Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools (Horn & Staker, 2015)

In their book about blended learning, Horn and Staker of the Clay Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation describe student-centered learning as having two components: personalized learning and competency-based learning.  By personalized learning Horn and Staker mean that learning is tailored to the individual, and by competency-based learning they mean that students only move to the next subject when they have demonstrated mastery of the current subject. These two components are both required to achieve a model that is student-centered, Horn and Staker claim, and the engine that makes personalized and competency-based learning possible or at least more feasible is blended learning. As they put it, blended learning enables school systems to implement student-centered learning at scale.

Similar to Sturgis and her four-stage process for the adoption of competency-based systems, Horn and Staker’s 300-page thesis suggests four-stages for the adoption of blended learning.


Before adopting blended learning or really any systemic change, it is incumbent on the leaders to understand exactly what they are attempting to adopt and why they are adopting it. For example, Horn and Staker clearly define blended learning as:

a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online learning with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace and least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home” (Horn & Staker, 2015, p. 53).

Understand that blended learning exists on a spectrum from a Rotation Model to an Enriched Virtual model and that there are several ways to invest in models that increase student autonomy to varying degrees. Before moving on to mobilizing others towards this change, it is critical that leaders understand the lexicon of student-centered learning so that they might effectively communicate with those they lead.


Once leaders understand the complexity and variations of blended learning, it is time to get local. Consider what the needs and opportunities are for your own geography and state and the goal of the initiative as it relates to a well-defined problem statement. Horn and Staker encourage leaders to not mistake technology for effective change and to view technological enhancements and adaptations as augmentative tools that school systems can use to take advantage of opportunities that already exist in the traditional system.

Of course to enact systemic change effectively, leaders need teams. In addition to all of the technical considerations involved when adopting blended learning, there are human considerations. What type of teams should leaders use, what should they do and how should accomplish their work? Here Horn and Staker describe Functional, Lightweight, Heavyweight and Autonomous teams and when to use them.

Most importantly Horn and Staker advise that:

Leaders do not need to know what model of blended learning they want to deploy or what the design of the program will be at this point. But they do need to have a sense of the scope of change that they want to realize.” 

(Horn & Staker, 2015, p. 132)


This phase is designed to create empathy with those most affected by the change--students and teachers--and to account for their needs and strengths when considering infrastructural technical decisions like what kind of online content your systems will adopt. Horn and Staker suggest starting with students and elevating teachers before designing the virtual and physical setup. Finally, choose the model your system will implement and clarify the roles of teacher, student, technological interfaces and physical space.

Horn and Staker suggest leaders consider asking themselves six design questions when approaching this phase:

  • What is the problem you are trying to solve?
  • What type of team do you need to solve the problem?
  • What do you want students to control?
  • What do you want the primary role of the teacher to be?
  • What physical space can you use?
  • How many internet-enabled devices are available (Horn & Staker, 2015, p. 240)?


Having developed a strategy and plan for adoption of blended learning, having engaged students, teachers and several others, the next phase involves actually implementing the change. When implementing, Horn and Staker suggest to first be mindful of the system’s culture and its effect on children and schools at large.

Secondly, it is critical that the system is open to adjustments along the way. Horn and Staker call this openness “Discovery-driven Planning,” and it has four steps.

  • Start with desired outcomes, or projections. Have a SMART goal.
  • List all of the assumptions that must be proven true for the desired outcomes to materialize.
  • Implement a plan to learn more, to test whether the critical assumptions are reasonable.
  • At predetermined checkpoints, based on the results from the tests, decide whether to implement the innovation, change the innovation, or shelve it (Horn & Staker, 2015, p. 278).
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