Are we on the verge of a learner-centered paradigm?

Devin Vodicka

This post was originally published on on February 22, 2020.

One of my all-time favorite books is The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn (originally published in 1962).  In this text, Kuhn analyzes the history and evolution of new paradigms, including the Copernican revolution and Dalton’s atomic theory.  He finds interesting commonalities that may be useful for educators to consider in the current context. 

Image result for kuhn structure of scientific revolutions phases

Imagine that in this framework “Normal Science” is our known, industrial model of education.  In this factory-model approach, standardization and compliance are the norm and success is measured by standardized test scores and Carnegie-unit-based grade point averages.  Research is focused on improving these universally-accepted, unquestioned outcomes. 

Now imagine that there is an “Anomaly” where families begin sending their children to schools where seat time and test scores are not the focus.  Instead, helping students to understand themselves and have them apply their knowledge, habits and skills to solve real-world problems is the orientation in these new schools.  Enrollment begins to decline in the industrial model schools, creating a “crisis” where defining success becomes more of a challenge.  Should schools double-down on optimizing the industrial model?  Should they move to more of a flexible approach?

One could argue that right now we are in the “crisis” period where competing models and orientations are emerging without broad consensus on what we should be trying to achieve.  Another way of visualizing this is to show that there is a period where the “anomalies” have yet to coalesce into a “winning paradigm.”  With that said, I am definitely beginning to see commonalities across many of the exceptional schools that give me great optimism that we are approaching a “new normality.” 

Image result for thomas kuhn paradigm shift

In this new, post-industrial normality we will begin to respect, appreciate, and celebrate uniqueness and diversity.  We will recognize the integrated, social nature of learning. We will incorporate human-centered design and emerging principles from neuroscience to embrace the dynamic complexity of learning.  We will shift from an institutional model organized around efficiencies for the system to one that is organized around effectiveness for our students.  We will become learner-centered. 

Imagine the possibilities when all children are empowered to know themselves and see themselves as changemakers. Right now this is an exclusive experience — an “anomaly” in our current context.  When these outliers become the norm we will not only improve the lives of our young learners, but together we will change communities, society, and the world. 


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