Michael B. Horn strives to create a world in which all individuals can build their passions and fulfil their potential through his writing, speaking, and work with a portfolio of education organizations. He is the author of several books, including the recently released From Reopen to Reinvent: (Re)creating School for Every Child; the award-winning Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns; Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools; Choosing College; and Goodnight Box, a children’s story.
Michael is the co-founder of and a distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, a non-profit think tank and an adjunct lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He also serves on the board and advisory boards of a range of education organizations, including Imagine Worldwide, Minerva University, the LearnLaunch Institute, and Guild Education, and is a venture partner at NextGen Venture Partners.
Recently, in an exclusive interview with CXO Magazine, Mr. Horn shared his insights on the transformation of K12 education landscape over the years, his professional background, the inspiration behind his books, and much more. The following excerpts are taken from the interview.
How has the K12 education landscape transformed over the last five years and where is it heading now?
Coming out of the pandemic, there’s no question that digital learning has become far more widespread. Millions and millions of children all over the world learn through technology as part of their day. The question of course is has the adoption of technology made learning more learner-centered. My sense of the answer to that question is ‘not really’ in most parts of our formal education systems. But there are pockets. We see many more microschools and other small, community-driven education efforts that are really putting students at the center and pushing the bounds of what we think schools and education might look like—and I hope our formal education systems will learn from what they have done.
Michael, can you tell us about your professional background and areas of interest?
A: My personal mission over nearly two decades has been how do we build a world in which all individuals can build their passions and fulfil their human potential. My goal is to help bring about that change through my thought leadership—in the form of books, podcasts, speaking, and the like—as well as advising organizations to help usher in a world that prioritizes each student’s learning. My thought leadership has built on a set of innovation theories that make the process of innovation, which has been typically characterized as chaotic and unpredictable, far more predictably successful.
I got into this work by co-authoring a book with Clayton Christensen, the father of disruptive innovation theory, who was an incredible mentor. We cofounded the Clayton Christensen Institute, and since then I wake up every morning thinking about how to advance this vision for individuals around the world.
In your opinion, what is the need for and importance of competency-based learning? Tell us about some of its key benefits.
The dominant education system in the world is built around learning being the constant and each student’s learning being variable. Take Vietnam for example. They have intricate systems for making sure that in every school in the country, every single teacher in any given grade span is teaching the exact same lesson. But the reality is that in their classrooms, many children aren’t ready for those lessons. Many others have undoubtedly mastered the material already and are growing bored by the lesson and tuning out to school. Few are learning in their sweet spot. Worse still, in the traditional system, at the end of the unit, everyone moves on to the next unit regardless of their learning and mastery of the subject material. We know that no one learns at the same rate, yet we are literally embedding learning loss into the school by design.
If the goal is developing all students, what if we instead guaranteed mastery? That is, we made time the variable, but said that a student can’t fully leave a concept until they demonstrate mastery of it. That’s competency-based learning. If we’re serious about all students building mastery of core knowledge and skills—in addition to developing habits of success like perseverance, growth mindset, metacognition, executive function skills, agency, and more—then we need to move to this model.
What was the inspiration behind writing your latest book, “Reopen to Reinvent: (Re)Creating School for Every Child’? Please brief us about the main takeaways from this book.
Amid the disaster that has ensued since the start of the COVID pandemic—the assault on society and schools over multiple school years—there is an opportunity to rebuild better by altering the fundamental assumptions undergirding our present-day schooling model. The book is about what educators and schooling communities choose to build out of this devastation. And it’s equal part recommendations of what schools should do—embracing mastery- or competency-based learning; developing each and every child’s knowledge, skills, habits of success, social and emotional wellbeing and the like; embracing team-teaching models; harnessing the energy of parents; and the like—as well as how schools can innovate regardless of their focus—with advice on how to think about managing change when people don’t agree; the wisdom of using separate areas to innovate; and the like.
Your book, “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns” is considered to be changing the future of education. What kind of research did you do, and how long did you spend researching before beginning this book?
First, thank you. Our hope has always been to really have impact on the ground and benefit students and inspire educators and entrepreneurs, not just write a nice-sounding book. Second, the story behind Disrupting Class is a long one. When Clay’s first book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, came out in 1997, shortly thereafter people from a variety of fields began coming to him and telling him, “You know, your insights apply to this field here as well.” And he would learn from them. A group of educators did the same, and around 1999 or so Clay started learning about and researching the challenges of education and how his ideas around innovation could shed some light on them. That research continued until I joined him in 2006, and I dove deep into both all the work he had been doing, but also a bunch of new research to try to understand a bunch of phenomena more deeply and how Clay’s theories would shed light on the challenges and opportunities. So a lot went into that book!
The book ‘Blended’ sheds light on using disruptive innovation to improve schools. Can you please brief us about this book?
After we wrote Disrupting Class, it became increasingly clear that online learning was the big disruptive innovation emerging in education—broadly speaking. And that in K–12 schools, this phenomenon would largely be a “blended” one, meaning that most students would still go to physical schools but they would learn online for part of their day. My co-author, Heather Staker, and I started doing a lot of research starting in 2010 to define what exactly blended learning was and to work with the field to categorize the different kinds of blended learning. And then Blended brought that work together along with a design guide to empower educators on the ground with designing more robust models that would actually focus on improving student outcomes.
Tell us about your role as the Co-founder and Distinguished Fellow at Clayton Christensen Institute.
So, when Clay and I were writing Disrupting Class and Clay was also writing a book on health care with one of my classmates at the Harvard Business School, Jason Hwang, he expressed an interest on creating a non-profit so that the books we were writing would actually have impact on the ground. And so Jason and I founded the Clayton Christensen Institute as a non-profit think tank in 2007. I ran the education team for nearly a decade, and then in 2015 when my children were a year old, I stepped aside to do a range of other things in education, but I remain on the board and a distinguished fellow who contributes actively with my research and writing and mentoring of the other team members. The work we do I think really helps illuminate opportunities in a range of spaces for innovation—education, health care, and global prosperity—to help more people live better lives and make progress. It’s a tremendous place with wonderfully talented people.
You are the Future of Learning Advisory Board Chair and Senior Advisor at Guild Education. Please tell us about this organization and your role in it.
Guild is a phenomenal organization that helps large companies upskill their employees and move and grow into other roles over time, which in turn not only helps the individuals, but also helps the companies fill their talent pipelines and have more success. For two years I had the opportunity to work on daily basis with the team at Guild during the pandemic, and I remain a big fan and advisor.
What does literary success look like to you?
Great question! To me, success is ultimately does the writing help have an impact on the ground in terms of really moving the needle for more individuals able to build their passions and fulfil their human potential. I’ve even written a children’s book (with a couple others in draft form) with the goal of helping children and families be healthier and fitter and able to seize their most daring dreams.
Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?
Once you know me, you’ll know that I hate long-term plans and thinking out that far. Just too much changes. I’m really happy at-present getting to do the thought leadership work I do on my own and have the flexibility to both work on projects and with organizations where there is lots of opportunity for meaningful impact and to be able to spend meaningful time with my children as they grow up. If I wasn’t helping them lead a life where they could build their passions and fulfil their own human potential, I don’t think anything I wrote would be terribly credible!
One piece of advice you would like to share with the aspiring authors.
Carve out meaningful time to do your writing. It’s very hard to write if you have 30 minutes here and 30 minutes there. I find to write well, I really need to carve out large chunks of time—a whole day a week plus a few other blocks of uninterrupted time where I’m not taking calls. The reason is you never know when your bursts of writing will occur, and you need the freedom to honestly pace around the room, stare at the ceiling absent-mindedly, and then have a thought gel and rapidly write it down. And don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. You can always revise—especially with tools like ChatGPT there now to help you!