The Power and Peril of Paradigms


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A paradigm is a basic framework that contains commonly accepted views about a subject.

All of us have paradigms. They guide us. To some degree they protect us. Unfortunately, they can also blind us because they can prevent us from seeing the future.

Joel Barker notes that the word paradigm comes from the Greek, paradeigma, which means “model, pattern, or example.” Barker defines a paradigm as a set of rules and regulations, written or unwritten, that:

  • Establish or define boundaries
  • Tell you how to behave inside the boundaries in order to be successful

Paradigms as filters

We, like Barker, believe that paradigms serve as perceptual filters. This means that any data that contradicts an individual’s paradigm will have a difficult time getting through their perceptual filters. He calls this the paradigm effect. Barker says, the paradigm effect leads to what can be called the worst-worst result:

You are quite literally unable to perceive data right before your eyes.

This is an extremely critical insight. Many planners believe that they can overcome obstacles and objections with stronger arguments; that persuasion is enough to move the recalcitrant.

However, the paradigm effect requires that we rethink this conclusion. People who believe strongly in their paradigms simply cannot see alternatives. Less than persuasion, there must be time for heartfelt conversation and education.

Paradigms in higher education

Twenty years ago, the dominant paradigms in higher education were relatively clear and understood:

  • Students went to school full-time and largely lived in residence halls
  • Faculty taught in the same classrooms where students learned
  • The liberal arts formed the bedrock of most curricula
  • Private colleges believed that they could charge more than publics
  • Faculty largely controlled what was taught and when
  • Student quality—and success—was measured by grades

A look around today’s educational landscape reveals that most of these paradigms have been challenged, or in the vernacular of paradigmers, shifted.

Who shifts the paradigms?

Barker asks and answers the rhetorical question: Who shifts the paradigms? He writes that most paradigms are changed by outsiders; people and organizations who largely do not understand the prevailing paradigm in all its subtleties.

By way of explanation, he offers four categories of paradigm shifters:

  • A young person fresh out of training
  • An older person changing fields
  • The maverick
  • Tinkerers (more likely to be found in scientific and technical fields)

We would like to add a fifth category: The person who doesn’t care about the prevailing paradigm. In higher education, the paradigms are being shifted by alternative providers using technology to meet the needs of increasing numbers of students in nontraditional formats. These shifters thoroughly understand higher education and see an opportunity to exploit some of its weaknesses.

But higher education resists

To help reduce the impact of the change offered, even demanded by potential paradigm shifters, many faculty, staff, and administrators have developed a whole set of words and phrases to use when a new idea is advanced:

  • “If we did that we would sacrifice quality”
  • “We don’t do things that way around here”
  • “It’s against policy”
  • “When you’ve been around a little longer, you’ll understand”
  • “Students will never be interested in that”
  • “What you are suggesting is absurd”

Absurd like three-year bachelor’s degrees.

Absurd like corporate colleges.

Absurd like students seeking certifications awarded by Google rather than degrees.

Absurd like accrediting agencies scrambling to redefine their role in today’s academy.

Absurd like earning a degree completely online.

Absurd like libraries without books.

I think we might want to rethink our definition of absurd.

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