May 11th, 2010

Paradigm Shifts


I just received a copy of Michael Harris and Roxanne Cullen’s new book, Leading the Learner-Centered Campus. I’ll be writing more about it in the newsletter. When I first reviewed this manuscript, there was one idea that struck me as being so insightful and on target. It’s what these authors say about the now common and much overused phrase “paradigm shift.”

“To us the word “shift” makes the challenge of radical change seem too easy, like changing places with someone in line or shifting gears on a bicycle, suggesting that if leadership makes one adjustment, the rest of the gears will fall into place and the new paradigm will be operational. But that will certainly not be the case. Shifting gears on bicycles allows riders to maintain their cadence as the terrain becomes more difficult. This is most definitely not how shifting paradigms works. Our cadences will be interrupted. Shifting paradigms is about shifting thinking and attitudes.” (xvi)

Their book is about how institutions (not individual faculty) become learner-centered. “We are learner-centered,” an administrator told me during a recent visit. “Always have been, but we talk about it more and people are doing more learner-centered things.” His comment so represents this idea of change being making people aware and motivating them to do a bit more of what they’re already doing. We can and do change in this way, but we don’t accomplish major change like this. A paradigm shift reorients our thinking.

I’m not trying to make the case for learner-centered teaching or learner-centered institutions here—although I’m firmly committed to both. I’m trying to get us to think clearly about change, most especially those changes we label paradigm shifts. Harris and Cullen have it right: paradigm shifts aren’t smooth, seamless transitions from one point to the next. They are about complete stops and restarts that head us in different directions. They are about taking a course apart at the seams and making the pieces into a brand new course; they are about institutions remaking themselves from their mission statements to their majors.

Reference: Harris, M., and Cullen, R. (2010). Leading the Learner-Centered Campus. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. [The book can be ordered at]