Toward a Learning Paradigm College (Part 1)

Note: With this post and others to follow, I depart from observations about online trends, instructional technology, and even strategic planning, to focus on the essential issue of teaching and learning. We are in the midst of a “paradigm shift” in teaching and learning at all levels of education, with significant implications as to how instruction will take place in future decades. These posts will focus on the anticipated changes and what they bode for the academy.

The Learning Paradigm College by John Tagg,  is a rare book with the power to produce epiphanies of insight in most self-reflective readers. Over many years, I have enjoyed the role of both student and teacher, and yet I had an unsettled feeling that something in the process was fundamentally wrong, something that was both hidden, yet obvious.  Now I understand why.That unsettled feeling had much to do with teaching as had been done for many generations, namely what Tagg terms the “instructional paradigm.”  This pedagogy, practiced at all levels of the educational environment, places instruction at the center of the enterprise, with the assumption that learning will naturally follow.  In other words, current educational systems will typically trumpet student learning as central to their missions, while in practice placing instruction as the organizing principle around which all activities are organized. In fact, there is a disconnect between what is being said versus what is being practiced.

Tagg passionately and clearly critiques the Instructional Paradigm, as reflected below.

The fundamental flaw of the Instructional Paradigm is precisely that it substitutes a means for an end. It raises formal organizational processes (courses, transcripts) to the level of institutional mission. In the Instructional Paradigm college, maintaining and expanding the paradigmatic process of delivering instruction is what makes a college a college, what defines it as an institution of higher education. . . . Teaching is valuable if and when it leads to learning, but not otherwise . . . It can be a useful tool. But it is only a tool. When we make the production of tools the objective and ignore what the tools were meant to achieve, we produce warped priorities and incoherent plans. To say that the mission of a college is instruction is like saying the mission of General Motors is to produce assembly lines or the mission of a hospital is to fill beds.

 . . . At the core of the Instructional Paradigm is a conception of teaching as the transmission of information from teachers to students. The paradigm thus emerges from a model of pedagogy that gives value to everything else in the institution [except learning]. (Tagg, pages 18 and 19, reference at end).

 So What’s Wrong with Current Instruction?

Tagg argues that the organizing structures of instruction are either antithetical to real learning or simply irrelevant artifacts that no longer have purpose.  Among the examples of such practices he cites include:

  • The lecture as the primary means of transmitting information (contributes to student passivity)
  • 15 week semester (an arbitrary length of time for a course, inflexible to actual pace of student learning or their capacity)
  • 3 credit-hour course that insists all subjects can be covered in chunks of time that relate to “seat-time” not actual learning time (artifact of 19th century model)
  • Curriculum is “atomistic” in the sense that students proceed through an array of courses that may or may not relate to each other in any meaningful manner; “a stack of instructional bricks that can be stacked in any order” (Tagg, p. 25)
  • Disciplines that, like guilds, have long ago lost their relevance and reason for being other than the fact that academia has been structured for generations into academic departments which “derive their power from their role as depositories for classes.” (Tagg, p. 23). Inter-disciplinary models are needed for students to navigate the current world.
  • The transcript as a document that reflects the instructional passage of a student through a curriculum, but accomplishes little else in terms of what is learned.
  • The lack of accountability in terms of what students actually achieved in 4+ years of higher education.
    “The numbers that colleges report on are largely self-referential; enrollments and GPAs can be compared to equivalent figures from other colleges but not to any meaningful referents in the world outside the academy.” (Tagg, p. 29).

The Results

What results from the Instructional Paradigm are students often both passive learners and turned off to their learning, and possibly lifelong learning; students who know how to game the system to get the grade (an external motivator) by doing the minimal amount of work needed; students who see college as a means to an end, and who model surface learning with little connection to the outside world; and students whose skills in many areas are not being tested in a context that can demonstrate mastery. Is it any wonder that in a recent study, called  Academically Adrift, 45% of students in an array of higher educational settings show no improvement in a range of skills over the first few years of college. This represents a colossal waste of resources and time that could be better spent on a Learning Paradigm that puts the learner first in both word and deed.

In Part 2 of this post, I will detail the Learning Paradigm and contrast it to our current model.  In case you wish to read a shorter take on this book, please refer to an article listed in the References section from Change magazine.


Tagg, John, (2003) The Learning Paradigm College, Jossey Bass, San Francisco, CA.

Barr, Robert B. and Tagg, John, “From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education,Change,  November/December 1995.
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2 Responses to Toward a Learning Paradigm College (Part 1)

  1. Alicia–Thank you for your comments. All the major studies of online learning indicate a large divide among faculty concerning online learning. In fact, faculty resistance to online is always cited as the major obstacle to its more widespread adoption. Gradually, this resistance will fade as younger, tech-saavy faculty take their place, but this may take a while. In the meantime, those of us who see the utility of technology for enhancing our courses will need to continue our efforts and work with like-minded colleagues. Keep up your studies–it’s an excellent field to get into.

  2. Alicia Fernandez says:

    Hi Bruce,

    Your blog post resonates strongly with me. I just finished an online course with Professor Peter Shea at UAlbany in the CDIT program. The course was about perspectives and theoretical underpinnings of instructional technology and distance education. I was shocked that in an online class with an overwhelming majority of career academics most were dubious, if not outright opposed, to incorporating technology into their pedagogy.

    I realized that those that were from the non-academic realm had a very different view on what “education” should be. I wrote my final paper on the dichotomy of constructivist ideals versus the instrumental learning required by our current global information society, specifically in regards to adults in higher education. There must be a meeting of the minds here or the chasm between the classroom and meaningful learning will continue to widen. Furthermore, as digital natives start streaming into post secondary institutions, the analog curricula are completely incompatible with their wired worlds.

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