It’s a Paradigm Shift. So What?

Insights   07 July 2016

Getting to Learner-Centered

At Education Reimagined, we have always highlighted the importance of recognizing learner-centered education, first and foremost, as a paradigm shift. And, it’s no accident that we do. Our best articulation, so far, of that paradigm shift can be found in our vision document:

The learner-centered paradigm for learning functions like a pair of lenses that offers a new way to look at, think about, talk about, and act on education. It constitutes a shift of perspective that places every learner at its center, structures the system to build appropriate supports around him or her, and acknowledges the need to adapt and alter to meet the needs of all children.

The learner-centered paradigm changes our very view of learners themselves. Learners are seen and known as wondrous, curious individuals with vast capabilities and limitless potential. This paradigm recognizes that learning is a lifelong pursuit and that our natural excitement and eagerness to discover and learn should be fostered throughout our lives, particularly in our earliest years. Thus, in this paradigm, learners are active participants in their learning as they gradually become owners of it, and learning itself is seen as an engaging and exciting process. Each child’s interests, passions, dreams, skills, and needs shape his or her learning experience and drive the commitments and actions of the adults and communities supporting him or her. (“A Transformational Vision for Education in the US.” Education Reimagined, 2015. Page 5.)

Learner-centered education isn’t the newest way to “do” education. Nor is it a new “to do” list or set of activities to add onto your work. Because it is a paradigm shift, it actually offers a new worldview and demands a mindset shift. It becomes a new way to…well, be. And, that changes everything.

Talking Across Paradigms

A couple of weeks ago, we heard the paradigm shift equated to the shift between classical and quantum physics. If you know anything about physics, you know that these are two wholly different ways of seeing the world: two paradigms. Depending on which you are in, you ask different questions, make different assumptions, use different means of measurement, and relate to yourself and your role in the inquiry differently. In essence, everything changes—including what you say the universe is made of!

Despite all of this, both understandings of physics use similar words, such as “gravity.” But, the “gravity” of classical physics and the “gravity” of quantum physics point to such different phenomena as to be mutually unintelligible. In classical physics, gravity is a “force” that is calculated by a ratio of the mass of and distance between objects. In quantum physics, on the other hand, gravity is a curvature in the space-time continuum caused by objects with mass—not a “force” at all.

So, you can see the difficulties that might emerge if you were to try to talk across paradigms. You may be using the same words and think you are talking about the same thing—failing to realize that you aren’t even in the same universe as the other person.


Your paradigm is so intrinsic to your mental process that you are hardly aware of its existence, until you try to communicate with someone with a different paradigm.

Donella Meadows
The Global Citizen

We believe the same thing occurs for the five elements of the vision: competency-based; personalized, relevant, and contextualized; learner agency; open-walled; and socially embedded. For example, in a school-centered paradigm, when someone says “personalized,” they mean that you meet the child academically where they are in a subject and move them along a predetermined path to proficiency. In a learner- centered paradigm, on the other hand, “personalized” means that you co-create learning pathways with the child sitting in front of you—seeing them as a whole child and valuing their interests, passions, concerns, brain wiring, language, circumstances, family, and culture.

This means that an adult “personalizing” learning in a learner-centered paradigm will do things that would never occur to an adult in a school-centered paradigm, and vice versa. In each, they will start with different first steps, ask different questions, develop different tools, have different assumptions, and request different parameters for their learning environment. Just like in physics, despite using the same words, totally different realities are at work.

Working in a New Paradigm

This is an important distinction to notice: The five elements can be implemented in both a school-centered and a learner-centered paradigm. But, they will look and feel drastically different. This is because, if you haven’t shifted your view of the purpose of education, the learner, how learning happens, and the role of the adults, you will see the five elements as a means to make the current model of education run more efficiently.


A paradigm is a closed set of beliefs, and these underlying beliefs or assumptions set the boundaries for what can be seen from that paradigm.

And, when you start from a place of seeking efficiency, you get the current system on steroids. “Competency-Based” becomes self-paced learning. “Personalized, Relevant, and Contextualized“ loses the last two qualifiers and becomes kids in front of computers receiving the academic “program” designed to move them from point A to point B in a school curriculum. “Learner Agency” becomes allowing kids to choose how they want to present what they learned about Eskimos to the class—book report, diorama, or podcast. “Open-Walled” becomes flipped classrooms. “Socially Embedded” becomes 20-minute advisory periods for kids to make sense of their course work and life trajectory in collaboration with other learners.

These are all predictable outcomes that emerge when implementing the five elements in a school-centered paradigm. Why are they so predictable? A paradigm is a closed set of beliefs, and these underlying beliefs or assumptions set the boundaries for what can be seen from that paradigm. So, in the case of the school-centered paradigm, it is a closed set of beliefs about kids, how they learn, what they are to learn, how to measure their learning, what education is, and how it should be done.

If you dig a bit into the Industrial-era model for education, you can unearth some of those assumptions that drive us to redesign the current system again and again: There is an average learner. If you teach one way, you will reach 70-80% of kids. Education is done to kids. The job of the whole system is to move students from (pre-) kindergarten to 12th grade. These create a mindset that focuses on the “system” itself and poses the challenge: how can we build “schools” to efficiently educate lots of kids at once and deliver them from PK/K to 12th grade successfully? Coming from here, standardization is the most obvious, logical answer, as it creates an avenue for all kids to know the same things and be able to demonstrate their knowledge equally well in the same way at the same time.

Some of the underlying assumptions of the learner-centered paradigm, on the other hand, are that the work of education is learning; education is done by and with the learner; and there is no average learner. These assumptions create a mindset that demands the creation of a system that adapts to the individual learner—leveraging their strengths and passions and recognizing their challenges and circumstances.

From this angle, you can see that these two models are not good or bad, right or wrong. They are just different—created out of different ways of seeing the world. You can also see that if you can’t overlook the paradigm or mindset, you miss something vital. Tools, programs, interventions, games, or whatever you give people will be heard in the paradigm they are in.

We would love to hear from you: How do you recognize when someone is in a learner-centered paradigm? Are there questions they ask, things they do, or ways they talk that give them away?

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