Michael Horn, Co-Founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute: Bringing Disruptive Innovations to Education
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Welcome to WorkforceRx with Futuro Health where future-focused leaders in education, workforce development, and healthcare explore new innovations and approaches. I’m your host, Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health.
Get yourself set for a provocative discussion today because my guest, Michael Horn is well known for offering bold ideas for improving education. Proof points include co-founding the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation and writing the book Disrupting Class, How Disruptive Innovation will Change the Way the World Learns. His most recent book — From Reopen to Reinvent: Recreating School for Every Child encourages a redesign of K-12 education in the wake of the pandemic to a competency-based model.
In addition to his work as a writer, Michael teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, co-hosts the podcasts Future You and Class Disrupted and serves as an executive editor at Education Next. I’m looking forward to exploring his thoughts on alternatives to higher education and what trends he is tracking in the space. Thanks so much for joining us today, Michael.
Michael Horn: Well, thank you for having me, and thanks for that generous introduction. I’m excited for the conversation.
Van: Likewise, likewise. Well, before we get into talking about alternatives to education and higher education, I’d like to get your big picture take on the current state and what key problems need to be solved.
Michael: Yeah, when I look at higher education right now, I think there’s problems from the demand side, what students and employers are looking for, and from the supply side, from the colleges themselves. So I guess I’d say in brief, I think what we see right now for students is that they’re really looking for value, right? They’re looking for credentials and skills that help them make progress in their lives that often have a workforce orientation on it, but not always, and they’re looking for it in a way that’s commensurate with the value so that what they’re paying is something like what they’re getting out of it.
Employers, obviously, are looking for something relevant, and I think both students and employers are sort of looking at the current state of higher ed and saying, wow, it’s gotten expensive. It’s not like the outcomes have gotten much better in terms of graduation rates and things like that. And so there’s this sort of mismatch.
Then on the supplier side, a lot of the traditional colleges and universities were built with a cost structure that has just gone up and up and up and it’s harder for them to be sustainable. There’s upstarts like you all out there that are coming from underneath and sort of offering a different value proposition, and then there’s this demographic crunch that’s facing a lot of traditional institutions.
So, if I looked at higher education writ large as we’ve traditionally defined it, I’d say that the patient is sick right now, and regarding the sides, there is grasping for value on the demand side and trying to grasp for a better form of sustainability on the supply side.
Van: Well, you certainly saw this ailment coming. I mean this mismatch between the value and relevance as the costs are rising as well as the demographic impact on the enrollment of these colleges. Tell us what you thought back then and how you think about it now.
Michael: Well, I think to your point, we saw that a lot of the business model challenges for traditional higher ed institutions were strained; that their ability to increase revenue against a backdrop of increasing costs and the demographic cliff coming — as you mentioned — those were all very, very clear. And we saw online learning entering the field, which we knew was going to be some sort of game changer. Everyone sort of laughed at us when we said that. Not everyone, but a lot of people because it looked primitive relative to the traditional way of educating. I think what we saw at the time in forecast was that it was just going to get better in ways that we couldn’t anticipate. We didn’t know how it would get better, but as with all disruptive innovations, it would improve over time and what seemed primitive at first would get better and better and better.
I think what we didn’t understand, if I’m thinking about it sort of critically…one is I think we got the general direction of some of the shifts, but the timing certainly was not correct of what we forecast. We were a little bit ahead of things. And I think secondly, we thought that the online learning might cause institutions to invest in learning model improvements and in lockstep with the science of learning much more than they perhaps have.
I say that because I often look at higher education and I’m like, there’s some really cool organizations that have come along that have redefined the business model, but maybe not pushed as much on the learning model as we would’ve liked. There are exceptions. You are obviously one; Western Governor’s University might be another. So there’s exceptions, but I think by and large, we haven’t seen quite the learning improvements that I think we had anticipated when we made those early predictions.
It’s just interesting… I think in K 12 education, we haven’t seen nearly enough business model changes. We’ve seen a lot of learning model improvements. And so it’s sort of this irony, I think, where one side is innovated on one part of the equation and the other side has innovated on the other part and you kind of need both, I think at the moment.
Van: So, when you talk about those exceptions who do learning online well, could you articulate some of the elements that they do, right?
Michael: Well, I think the biggest one is they start with what are the outcomes we want our learners to be able to know and be able to do? And they don’t just start there with the identification of the competencies; they then ask the second question, which is how would we know if a learner had in fact mastered those competencies? So, they think really seriously about what is assessment, not in sort of some reductivist simplistic way, but these are complex tasks that students are doing out in the world. How would we know that they had in fact mastered these skill sets or these competencies? Then they ask the third question, which is, okay, if that’s what we want them to do and that’s how we’ll know, how do we get them to be able to learn that stuff?
They’re much more focused on the learning driving toward the outcome as opposed to, let’s be honest, the way I do my Harvard class: I focus on what I’ve researched, I build a learning model around what I’ve researched and what I care about, but I’m not asking the question of how do I make sure every student has mastered these? Are these the right competencies that people care about to be able to do such and such a job and things of that nature? Now, I try as an individual faculty member, but I’m stuck in an institution that doesn’t prioritize that.
I think those institutions that have done this really well have been very clear. They use all of the toolbox, if you will, from the science of learning to help students make progress down that path and my sense of it is that allows them to employ things like the zone of proximal development in education and really personalize the right level of learning for any given individual; we’re going to think about the proper mix of self-study when you’re a novice learner versus working in complex group dynamics as you become more of an expert learner in a given field. A lot of these things around background knowledge we assume a learner might have, but actually what we realize when they come to us is they don’t have that and so we really have to build up that background knowledge for them to be able to do this more complex thing.
So, those are the sorts of things that I think those who’ve really led the learning part of this equation start with — and you can correct me if that feels off because I think you have a sense of this probably in the day-to-day — compared to, just to be frank, a lot of the folks who’ve also jumped into online learning. They’re like, ooh technology, shiny things and they start with the technology for technology’s sake rather than asking these really fundamental questions. Technology can be a really useful enabler of assessment, of feedback, of delivering customized curriculum or something like that, but it’s not about the technology for its own sake and in some places technology might be a distraction and actually be a net negative for a learner.
Van: I’m wondering if there’s a domain of research that could help move along higher education. We all know that higher education moves at its own pace, and I wonder what research would Michael Horn commission in order to help education move along?
Michael: Oh, that’s such a good question. I think I would focus on two things: one would be more research on the cognitive psychology where most of the advances in terms of how to do learning experiences have been. So, cognitive psychology and a lot in the field of memory and things like that have been breakthroughs, I think, for learning science.
The second one I think I would do is around organizational model change and how do you build the right teams that have the right incentives to care about the learning as opposed to their research? How do we train faculty to care about the learning science research as opposed to maybe the discipline specific knowledge in which they’ve been trained? Don’t get me wrong, that’s important, but it’s not enough to really make the advances on the ground for learners themselves. So, I think those are the two areas that I’d be thinking about is the cognitive psychology plus the organizational model change.
Van: Thanks for that advice, Michael. As a consumer, what are some options for higher education that you think people should consider now that maybe weren’t available previously?
Michael: Look, it’s an exciting time. As you know, there’s a lot more online learning options. I think the birth of apprenticeships and these ‘last mile’ training programs that are really focused on not just the learning but connecting those learners to the jobs themselves and have a real incentive, therefore, to make sure that what you’re learning is going to be relevant on day one for that individual…I think that there’s a lot of exciting programs coming out around these areas, and I think we’re going to see more of them.
I guess the other piece of it I would say is, frankly, I think a lot of these industry certifications that are starting to emerge — and this isn’t just IT, but also a lot of the board-based exams for healthcare or things like that, and then building training programs or learning programs that are designed to help students master those competencies and get into the field and get that advancement in their careers — there’s just a whole flurry of things right now coming in that I think are really exciting where learners can get real value and real quality.
Again, quality is defined in terms of what they’re trying to accomplish, which is help me live a better life, help me make progress in my career, help me better support the family members around me. I think there’s just so many more options than there were even ten years ago on those dimensions.
Van: That is so true. Now, Michael, how do people go about choosing secondary education options now and how should that change, do you think?
Michael: So, as you know, we wrote an entire book about this called Choosing College, which perhaps is misnamed because it focuses on college when really what we’re talking about is any post-secondary education option…so anything after high school from a short MOOC to a one-off YouTube video to a much bigger degree program. What we found was that individuals were trying to make progress in five different ways, basically is the way I would say it.
Some of them were trying to get into the best program for its own sake, sort of a mark of prestige, if you will, and the classic college experience. A lot of them were trying do what was expected of them, which I will tell you — and this is not surprising to you — that’s not a good reason to attend a college program. It should be much more intrinsic and our data was clear on that: people who enrolled to do what others expected of them just did not do well at all. The third group was a group that was going into a college or post-secondary program to get away from their current reality. So, it was less about what they were moving toward and more just like, I need to get out of this job and college is a way I can escape, or this training program is a way I can escape. Unfortunately — because they hadn’t done much of the thought about what they were trying to escape to — those outcomes weren’t all that great, either.
Far better were the next two we found. The first was learners trying to step it up in their lives, to take that next step and they were super clear about the credentials they wanted, what were the skills they needed to get and what would it produce? Something like three quarters of our dataset experienced success when they enrolled in those circumstances. The final one was sort of what I think of as the lifelong learning job. It was, “Help me extend myself. I have the time and the money. I’ve always wanted to invest in this. It’s okay if it doesn’t work out, but I just wanted to learn more and challenge myself in some meaningful way.” Those people are overwhelmingly happy because anything is gravy almost to them in many ways. The biggest risk for them was that they didn’t take the step to try more learning because, why not?
I guess what I would say is when we help all of those individuals navigate the choices that they make, unfortunately, I think we don’t really segment the world based on those different reasons for choosing a higher education experience and so we tend not to give great advice to learners. I’ll give you an example. You spent time previously in the community college sector, and as you know, a big breakthrough there some number of years ago was the introduction of guided pathway programs. They were much less choice, much quicker outcomes, much clearer purpose. For those who are like, ‘help me take the next step, help me step it up’ that is a blessing and more, and I think it’s why you see an increase in graduation rates and so forth.
The problem was though, if you’re a learner who’s enrolling in a community college just to get away and escape from what you’re currently doing, a guided pathway program is not a good fit because it assumes you know what you want to do next, and those learners plainly don’t know what they want to do next. You almost need to construct a program that just gives them a series of quick apprenticeships maybe, or quick sets of projects in different fields or something like that just so that they can learn about what they want to do next and then jump on the guided pathway program. So, in terms of how it should change, I think sometimes we need to do a better job understanding people’s ‘whys’ and then helping them segment accordingly so that they have the right set of choices given whatever stage they’re at in their own personal lives.
Van: Let me reference back to your group number three, which is the group that’s trying to get away from something. Usually in a down economy, people choose to go back to school because the alternatives aren’t great, or maybe they lost their job. And yet in this current economy, we’ve seen a tremendous decline in higher education enrollment — almost like 5% in the four-year system and two digits in the community college sector. So, perhaps people are struggling in an even greater way these days to figure out what is the right education option for them. What do you think?
Michael: I think that’s right. Yeah, I think you’re right. I think the friction, for lack of a better word, feels more intense or there’s more heat there than there’s ever been before. And I think it’s for a few reasons. One, the stories of student debt, the price tags on some of these experiences, the lackluster outcomes…I think it’s scared a lot of individuals and increases the friction from them even starting. It sort of paralyzed them.
Something we see from our model of choice is that people only make a choice or switch behavior when the push and the pull of their situation — meaning why it’s not good enough and what they could be moving toward — when it overcomes their habits of the present…what they’re currently doing and their anxieties about making a choice. My sense is that the anxieties around making a choice are just sky high at the moment, and it’s sort of causing people to struggle to make that jump. I think that’s part of it and I think the other part of it is, frankly, alternative options. They have a lot less anxiety around them, they have a lot less friction, they cost a lot less. The thinking goes, “They may not always work, but I feel like it’s less of a risk and I’m willing to make a jump.”
Because the other thing that we saw during the pandemic was, and still today, people are really hesitant about taking a degree-based experience, but short-term credentials went through the roof in terms of enrollment. I think it’s just that people said, “Well, I’m not ready to eat the whole Thanksgiving pumpkin pie, but I’ll take a nibble.” They had this sense that I’d like to keep making progress, but the anxieties about the downside of that degree option just feel too big. Even a community college, which is very low cost to the student felt that way, because I think the time factor maybe felt like a bridge too far for some learners.
I think that’s why we saw so much hesitancy around going back to school for a degree. But we saw a lot of learners say, oh, there’s all these new options. That’s a new kind of pull. It’s low cost, it’s quicker. I can see if it’s for me. I think I’ll try that. So, I think that’s why we’ve seen this…I don’t know if it’s anti-college as much as small step learning — that has driven a lot of individuals.
Van: You did such a good job of describing some of the factors that may be contributing to today’s enrollment loss. And frankly, it’s a good segue into my next question, which is, I understand you’re working on a new book about how to help people switch jobs and careers. Tell us more about that.
Michael: So, we’re using the same methodology: what’s the struggle that you have and the progress that you’re seeking in your life? We did research with thousands of individuals making job changes and both categorizing what led them to change — so we have a sense of why they change now — but then from that, and I think maybe more interesting, is we built a new eight step process to help people more successfully switch jobs.
It’s really about helping them understand that they’re in the driver’s seat; that it’s not just employers that are hiring them. When you agree to work for an employer, you’re also hiring that employer and so you have some agency and power in the equation. This process is one that’s really trying to help individuals realize, “Hey, what do I want to do? What are the trade-offs I’m willing to make?” Because there’s no perfect job, so you’re going to have to make some trade-offs, but we want you to decide consciously on what those trade-offs are. What are the skill sets and forms of energy that get you excited that you want to lean in on?
Then I guess the last piece of that is, how are you going to build and use your network to get you information about what those opportunities are before you switch jobs? I think that’s something that we often don’t talk a lot about. We tell people to do informational interviews or we tell them that social capital is important and you should talk to people, but we don’t actually tell people how to structure those conversations with people in their network.
So, we introduce in the book two very clear protocols for how you have those conversations and what sorts of questions you ought to be asking so that you can really try before you switch, as opposed to learn after you’ve made the job switch. Based on the people we’ve coached, we think it can help people be a lot more successful in that process and have a lot more satisfaction. It’s fascinating: roughly 1 billion people switch jobs in a given year around the globe, and only a couple of million of those experience a real sense of satisfaction and progress. And so the work that we’ve done with these hundreds and hundreds of individuals suggests that we can help change that equation somewhat meaningfully.
Van: Well, you certainly put out a teaser. I’m so curious…what is an example of a question somebody may ask as they’re thinking about changing jobs and roles, and when is the book coming out?
Michael: So, the book is coming out after the election, so probably November or December 2024. In short, where we’ve landed on the interviews or the conversations with your network is really we want you to have done the upfront work to understand what are the activities that really bring you energy and what are the activities that drain your energy? Then, when you have that conversation with the individual who has a job that sounds nice, rather than just say ‘oh, tell me about your job or oh, I like this, look at my resume sort of stuff, instead you’re saying, does your job help you feel impact every day? And when I say impact, what I mean by that is the chance to individually have positive interactions with patients over a long trajectory.
For example, the individual who cares about impact and getting to know their patients might not get that sense of satisfaction from working in the ER, right? But for the individual that just wants to have positive interactions and get the individual out of the door, that sense of impact would be great. Both jobs have impact, but we want you to have a deeper sense and understanding of what impact looks like for you and to really fine tune your questions so that by the end, you leave and you’re like, ‘wow, that job lines up perfectly to what drives my energy,’ or ‘it might be a cool job, but it’s not for me at this stage’ and just have a much deeper sense of what you’re looking for.
Van: Oh, that’s very helpful to understand. I can see why asking the questions in those ways get you a much better answer. Michael, I know that a lot of folks who listen to this podcast are in the world of workforce development and they’re also employers, and I would imagine across the board we’re all worried about the learning loss that occurred in the K 12 system and more, and how that moves up into college or the workforce. How do you think it will play out for all of us, and how can colleges or employers be ready for those individuals to come into their sphere?
Michael: Gosh, it’s a great question, Van. Obviously, the reason I wrote the book From Reopen to Reinvent was to try to urge our K-12 friends to move quicker and stronger in working with individuals and moving to a mastery-based model of learning. For higher education, honestly, I think they need probably to do the same thing, which is to get away from the sense of ‘my class takes 13 weeks regardless of your starting point’ to being much more focused on, ‘okay, what’s the mastery I need you to make and how do I help support the fact that learners are going to start in different places in their learning?’ There was just some great research that came out of Carnegie Mellon that showed people actually don’t really have different rates of learning, but what they do have is dramatically different starting points. Unfortunately, I think traditional higher ed is not built for this — you might push back and say, ‘we are’ — but I think you have to take into account the different starting places of individuals and tailor accordingly. I’m not sure how else we solve this otherwise.
The second thing is not necessarily the learning loss piece, but the social emotional skills of our learners are as significantly behind where we might expect individuals to be. Here again, there’s no substitute for building a resilience and growth mindset and agency and executive function into the learning experiences themselves. I applaud those places that are setting up centers or separate classes and things of that nature, but I think it actually has to be in the context of the learning itself, where the learners learn how to set goals, and that they might not get it on their first try when they take the test or do a project, but they get to keep working at it. That’s a part of learning.
The last piece I think is, for better or worse, employers when you look around and the human capital is not up to snuff for what you need, I think you have no choice but to invest deeply yourself in helping those learners learn. That might be in direct partnership with novel programs. It might be what Google has done right in the IT field, which is defining what the competencies are and releasing courses that can help individuals build those skill sets and assessments to help understand. But I think employers are going to have to not sort of feel like that they’re passive victims of this, but that they’re going to have to lean in as well on the learning.
Van: Michael, let’s top off our conversation today with a question and a test of your ability to read the tea leaves. What meaningful disruption do you think we should track as you look at the future of learning?
Michael: Oh boy. Good question. I think the obvious one at the moment is AI, right? And generative artificial intelligence in particular I think is so intriguing. There’s all these questions about where the technology will go, but I think the fact that there is technology right now that can look at a student’s output — their project, their work, their written pieces, whatever it might be — and actually give feedback right away, is just tremendous. So, I think the ways that might allow new forms of education, that gives students much more rapid support and feedback and empowers the human beings on the other side of that equation — the teachers — to really better connect quicker with those learners and give them the supports that they need at a much lower cost…I think could be tremendous in the long run.
I guess the second thing I would say is mobile learning platforms…I just think the ability to do this rather than on a big screen, but on your phone and building experiences that are tailor made to helping learners learn bite-sized learning, whenever they have the chance natively for that environment, I think is going to be the second big thing that we ought to keep our eye on in the years ahead.
Van: Well, there you have it. It was such an enjoyable session today, Michael. We’re so delighted you were here with us.
Michael: Well, I’m just delighted to be with you and watching all the great things you continue to do for learners as you all keep innovating. So, thank you, Van.
Van: Thank you, Michael. I’m Van Ton-Quinlivan with Futuro Health. Thanks for checking out this episode of WorkforceRx. I hope you will join us again as we continue to explore how to create a future- focused workforce in America.