Blast from the Past

A colleague sent me an article recently that he wanted to include as a reference for a manuscript we were co-writing.  He called it one of the seminal works on innovation in higher education and said that the article would really resonate with me. I was unfamiliar with the article so I quickly read it and was honestly blown away.

From teaching to learning: A new paradigm for undergraduate education appeared in a 1995 issue of Change.  Written by Robert Barr and John Tagg, the article provides a comprehensive overview of the instructional challenges institutions of higher education face and how a massive paradigm shift is needed.  Most institutions, the authors argue, hold an Instruction Paradigm where the process of teaching is the core value of what they do.  They write that this “dominant paradigm mistakes a means for an end. It takes the means or method–called ‘instruction’ or ‘teaching’–and makes it the college’s end or purpose. To say that the purpose of colleges is to provide instruction is like saying that General Motors’ business is to operate assembly lines or that the purpose of medical care is to fill hospital beds. We now see that our mission is not instruction but rather that of producing learning with every student by whatever means work best.”

What is needed, Barr and Tagg argue, is the adoption of a Learning Paradigm, where “a college’s purpose is not to transfer knowledge but to create environments and experiences that bring students to discover and construct knowledge for themselves, to make students members of communities of learners that make discoveries and solve problems.”   To change paradigms, the authors write, requires “a constant search for new structures and methods that work better for student learning and success, and expects even these to be redesigned continually and to evolve over time.”

It’s important to remember that Barr and Tagg wrote these words almost twenty years ago.  In 1995, traditional colleges and universities were not facing the onslaught of competition that they now face from MOOCs, for-profit institutions and accelerated programs.  Back then, technology wasn’t the disruptive force that is today.   Twenty years ago, Barr and Tagg were arguing conceptually for adopting a student-centered paradigm where learning takes center stage.  Their call for change wasn’t motivated by increasing student enrollment numbers or by becoming more economically efficient.  Improving student learning outcomes was at the heart of their argument.

But Barr and Tagg’s words are as important today as they were two decades ago.  They also seem to set the stage for the learning innovations that are now occurring in education.    When reading one section of the article, I kept thinking of how the authors seem to predict the emergence of online, blended and flipped classrooms and a host of classroom technologies intended to increase student engagement.  They write that “the Learning Paradigm does not limit institutions to a single means for empowering students to learn; within its framework, effective learning technologies are continually identified, developed, tested, implemented, and assessed against one another.

At the end of reading the article, however, I was torn.  On one hand, I was excited that Barr and Tagg have provided such a rich, comprehensive foundation for the need for institutional change and helped to predict and foster the innovations we’re seeing in education.  On the other, I see how little progress we’ve made over the last twenty years and how these educational innovations are more of the exception than the rule.  In many ways, the Instructional Paradigm is still alive and well in universities and colleges across the country.  I wonder where we’ll be twenty years from today.


One thought on “Blast from the Past

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