The posting below is a review of the book The Learning Paradigm College, by John Tagg, Anker Publishing, 2003. ISBN 978-188298258-5. The review is written by Tona Hangen, an assistant professor of US History at Worcester State University and the author of a book on religious radio. Her interests include the digital humanities, media history, and American pop culture. The review appeared in, Currents in Teaching and Learning, Volume 4, Number 1, Fall 2011. Currents in Teaching and Learning, Josna Rege, editor, is a publication of Worcester State University, Worcester, Massachusetts, U.S.A. ISSN: 1945-3043 © 2011, Worcester State University [www.worcester.edu/currents]. Reprinted with permission.
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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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Turning up the Learning Thermostat
The Learning Paradigm College is a book-length exploration of the ideas John Tagg articulated, along with Robert Barr, in an influential 1995 article for Change, "From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education." Tagg is associate professor of English at Palomar College in San Marcos, California and a frequent speaker on organizational transformation in higher education. Throughout the book, Tagg focuses on the shift from a model of education as content delivery (completed when content has been delivered) to a learning-centered model (completed when students have learned). This shift - from teaching to learning - implies a fundamental reorientation of the underlying structures and assumptions of higher education, including different metrics for success and a revised approach to course design.
Two useful contrasts early in the book are in his description of students' orientation towards learning and the temperature of an institution's "cognitive economy." Students who are oriented more toward learning than toward grades both learn and perform better than those looking simply to complete the course or get the degree. Deep, lasting learning is active, holistic, incremental, and mindful, while surface learning or learning that is poorly retained is inert, atomistic, and reinforces mindlessness. "Hot" rather than "cool" cognitive environments can foster deep learning, by offering intrinsic rather than extrinsic goals, activities that demand higher-order cognition, higher ratios of feedback to evaluation, longer time horizons for learning, stable communities of support for students' intellectual risk-taking, and aligned messages rather than contradictory ones (see e.g. Table 8.1, p. 81).
While an individual instructor might adopt a learning-centered approach in his or her own classroom, Tagg argues that the necessary larger paradigm shift cannot be accomplished piecemeal, classroom by classroom. He hopes that "individual teachers can design their classes around the kind of things they want students to do rather than simply the information they want students to know" (164). But students encountering student-centered learning in some of their courses and not others are likely to be confused or even resistant because such courses demand a quite different level of student responsibility and engagement and they disrupt students' expectation that "good" courses demand little and are "easy." In addition, such efforts scattered throughout the college or university have a high probability of being undermined by what he calls the "theory-in-use," or the embedded, persistent patterns that characterize the instruction paradigm. His critique of the status quo is quite pointed:
"Courses...define the educational mission in the Instruction Paradigm. The mission of colleges became putting more students in more classes. For most colleges in a highly standardized and interdependent system of transferable credit, a means-offering courses-had become the end, if not the definition, of higher education. Experiments around the edges rarely touched this central theory-in-use... Innovations that explored other means, alternative processes of doing what colleges claimed to be doing, could survive on the periphery, but such experiments could not gain purchase on the core of the institution-not because they were good or bad but because they were simply irrelevant to what colleges had come to be: factories for the production of full-time-equivalent students (FTES), transcript-generating machines." (17)
Much of the early part of the book is devoted to describing this "Instruction Paradigm" that is the dominant and well dug-in model for American higher education and contrasting it with the "Learning Paradigm." The instruction paradigm is so thoroughly entrenched that it becomes invisible; in most institutions of higher learning it is simply the water we swim in, the taken-for-granted environment, the underlying framework. It is precisely because the instruction paradigm is not consciously articulated and has not been collectively assented to, that it proves so tenacious and hard to dislodge. Indeed, many colleges and universities have adopted mission statements that affirm and celebrate aspects of the learning paradigm, but the totality of students' experience testifies otherwise. One key insight is that any definition of a college's "learning environment" should be broadened beyond its classrooms and courses to include, for example, its campus services, student organizations, study spaces, and communication systems. Tagg shows that the Instruction Paradigm extant at the vast majority of institutions of higher education creates a "cool" or cognitively less-challenging learning environment, which encourages students (who are portrayed as rational actors) to disengage while a Learning Paradigm raises the temperature of the cognitive economy because learners have to actively engage.
Lest some readers protest that maintaining a "hot" cognitive economy is just too expensive, Tagg won't let his readers dismiss the Learning Paradigm as resource-heavy, the luxury of well-endowed or private universities. Instead, the book is profusely illustrated with nineteen real-world examples of the Learning Paradigm in action on the ground in different settings and vastly diverse institutions of higher learning from well-endowed private liberal arts to large state institutions to cash-strapped community colleges.
In chapters 11-16, which form the heart of the book's detailed profiles in institutional courage, Tagg analyzes what unites successful Learning Paradigm colleges. They promote intrinsically rewarding goals; they require frequent, continual, connected, authentic student performances. They provide consistent, continual, interactive feedback to their students. They provide a longer time horizon for learning, and they create purposeful communities of practice. Finally, they align their activities around the mission of producing student learning. Tagg concedes that "all Learning Paradigm colleges will not be alike. Indeed, the standardization of external forms that we find in the Instruction Paradigm colleges should diminish as colleges come to experiment more deeply with alternative approaches" (154).
What sparked change at these notable institutions? Some were motivated by deep crisis, whether accreditational or financial, as in the case of Olivet, Wagner, and Alverno. Others had the opportunity to build a university from the ground up, as at Cal State University Monterey Bay. But just as many undertook significant paradigm shifts without being compelled by dire circumstances, and Tagg applauds such efforts of institutions to collectively rethink and reorient voluntarily and with their own students in mind. What has happened at these institutions, writes Tagg, "is indeed magical-wonderful-but hardly impossible. Indeed, contrasted with the task of carrying the burdens of incoherence and waste that drag us down daily, it is not even difficult. What it requires is a certain kind of vision, held in common: a vision of an undergraduate college as a whole, as a coherent community acting from a consistent and unifying purpose. A vision of integrity." (282)
Accomplishing such a paradigm shift is neither easy nor quick. Implementing the Instruction Paradigm* requires far more than cosmetic changes. But Tagg encourages readers to begin by simply seeing how things are, and envisioning how they might be different. He ends with a clarion call to educators to become what they want their students to be, and as they collectively approach curriculum design, assessment, governance, and planning, to model learning that is deep, active, integrated, incremental, mindful, self-directed, and collaborative (349). After all, he asks, are not these the very habits of mind we dream of our students developing?
Tagg's book is meaty and thought-provoking. It should be widely read, not only by faculty but by stakeholders across campus communities. It is somewhat densely written (educators not familiar with the scholarship of teaching and learning may find some unfamiliar language). Maybe a student version is in order. As some institutions begin to lead out as innovators, and to look and act distinctive, how are prospective students to judge among them, to compare their apples and oranges? One unanswered question is how Learning Paradigm colleges can create the necessary near-instantaneous paradigm shift in student expectations of college (and how they might differ from the dominant models in K-12 education), which would seem to need to happen either in the admissions process or very soon thereafter, to quickly bring new learners up to speed on locally meaningful definitions, structures, and expectations. We need more efficient ways to identify Learning Paradigm enthusiasts in the job market pool and help match them with places where the Instruction Paradigm no longer reigns supreme; otherwise, profound misalignment will create friction and conflict. But perhaps that is the real value of The Learning Paradigm College: to empower a new generation of internal advocates for change, rising clear-eyed to the forthcoming challenge of remaking higher education around deep and real student learning. --
* I believe this is a typographical error in the original article and it should read "Learning Paradigm." RR