Skip to content
Aurora Institute

We Are in the Midst of a Historic Paradigm Shift in Education

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Craig Schieber

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation

Craig Schieber

Why is it that the state of education today is so driven by discord and disagreement about how we should be educating our children? The discord is seen in the news, government, and at local PTA meetings. The often heated arguments are characterized by a wide variety of complaints and myriads of solutions. The educational positions range from wanting to go back to a day when the educational process was simpler to advocating for technology driven classrooms. There are those who argue for increased funding for public schools clashing with those wishing to eliminate public schools altogether. Given these topics it is no wonder the conversations become so heated and then shut down. Given these realities, is there some way we can find to start having open, generative, and productive conversations about the problems in our education system?

As with any difficult conversation, we can begin by listening effectively to each other. But other strategies for effective problem solving would be helpful. I am suggesting that putting these discussions into a larger context can add that additional support in freeing up conversations about how we view learning and learning systems. In this case, the larger context is understanding that we are in the midst of a major paradigm shift in education; a shift on the scale of questioning foundations of education that are several centuries old. The changes parallel evolving technological eras. Here are just a few of the kinds of changes we are witnessing in this era of networked technology.

(Graphic by Justin McKean Paradigm Shift: Learner-Centered Paradigm & Networked Age –

In Thomas Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, he discussed the process in which change occurs in the scientific world. Popularizing the term, “paradigm”, Kuhn forwarded a process of change that is set in motion when anomalies in scientific research build to a point when there are too many conflicting results in scientific experiments that are not explained by the current paradigm or theory of action. At that point a revolution, of sorts, occurs and a new paradigm is adopted by the scientific community.

A clear example of this is represented by the example of when a geocentric view of the world, known as the Ptolemaic System, was replaced by a heliocentric or Copernican view of the world. With this change of paradigm numerous calculations of how the heavens moved, which had not made sense from a geocentric view, now accurately described a heliocentric world. While the new paradigm answered many perplexing issues of the day, it also unleashed a host of new problems to solve and instruments used to measure the data collected to solve those problems. The many disruptive events unfolding in the education world today seem to be signaling a large paradigm shift in this community.

The paradigms in this case are the present approach to education that is a few hundred years old and a product of the industrial era to a networked technology era of ubiquitous information driven by digital technology. The shift in our current education system built by and for an industrial world to one designed for a digital, networked world is revolutionary.

Navigating a revolution in paradigms is no easy task. The revolution leading to the Copernican view of the world included Galileo being excommunicated from the church among many other instances of humans being persecuted for accepting the new world paradigm. So too does the current revolution in education have emotionally pitched discussions, arguments, and struggles to understand and design new learning systems that are appropriate for the technological era in which we live.

Kuhn’s model of how major paradigm shifts occur can act as a guide to help make sense of all the initiatives, research, theories, accusations, trends, fads, and new practices that are being thrown around in any conversation about education today. Kuhn posited a cycle of change; aptly referred to now as the Kuhn Cycle. In it, science moves from a period when all research is able to support the current paradigm to one in which there is model drift. In model drift there begins to be some research that does not have results that fit the paradigm and new controversial ideas begin to be posited. As the anomalies of research and practice multiply, a stage of model crisis ensues in which numerous ideas are taken seriously by more people and the current paradigm begins to be questioned. This leads to a state of disequilibrium when the current paradigm is no longer able to explain the world acceptably, but no other model gathers complete acceptance either. Finally, a new paradigm gains general acceptance and work in that field is proscribed by that all-encompassing model.

This cycle of paradigm extinction and creation is experienced at different levels of complexity. A revolution the size of the shift from the Ptolemaic to Copernican world happens rarely, while many smaller theories that exist as part of a larger paradigm change more often. For example, there have been many smaller revolutions in the understanding of light, matter, and gravity, to name a few, that inform the understanding of our universe but have not changed the model of our solar system.

The challenges and forces impacting education today are indicators that we are in a state of crisis leading ultimately to a significant paradigm shift. Education is changing from an industrial era model to the era of networked technology. There are also many smaller pedagogical, technological, and systems revolutions in education contributing to the force of this large paradigm shift. This blog series will analyze the many pressures for change in education and attempt to make sense of them through the lens that they are part of a major paradigm shift. Perhaps it can spark many more discussions about how we can see the human process of learning and societal systems for supporting individual growth with new eyes.

See also:

Craig Schieber is Director of Academic Innovation at City University of Seattle. Over the past 40 years Craig has built a reputation as an innovator and leader of change in education. His work has focused on building student agency, project-based learning, inquiry learning, and personalizing the educational experience. Current efforts focus on the development of competency-based education and the many aspects of teaching that are encompassed in this historical shift in education pedagogy. Craig has been recognized with: The White House Presidential Teacher’s Award, Who’s Who in American Schools, and The Golden Acorn Award. Contact cschiebersea (at) gmail (dot) com and @cschieber