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Paradigm Shifts

Donald G. Perrin

It is time to re-read Joel Barker (1992) Paradigms: The Business of Discovering the Future. The economic crisis is having a severe negative impact on education budgets and reduces the opportunities for growth and change. Rather than appraising the situation as “destruction of education and training as we know it”, perhaps it should be considered as an opportunity for paradigm shifts that were imminent, but not possible under the “old” rules. Use the U.S. Automobile industry for comparison.

The automobile industry is controlled by public policy, unions, and business models based on early twentieth century successes in mass production and marketing. It is a transportation device using a reciprocating engine and fossil fuel. This masterpiece of engineering continues to be improved in performance, reliability, safety, and environmental protection. However, it cannot meet 21st century requirements because it depends on fossil fuels and produces unacceptable greenhouse gases. Vested interest in the current technology led to paradigm paralysis so that foreign auto makers are a decade ahead in development of hybrid and electric cars that use renewable, non-polluting, energy resources.

The United States, once a leader, is also lagging behind other nations in its educational programs, especially the teaching of mathematics, science, and engineering. The paradigm for group instruction came out of the industrial revolution in the 19th century; and “objective” methods of testing were born at the beginning of the 20th century. The world has seen vast changes, yet public education if frozen in the old paradigm.

James Finn (1962) stated:

Education, as a sector of national life, has, for the most part, been cut off from the technological advances enjoyed by industry, business, the military establishment, etc. The American educational enterprise exists out of technological balance with great sectors of society. . . . As Dr. George Gerbner says: “the public school system is the last stronghold of folk culture in America.”

Almost 50 years later, the observations that follow suggest this assertion has not changed.

  1. Over the past century, automation and innovations such as information technology have greatly increased business efficiency. Today, business spends approximately one third of its budget (33%) on information technology

  2. K-12 public education classrooms are surprisingly similar to those of a century ago. Communication technologies are not part of every classroom, and schools spend most of their budget on personnel and buildings. Less than 8 % is used for pupil and instructional staff support services (teacher training, classroom materials, textbooks, audiovisuals, chalk, duplication; consumables for shops and science laboratories; and computers, networks, software and maintenance.

  3. Based on standardized tests, K-12 students in many industrialized countries score higher in math and science than the United States. U.S. programs to update and standardize curriculum, upgrade credentials, and add rigorous testing have had minimal results.

Although elements of the new paradigm for education are still under development, distance learning has demonstrated many aspects of the new paradigm to be effective:

  1. Achievement of objectives with observable and measurable outcomes and criteria where students use exploration and available (web) resources to structure their own learning.

  2. Learning can take place anywhere and at anytime. It is not necessary to construct more classrooms if we reconfigure education to use “all the world” as a classroom.

  3. People learn from real life, games, simulations, television, interactive multimedia and computers. Computers can monitor and guide student performance, administer tests, keep individual student records, and provide statistical data for revision of courseware.

  4. The internet has made significant inroads to commerce, healthcare, government, and education. It has revolutionized the way in which information is input, processed, stored, retrieved, and communicated. The ubiquitous computer interface provides instant contact to global resources, with new ways to conduct business and better ways to learn. Hundreds of thousands of schools and universities are supporting their students with Internet resources, and the new learning paradigm is emerging hybrid and stand-alone courses and programs.

As Joel Barker points out, in times of turmoil, people are much more likely to consider change. Like the automobile industry, U.S. Education is dealing with a paradigm shift it does not fully understand. We are faced with diminishing resources and increased demands. We need to use resources from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill of 2009 to push our research and development agenda and adopt a paradigm that is responsive to our educational and societal needs.


  1. Joel Arthur Barker (1992). Paradigms: The Business of Discovering the Future. Harper Business.

  2. James D. Finn, Donald G. Perrin, Lee E. Campion. (1962) Occasional Paper #6 of the Technological Development Project, Studies in the Growth of Instructional Technology I: Audio-Visual Instrumentation for Instruction in the Public Schools, 1930-1960. National Education Association.

  3. American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill of 2009,



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