When Paradigms Collide

Note: In 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 the future. These posts will focus on the anticipated changes and what they bode for the academy.

What is a Paradigm?

It was Thomas Kuhn, in his influential classic, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” that is credited with the term “paradigm shift.” He defined it as a set of assumptions and rules that create the framework in which the scientific community operates. Other theorists applied his idea to changes outside of science, particularly in the realm of the social sciences.  For example, John Tagg (citation at end of post) sees its relevance to organizations, and defines “organizational paradigm” as “. . . the framework of examples, models and rules that define the boundaries of an organization’s proper activities and that generates new rules governing those activities. . . .  The paradigm that governs an organization often cannot be–or never is–explicitly stated. But through living and working in an organization, one learns the paradigm that defines it in practice.” (Tagg, p. 15, full reference below).

Why Paradigms Matter

Paradigms are more than philosophical constructs. They have tremendous implications for how we see the world and how we approach problems. So for example, if we have a disease or condition afflicting a group of people, the allopathic (medical) paradigm would seek a vaccine, drug or surgical procedure or chemical/radiation therapy to address it. Alternative treatments, even if they have proven efficacy, would not be considered within that paradigm. Thus, many safe modalities practiced for generations would be dismissed as “quackery” regardless of their positive effects. This deprives us of viable health choices that may deliver results without the side effects inherent in the allopathic model which currently has a virtual monopoly in our health care system. Why doesn’t a new paradigm take its place?

The Power of the Paradigm

People, institutions, prestige, power and money all come into play in preserving an existing paradigm, regardless of how wrong-headed, destructive and costly it may be. We would like to presume that a better model would displace a previous flawed one. As already explained, this is just not the case. In actuality, any new paradigm will be vigorously opposed by those benefitting from the existing paradigm. Think of getting 20 plus years of education to become a medical doctor. Overnight, a new paradigm is touted as having the answers to health issues. Would you gladly embrace this new paradigm if your livelihood was threatened?  99.9% of doctors would not, which explains why less than one-tenth of 1% of physicians practicing in the U.S. would be considered as practicing alternative or complementary medicine.

The sad reality is that practitioners (fully accredited, licensed and accomplished in their fields) usually get vilified and their reputations disparaged for even suggesting anything critical of the existing paradigm, or offering alternative therapies. There are many examples I may give. Doctors have been attacked for suggesting a connection between vaccines and autism, for challenging the theory of AIDS and its treatment, for having the courage to oppose many drugs and orthodox therapies that may be dangerous or simply don’t work. As previously stated, the paradigm protects those within it, and opposes those who question it, often with a vehemence and mean-spiritedness that shows the inherent defensiveness of a paradigm on the ropes. So regardless of their merits, existing paradigms are guarded and protected against all new ideas or methods.

An Educational Paradigm?

Alas, it exists and it is also impervious to change from within. The instructional paradigm has been the predominant one for generations of students –so much so that we can hardly imagine another way of approaching education. However, like having a medical paradigm that treats patients but rarely restores health, we have an educational paradigm that offers instruction, but often not learning. Both K-12 and higher education are under its spell, and it has produced a host of problems that have been resistant to any “reform.”  As detailed in his book, The “Learning Paradigm College,” John Tagg explains how, for many students, this instructional paradigm has created incentives for surface learning, extrinsic rewards of  learning (grades/jobs), and passivity in their own learning process.

According to Tagg, one artifact of the Instructional Paradigm is the credit hour, a unit that measures hours of classroom time.  The credit hour is useful for transfer of credits and assigning workload to faculty, but does it have anything to do with actual learning? Regrettably, “seat time” does not correlate with student learning as many studies like “Academically Adrift” report. Another structure that Tagg takes issue with is courses.

For many policy makers, the meaning of education has changed. Formal processes have become the purpose of the institutions. Courses, which the funding mechanism of public colleges had made the economic backbone of the institutions, had come to define the educational mission in the Instructional Paradigm. The mission of colleges became putting more students in more classes. . . offering courses–had become the end, if not the definition, of higher education.” (Tagg, p. 16-17,  full reference below)

Only recently, has there been a concerted effort to begin questioning the entire structure, approach, processes, and artifacts of this teacher-centered model. Tagg and others have been in the forefront of such a re-examination of what the real mission of higher education should be, not what it has evolved into, as Tagg decries, “factories for the production of full-time equivalent students (FTES), transcript generating machines (p. 17). When enough people see the dysfunction of an existing Instructional Paradigm, and are willing to focus their efforts on changing it (which may mean putting their reputations on the line) then real change may be possible. As with most changes in paradigms, it may take a generation of professors to “leave the stage” before the new student-centered learning paradigm has a chance to take hold. In the meanwhile, we are doing a great disservice to generations of students that must play the game of taking courses to earn a degree, and often only after graduation, can begin the real process of learning.


Arum, Richard and Roksa, JosipaAcademically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press, January 2011), Retrieved at: http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/A/bo10327226.html.

Barr, Robert B. and Tagg, John, “From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education,” Change,  November/December 1995.
Retrieved at: ilte.ius.edu/pdf/BarrTagg.pdf

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


This entry was posted in A Learning Pedagogy, Instructional Technology, Online Best Practices, Online Learning Policies, Procedures, Systems, Online Trends, Paradigm Shift. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to When Paradigms Collide

  1. Deanna Mascle (@deannamascle) says:

    Thank you for sharing this post. I wanted to stand up and testify. What frightens me is not only the horror of the system but what it is doing to the students. Not just the end result that they are not really “learning” but that they have become willing to accept that as the norm and don’t push for more.

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