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Disruptive Fixation:
School Reform and the Pitfalls of Techno-Idealism
Christo Sims

Paperback | 2017 | $27.95 | £22.95 | ISBN: 9780691163994
Hardcover | 2017 | $80.00 | £66.95 | ISBN: 9780691163987
232 pp. | 6 x 9 1/4 | 1 line illus. 1 table.
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In New York City in 2009, a new kind of public school opened its doors to its inaugural class of middle schoolers. Conceived by a team of game designers and progressive educational reformers and backed by prominent philanthropic foundations, it promised to reinvent the classroom for the digital age. Ethnographer Christo Sims documented the life of the school from its planning stages to the graduation of its first eighth-grade class. Disruptive Fixation is his account of how this "school for digital kids," heralded as a model of tech-driven educational reform, reverted to a more conventional type of schooling with rote learning, an emphasis on discipline, and traditional hierarchies of authority. Troubling gender and racialized class divisions also emerged.

Sims shows how the philanthropic possibilities of new media technologies are repeatedly idealized even though actual interventions routinely fall short of the desired outcomes—often dramatically so. He traces the complex processes by which idealistic tech-reform perennially takes root, unsettles the worlds into which it intervenes, and eventually stabilizes in ways that remake and extend many of the social predicaments reformers hope to fix. Sims offers a nuanced look at the roles that powerful elites, experts, the media, and the intended beneficiaries of reform—in this case, the students and their parents—play in perpetuating the cycle.

Disruptive Fixation offers a timely examination of techno-philanthropism and the yearnings and dilemmas it seeks to address, revealing what failed interventions do manage to accomplish—and for whom.

Christo Sims is assistant professor of communication and a founding member of the Studio for Ethnographic Design at the University of California, San Diego.


"The chronicle of a failure foretold, this remarkably reflexive ethnography of a project aiming at reinventing education via digital devices, managerial transformations, and philanthropic initiatives is an important fable for our times of techno-idealism. Its sobering morality is a call for modesty, lucidity, and honesty with regards to the permanent request for innovation, the immoderate pretension to avant-gardism, and the inflationary rhetoric of cutting-edge research, from which the social sciences themselves are not exempt."--Didier Fassin, Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton

"Sims's book is rich in conceptual tools for analyzing school reform movements. It offers a brilliant explanation for their persistent failures. He argues that projects of reform move through ‘cycles of disruptive fixation' that consolidate rather than dissolve class, racial, and gendered inequities. He punctures the hype about techno-philanthropic nostrums for what ails public education. Though some of what he has to tell us is hard to hear, his searching critique is clearly the work of a scholar of concerned and generous spirit. The book should be required reading for anyone who finds themselves the agent or target of similarly misguided benevolence."--Jean Lave, University of California, Berkeley

"How do the engines of educational reform so often drive us back to the status quo? Decades ago, the computer industry promised us the tools to transform our schools. Why haven't they worked? In this richly researched analysis, Christo Sims answers these questions and points the way toward new and more effective modes of technological intervention. This book should be required reading for anyone thinking about learning and technology today."--Fred Turner, Stanford University

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Table of Contents:

Acknowledgments xi
Preface xiii
1 Introduction 1
2 Cycles of Disruptive Fixation 24
3 Spatial Fixations 56
4 Pedagogic Fixations 87
5 Amenable and Fixable Subjects 111
6 Community Fixations 139
7 Conclusion: The Resilience of Techno-Idealism 163
Appendix Ethnographic Fixations 179
Notes 185
References 195
Index 207


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