School & District Management Opinion

The Power of Paradigms to Transform Education

By Beth Holland — June 19, 2017 4 min read
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Paradigms create worldviews on which future comparisons can be drawn. They provide concrete representations of what something could look like. As I’ve written in the past, few systems rely on paradigms as much as education. For centuries, school has been represented by a mental image of students in chairs, age-based curriculum, a teacher at the front of the room disseminating content, etc. Professor Larry Cuban describes this phenomenon as the “grammar of schooling” (Tyack & Cuban, 1995, p.9). In 2016, after observing 41 classrooms in 12 Silicon Valley schools, he reported that only one teacher reported any fundamental shift in practice as a result of new technologies (Cuban, 2017) and attributes some of this lack of change to the grammar of schooling.

Few systems and structures have challenged the paradigm of school as much as digital technologies. The immediacy and ubiquity of access to information provided by new devices allows anyone to become a learner from practically any place, at any time, and from any other person (Collins & Halverson, 2010). However, when faced with new paradigms, individuals have historically responded in one of two ways. If the new paradigm does not match the existing one, then they may reject it altogether and resist learning (Alexander, Schallert, & Reynolds, 2009); or, the person might try to tame the paradigm and force it into compliance with existing structures such as what often happens with digital technology (Zhao & Frank, 2003). Instead of allowing computers and mobile devices to fundamentally change classroom practice, they often become assimilated into the existing paradigm of school and serve as little more than digital worksheets, test-prep, and glorified typewriters.

Though paradigms can foster a sense of comfort and provide an initial foundation on which to build new ideas, they can also limit our thinking and prevent our ability to make significant changes. In his recent article and upcoming book, Cuban (2017) describes change and stability as the “yin and yang” of education. In a similar manner, I am seeing paradigms as the “yin and yang” of innovation. They serve as both the foundation and the shackles for change.

Paradigms in Action

Few tools have been embraced by schools as often as productivity suites. Whether a teacher chooses Google Docs, Microsoft Office, or iWork, these software packages essentially mirror typewriters and overhead projectors. Typically, they perpetuate traditional teacher-directed learning as students respond to essay prompts and give stand-up-and-deliver recitations of low-level facts. However, these suites also offer teachers an opportunity to take the familiar and then completely re-think the tasks associated with the tools. Slides could become narrated, animated storybooks. Documents might evolve into infographics that allow students to distill complex information into consumable visuals. The paradigm of the familiar can serve as a springboard into something new.

Few devices have the potential to shatter paradigms in education as much as iPads. However, when leading professional development workshops with EdTechTeacher, we often start with the familiar: consumption of content. Instead of jumping into the creative potential of these devices, introductory workshops regularly began with digital reading and note taking -- familiar paradigms that allow teachers to change tasks in subtle, incremental ways. Students reading digital versus paper text can take advantage of text-to-speech, instant access to a dictionary, and the search function. Note taking tools like OneNote or Notability perpetuate the paradigm of binders, notebooks, and pages while also empowering students to type, handwrite, record audio, insert links, tag content, and work within a mistake-tolerant space (no more scratching through errors with a pen or leaving smudge marks with an eraser). In incremental, and yet powerful ways, these familiar paradigms can transform students from consumers and regurgitators of content to analyzers and synthesizers of information.

Finally, consider the paradigms associated with creation tools. Audio recording could mimic cassette tapes or connect students with a global audience through podcasting. Video might be nothing more than a digital VHS recorder, or an opportunity to use media as a component of a social justice campaign. Apps like Explain Everything might replace interactive whiteboards, or encourage students to engage in metacognition as they screencast their thinking; and while Book Creator intentionally builds on the paradigm of a book, it also provides students with a platform to create and share multi-media, multi-touch eBooks with their community.

Paradigms can serve as a catalyst for change or become an anchor preventing the spread of new ideas. The challenge lies in our awareness of both their power and their peril.


Alexander, P. A., Schallert, D. L., & Reynolds, R. E. (2009). What Is Learning Anyway? A Topographical Perspective Considered. Educational Psychologist, 44(3), 176-192. doi: 10.1080/00461520903029006

Collins, A., & Halverson, R. (2010). The second educational revolution: rethinking education in the age of technology. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26(1), 18-27. Doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2729.2009.00339.x

Cuban, L. (2017). Change and stability in classrooms, schools, and districts (part 2). Retrieved June 19, 2017, from //larrycuban.wordpress.com/2017/05/30/change-and-stability-in-classrooms-schools-and-districts-part-2/

Tyack, D. B., & Cuban, L. (1995). Tinkering toward utopia: A century of public school reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Zhao, Y., & Frank, K. A. (2003). Factors affecting technology uses in schools: An ecological perspective. American Educational Research Journal, 40(4), 807-840. doi:10.3102/00028312040004807

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