(Disrupting) disruption in business, academia & education

disruption: dis·rup′tion n. ~ from the Latin disruptionem ~ “a breaking asunder”; to break apart, split, shatter.

While the dictionary definition of disruption points to breaking apart, in fact now disruption often means to make anew. In business, disruption is about creating new markets and discovering undiscovered needs. Traditional products and modes are replaced by new business models, new technologies and new ways of appropriating the old. Google’s now-defunct ‘20% time’, which instigated ‘genius hour’ in classrooms around the world, was designed to nurture disruptive, moon-shot thinking. Often Uber, Airbnb and Apple are touted as examples of businesses which have displaced other services with their innovative thinking. Businesses and entrepreneurs like to see themselves as ‘disruptive’ because this means they are radical, ground-breaking and on-the-bleeding-edge of innovation.

As an English and Literature teacher, I am drawn to teaching texts which were either disruptive in their context, challenging socio-political status quos, or which feature disruptive characters. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, George Orwell’s 1984 or Animal Farm, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, feature films like The Matrix and The Hurt Locker. These texts allow me to challenge and extend students’ thinking, inciting discussion about humanity, history and ethics. They allow us to interrogate dominant belief systems and representations, and dig into our own values, attitudes and assumptions. Being a critical questioner of everything, including ourselves, is a key to disruption.

Tootle the disruptor-train goes off-track

Tootle the disruptor-train goes off-track

One of the books I read my own small children is Tootle, Gertrude Crampton and Tibor Gergely’s 1945 children’s book (you can see the Tootle birthday cake I made in this post on PhD-as-cake). In it, the young engine called Tootle breaks the firm rule ‘Staying on the Rails No Matter What’. Instead, he frolics through fields, making daisy chains, racing horses, talking to frogs and crushing buttercups. I continue to be dismayed that, unsurprisingly for a 1945 text, Tootle ends up complying with the rules. Rather than celebrating his individualism and his new way of being a train, he tows the line like every other locomotive. Each time I read the story, I want to shout through the pages: ‘Go your own way, little train! It’s ok to be different and subversive and joyful and live a life off the subscribed journey!‘ Clearly this says more about me than it does about the story.

In the blogosphere, I follow traditional academics, as well as independent off-centre researchers who are questioning, through action, what being an academic might look like. My PhD research uses a bricolaged paradigm and a fairly unconventional approach to writing up participant data. Bricolage refers to a kind of drawing together of a range of traditions to make a bespoke, rather than off-the-rack, approach, tailored to the particular research problem. This might be considered disruptive in the sense that it rethinks well-worn traditions and stitches them back together in a new form. Perhaps my inability to conform to one research approach is a bit like my inability to follow a recipe in the kitchen, where I’m always using recipes as a kind of springboard-guide, if I use them at all. But disruption isn’t just failing to conform, it’s finding new ways, forging new paths, building new possibilities. It’s providing alternatives to accepted ways of doing things. I think it’s so important that we define what terms mean for ourselves and our sectors, before we begin bandying and bandwagoning them about with reckless, jubilant abandon.

Some educators see the job of education as to nurture the innovative thinking of students, to prepare them for uncertain futures. In education, words like ‘edu-preneur’, ‘edu-innovation’ and ‘disruptive education’ have become popular. In my Twitter bio, I’ve used the word ‘disruptor’, to suggest that I am someone who questions and pushes at the boundaries of what is known and what is accepted, but I have questions around the thinking and behaviours of some self-professed disruptors. The irony is not lost on me; perhaps I should rethink my Twitter bio, but I like delicious words like ‘disruptor’ and ‘flâneuse’. Therein lies part of the problem. Trendy-sounding words are seductive. We like to roll them around in our mouths and social media feeds. 

On the one hand, I know business owners, writers, academics and educators who thoughtfully question the status quo, pushing the boundaries of practice and questioning accepted ways of thinking and acting. These people and their organisations are taking risks and building alternative ways of being in the world. Yet I’ve also noticed that some others bristle when their pithy, jargonistic talk of ‘being disruptive’ is questioned. Sometimes self-professed disruptors don’t take well to being challenged, or disrupted. Sometimes advocates of more traditional approaches or technologies attempt to disrupt the disruptors, but are shot down for being old-hat, stuck-in-the-past or not-on-the-bleeding-edge. Sometimes the whole discussion breaks down into paradigm-war name-slinging. I’ve spoken before about the importance of robust, respectful discussions in which we are ok with graceful disagreement and are able to listen to opposing viewpoints with compassion. I think if disruption is embraced, those doing the disruption should embrace deeper interrogation of their ideas than slick presentations or 140-character tweets might allow. This is why I love blogging and podcasts; they deepen conversation.

So, I approach the idea of disruption with both fascination and healthy scepticism. I do think we should ask what it is that might need disrupting, and why. Or perhaps what might need reconsidering, or consolidating, or investigating, or researching, or rebuilding. When buzzword-saturated talk of disruption becomes the unquestioned norm, perhaps it is those who question the dominant discourse of disruptors who are the most truly disruptive. Let’s not forget to be questioning, critical thinkers, especially within echo chambers of (disruptive, or other) discourse.

Advances are made by answering questions. Discoveries are made by questioning answers. ~ Bernhard Haisch

'Wave 1' by Annette Thas

‘Wave 1’ by Annette Thas


8 thoughts on “(Disrupting) disruption in business, academia & education

  1. Hi Deb,

    I’m coming from a completely different field, but the research I am doing in the construction industry is all about a supposedly “disruptive technology” – and I do believe it is, but the change I am documenting is incremental rather than wholesale… My perspective is that the view of disruption as “revolution rather than evolution” (a common expression amongst my interviewees) is a dangerous one, as there is a rsk of losing constructive change simply because it is not “different enough” from what has preceded the disruption. I would argue that it is also possible to have disruption that emerges rather than explodes, such that noone who has reached a certain stage would ever go back from, but still allowing a progression or transition so that the change from one side to the other is step by step rather than a sudden decisive leap.

    Or even to allow, perhaps like the Tootle story illustrates, that exploring the possibilities of disruption in an incremental but not irreversible way serves to broaden your view, so that you can try out other ways of doing things (without spilling the soup), but you can still recognise that those ways in the end don’t actually suit your goals or optimise your strengths, and come back to your previous route (Please note, it is a long time since my kids were of an age for Tootle, and I have forgotten the details – this is possibly too much meaning to load onto a somewhat dated children’s book!)

    Also, and incidentally, I am now investigating bricolage as a research approach, which is really interesting (and has a nice resonance in a construction industry context :), but given I’m meant to be in the last six months of my PhD it’s probably not the right time to embrace disruption… possibly I am now frolicking off the tracks, and soon to be confronted with red flags!



    • Thank you for your comment, Kathryn! I agree that ‘evolution not revolution’ can lead to more considered and effective disruption.

      And I’m an English and Literature teacher so there’s never too much meaning to be drawn from a book! 🙂 It makes me less depressed to think of Tootle as a disruptor who was deliberate in returning to the way things had always been done, rather than being forced into compliance by a rigid system which rejected difference and creativity.

      I think frolicking off the tracks in the last six months of a PhD is definitely a brave choice! I’d focus on finishing, whatever that best looks like for your project (although I do love bricolage; perhaps it can be woven in to explain your approach).



      • The key words in there were “*meant to be* in the last 6 months – I don’t think I am even halfway to achieving a full draft and instead have lots of little pieces that are not coalescing. I’ve been calling it a collage (including the cutting and pasting, as I arrange and rearrange!), but bricolage may be just the unifying concept I need! Do you have a key text to recommend?


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