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Alternative Paradigms

Donald G. Perrin

In good times we continue to build onto paradigms that made us successful. Changes in the world around us can invalidate those paradigms. Drucker gives some amazing examples in his Theory of the Business (1992). Joel Barker(1992) talks about Paradigm Paralysis where we continue in the old way with blind disregard, and Paradigm Pliancy where we question our paradigms and consider possible alternatives. In times of stress, people and organizations are more open to experiment and try paradigms that show promising results. We are approaching this point in education. We are not ready to abandon the old paradigm, but it is exceedingly painful to find resources to keep it going. The option of preparing smaller numbers of students because of the bad economy is counter-productive to our future needs, so what are we going to do?

The first paradigm I would challenge is that everything has to be learned as part of a course or program. New industries have developed that enable people with limited skills to buy complex systems they assemble for themselves like desks, book cases, and office chairs, or install by themselves like computers, software, and networks. Step-by-step instructions, diagrams, and a checklist make instruction of the traditional kind unnecessary. The backup phone or internet connection is rarely needed. The result is substantial cost savings for the manufacturer, who can grow a bigger and more profitable business, and for the customer who gets affordable goods and services. Once I was at a faculty retreat where several hundred people had to be fed breakfast. The dining room had one person to set up and prepare food and one person to clear tables. The high point of the breakfast was individually made waffles with fresh strawberries. A simple sign told you how to use the waffle maker and prepare your own. The waffle maker became a social center like the water cooler. Everybody helped each other to prepare a delicious breakfast.

The second paradigm I would challenge is learning in the classroom. This solves management problems when working with young children, but for all of our attempts to make classrooms attractive and data rich, they are an intellectual desert compared to the world outside. In industrialized countries, homes have superior communication options to most classrooms with one or more audio record/play devices, radio, television, computers, internet, and multimedia cell-phones that encompass all of the previous options for adults and children.

The third paradigm I would challenge is traditional teaching - a lecture or instructor-led discussion. This tends to be one-way communication dominated by the instructor. Voice is one of the slowest means of communication, typically about 250 words per minute (wpm). The bandwidth for 30 or more people in the learning space is limited to one 250 wpm channel of communication at a time. Print is faster, audiovisual is richer, and interactive learning is more motivating. You can increase the amount of productive communication and learning that takes place by breaking into smaller groups or having learners work one-to-one with each other or with interactive technologies. We have tools that can double or triple individual learning yet 98% of instruction that takes place in schools and higher education is lecture-demonstration-discussion.

The fourth paradigm I challenge is the curriculum. Its roots are in the past, it rarely encompasses the present, and it is ignorant of the future. Our mission is to prepare learners for an emerging world and society. Do we really give them the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and higher levels of learning that will make them successful in this ever changing world? Can our graduates anticipate paradigm changes, recognize them when they occur, and change successfully in ways that will make them healthy and productive citizens? Do we need to change our paradigms for teaching and learning, curriculum and instructional design, and management of the educational enterprise?
 

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