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The Learning Paradigm College

By John Tagg
Anker Publishing
400 pages
ISBN: 1-882982-58-4
$39.95 (hardcover)

Reviewed by

Karen S. Langlois

Department of Liberal Studies
California State Polytechnic University Pomona


The Learning Paradigm College proposes a revolutionary change in the way college students are educated. It extends the argument first introduced by John Tagg and Robert Barr in a 1995 article in Change magazine, "From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education." The book sets forth a comprehensive new program for higher education. It is based on the "learning paradigm," a system in which students take a more active role in their education. This model is a result of the widespread influence of the accountability movement on education. In order to understand the powerful forces that are shaping this new direction, some background information is useful.

Accountability is an outgrowth of the business efficiency movement known as Total Quality Management or TQM. The aim of TQM is to achieve a quality product through the total control of the production process. An important aspect is to identify problems at the source. A poor product or output is the evidence of problems in production. Product excellence, based on the zero defects principle, requires the elimination of any deficiencies in the product through the improvement of the production process. This requires the alignment of all employee efforts. Output measurement using quality standards, coupled with a commitment to continuous improvement, is the way to excellence. TQM was promoted by Dr. W. Edwards Deming, an internationally known expert on quality and productivity. TQM principles caused a paradigm shift in the business world. These principles soon crossed over into health care and radically changed health care delivery. They have now found a place in the university.

A paradigm is a way of seeing reality. A paradigm shift is a new way of thinking on a large scale. It is transformational. (A failed paradigm shift is another matter. It is a fad, which is soon replaced by another way of thinking.) The TQM principle of outputs measurement is the basis for the now widely accepted university practice of outcomes assessment. However, the business ideal of a uniform and standardized product is not a perfect fit with the aims of higher education. Is the university product the student, the degree, or the field of knowledge? From the beginning there has also been confusion about how to define the customer. With what customer is the university dealing--the general public, the eventual employer, the student? Outcomes assessment is now defined as the measurement of student learning. Or, in business terminology, the value added between the time the student enters the university and finishes a program of study, or between the time a student enrolls in an academic course and completes it.

But outcomes assessment is not a new paradigm in higher education. University students have always been evaluated using both objective and subjective instruments. There is a long tradition in higher education of research papers, written tests, and oral examinations. More recent trends in evaluation--reading response papers, journals, portfolios--augment the traditional approaches. If assessment is not the new learning paradigm that Tagg refers to, what is? It is the way assessment is interpreted. It is the focus on the learning process. If there is a defect in student learning, it must be identified at its source. According to Tagg, the cause of the failure is the academic institution and the instruction it provides. The problem is the process of instruction in higher education.

As Tagg explains it, higher education is failing to achieve the primary goal of student learning. The current learning process is based on a faulty instructional paradigm. In this paradigm the traditional institution offers conventional classes and utilizes the student credit hour to determine the amount of classroom time required for a student to complete a degree. In contrast, a transformative institution "aligns all of its activities around the mission of producing student learning" (280). This requires a radical shift in the way higher education is delivered. It necessitates a reconsideration of everything from conventional disciplines to compartmentalized courses.

Tagg promotes a "hot cognitive economy" as the alternative to conventional classes and methods of teaching. This learning environment does not rely on the traditional lecture as the standard mode of instruction, a "cold cognitive economy " in Tagg's view. The hot cognitive economy makes use of challenging learning activities and meaningful performance goals. Students are required to become active, not passive, learners. When consciously engaged in the educational process, they become psychologically present and not emotionally absent in their own education. They achieve "deep learning," which is "holistic" and "mindful," as opposed to "surface" understanding, which is "atomistic" and "mindless." They are guided by the professor who, like a coach, provides encouragement and continuous evaluation. This results in transformative education that focuses on students and their learning. The measure of excellent teaching is the quality of learning. A professor cannot claim to have successfully taught the course material if the students haven't learned it.

Tagg develops six categories for use in the analysis of hot and cool learning environments. They are goals, activity, information, time, community, and alignment. In discussing goals, he compares intrinsic versus extrinsic goals for student learning. Intrinsic goals are connected to "deep learning" and provide the most satisfaction. In analyzing time, he observes that the current educational practice of semester- or quarter-long courses and final exams "condemns most students to a surface orientation to learning" (111). In examining community, he argues that students need a stable cohort group or learning community to give them emotional support. The true learning paradigm college also has less bureaucratic baggage, which mistakenly results in grade point averages, credit hours, and transferable credits being regarded by the institution as the measure of an education.

Some readers may object to Tagg's terminology. One legacy of TQM is that "business speak" is spreading at most universities. This results in the overuse and devaluation of words such as quality and excellence. Some readers may be put off, and justifiably so, by sentences such as, "Without quality, we have nothing of value left to count in the calculation of quality" (86). Or, "The 22 colleges and universities in AAC&U's Consortium on Quality Education and the 12 Vanguard Learning Colleges of the League for Innovation in the Community College are all worthy of study, as are the recipients of the Hesburgh Awards and other thoughtful recognitions of educational excellence" (341). Some may recoil at business terms such as "basic process model" and "core processes" being applied to higher education. The term "cognitive economy" was first coined by the Harvard economist David Perkins. Tagg's use of "hot cognitive economy" and "cold cognitive economy" may estrange some readers. There is not a lot of stylistic grace in the sentence, "The main purpose of this scaffolding, then, is to facilitate institutional learning, to help those of us who work at the college to learn more about our work, to help us to see the college through the lens of the Learning Paradigm, and then to bring about fundamental structural change that will create a hot cognitive economy for undergraduate learners" (322).

Referring to the California State University System (CSU), Tagg notes that "Historically, the bulk of its campuses have been locked quite firmly in the Instructional Paradigm"(298). He sees a sign of positive change in the CSU Cornerstones initiative, a plan based, in part, on the concepts of active learning and assessment. However, the Cornerstones project has been greeted with considerable skepticism by many CSU faculty. By the terms of Tagg's argument this resistance may support his thesis that faculty frequently persist in holding onto their old glasses, envisioning higher education through the outdated lens of the instructional paradigm. But Tagg is often the promoter rather than the evenhanded analyst carefully laying out his case. He has a tendency to overreach, as in the observation, "There are probably some college teachers who like the privacy and secrecy of the conventional classroom"(318). The use of the word "secrecy" is somewhat manipulative because it seems to suggest that something deliberately underhanded or deceptive is going on in the classroom.

Nevertheless, there is much of value in this book. Higher education is changing, and Tagg explains the complex connections between what may appear, at first glance, to be disassociated educational fads. He describes the larger purpose behind student-formulated learning plans, learning contracts, and life maps; and institutionally supported process frontier protocols, performance-based curriculums, and communities of practice. To the individual who seeks to understand the sea change that colleges are experiencing, as well as the individual who blindly struggles to stay afloat as each new pedagogical wave comes crashing down, this book offers a comprehensive explanation of educational tides and currents, and instruction on how to stay afloat in the rough waters of institutional change.

Posted October 5, 2004.

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2004 by K. S. Langlois.

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