, can step in to provide motivation and encouragement. With some tools, working parents could even play this role remotely, using a mobile phone or cloud-based platform to send encouraging messages to spur their children along. 

Looking into the future​,​ how would you wish to define “good parenting”? 

Alison Gopnik just published an excellent book on pitfalls in modern parenting trends. In it she points out that ‘to parent’ didn’t even become a verb until 1958, and wasn’t even in common usage until the 1970s. And I’d argue that since then, we’ve tended to not just parent, but to over-parent. By that I mean that as parenting has evolved into something we do to our children, we’ve become too focused on protecting children or trying to curate a perfect life for them, free of inconvenience or suffering. That tendency makes good sense—every parent wants to give his child a good life. But I think we’re missing the mark on how to get there. A good life is not one that is free from struggle, but one in which people have the tools to overcome what life throws at them. By that logic, a good parent is one who immerses his child in lots of small, authentic opportunities to navigate and conquer challenges. 

(All photos are courtesy of CMRubinWorld)

For More Information on Clay Christensen: Christensen Institute and Disruptor Awards

C. M. Rubin and Clay Christensen

Join me and globally renowned thought leaders including Sir Michael Barber (UK), Dr. Michael Block (U.S.), Dr. Leon Botstein (U.S.), Professor Clay Christensen (U.S.), Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond (U.S.), Dr. MadhavChavan (India), Professor Michael Fullan (Canada), Professor Howard Gardner (U.S.), Professor Andy Hargreaves (U.S.), Professor Yvonne Hellman (The Netherlands), Professor Kristin Helstad (Norway), Jean Hendrickson (U.S.), Professor Rose Hipkins (New Zealand), Professor Cornelia Hoogland (Canada), Honourable Jeff Johnson (Canada), Mme. Chantal Kaufmann (Belgium), Dr. EijaKauppinen (Finland), State Secretary TapioKosunen (Finland), Professor Dominique Lafontaine (Belgium), Professor Hugh Lauder (UK), Lord Ken Macdonald (UK), Professor Geoff Masters (Australia), Professor Barry McGaw (Australia), Shiv Nadar (India), Professor R. Natarajan (India), Dr. Pak Tee Ng (Singapore), Dr. Denise Pope (US), Sridhar Rajagopalan (India), Dr. Diane Ravitch (U.S.), Richard Wilson Riley (U.S.), Sir Ken Robinson (UK), Professor Pasi Sahlberg (Finland), Professor Manabu Sato (Japan), Andreas Schleicher (PISA, OECD), Dr. Anthony Seldon (UK), Dr. David Shaffer (U.S.), Dr. Kirsten Sivesind (Norway), Chancellor Stephen Spahn (U.S.), Yves Theze (LyceeFrancais U.S.), Professor Charles Ungerleider (Canada), Professor Tony Wagner (U.S.), Sir David Watson (UK), Professor Dylan Wiliam (UK), Dr. Mark Wormald (UK), Professor Theo Wubbels (The Netherlands), Professor Michael Young (UK), and Professor Minxuan Zhang (China) as they explore the big picture education questions that all nations face today.

The Global Search for Education Community Page

C. M. Rubin is the author of two widely read online series for which she received a 2011 Upton Sinclair award, “The Global Search for Education” and “How Will We Read?” She is also the author of three bestselling books, including The Real Alice in Wonderland, is the publisher of CMRubinWorld, and is a Disruptor Foundation Fellow.