Truman, Meet Higher Education. It’s Somewhere Near Fiji.

I must be learning something — or trying to at least. In the Assessment Leadership Academy, we are reading The Learning Paradigm College, by John Tagg. And since I started that book, John Tagg has been invading my brainspace. Let me demonstrate:

Yesterday, we had an Academic Leadership Team meeting at my university in which we discussed the pro’s and con’s of our “adjunct faculty model” (which, in reality, is an economic model, but that’s a whole other blog post). Today, a few emails reflecting on that meeting floated around, deepening our conversation, pointing out elephants in the room, and calling out unexamined assumptions. All very good and necessary.

Somehow, while reflecting in and on the meeting and reading the follow-up emails, I found myself channeling John Tagg. And then I chimed in to the conversation accordingly:

I left the meeting wondering what our discussion would sound like if we re-entered it through a focus on student learning and organizational learning: What are the learning outcomes for our students, and what qualities of a faculty member can support those outcomes best? What are our learning goals for ourselves — for our scholarship (in the traditional and non-traditional forms in which we engage in it), and for praxis and teaching practice? And what are the qualities of a faculty member that would help us facilitate those goals? If we put learning at the center of the conversation, how might our conversation change? How might we think, differently?

It struck me that yesterday’s meeting resulted in pro’s and con’s of our current model, and as (a colleague) points out, we also revealed some false dichotomies and assumptions about ourselves and our teaching faculty. This is because we have been talking about a faculty model, as if faculty were “delivery tools.” We have, in my opinion, not been talking about a learning model. I believe that we need to.

I’d like to challenge us to try this next: working from a learning paradigm instead of a teaching paradigm. We might find some new perspectives and challenge our historical and cultural norms and assumptions accordingly. (And coincidentally, we might learn something by doing so.)

You know that movie The Truman Show, when Truman realizes that his whole world, his whole reality, is engineered by someone else (Christof) and he realizes that it could be a different way? Here, check it out:

It’s like that. And Christof said it best:

We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.

Tagg contended that higher education has presented us with the reality of  the instructional delivery paradigm that consists of faculty delivering courses in set periods of time, which have credits, which add up to degrees. The learning paradigm, however, not only changes the focus but changes the model entirely:

In its briefest form, the paradigm that has governed our colleges is this: A college is an institution that exists to provide instruction. Subtly but profoundly we are shifting to a new paradigm: A college is an institution that exists to produce learning. This shift changes everything. (Barr & Tagg, From teaching to learning: A new paradigm for undergraduate education, 1995, in Change magazine.)

And damn – he’s totally right!

Let’s bring in Truman to have him ask: why can’t we challenge this reality — this paradigm — and say it could be another way? As Barr and Tagg (1995) pointed out, a shift to a learning paradigm can actually liberate institutions from “a set of difficult constraints,” including budget realities.

Young Truman: I want to be an explorer, like the Great Magellan.
Teacher:  [indicating a map of the world] Oh, you’re too late! There’s nothing left to explore!

Oh, there’s plenty left to explore, Truman. In fact, let me introduce you to a new and improved Higher Education. It’s somewhere near Fiji; let’s go find it together!

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3 thoughts on “Truman, Meet Higher Education. It’s Somewhere Near Fiji.

  1. From what I see, real time, occurring in one of the mid-level basic skills reading/writing classes I am currently working in as a teacher’s assistant, this reflection and call to action for a new (learning) paradigm is critical and needed yesterday. Granted, basic skills and adult basic education is not college-level coursework; however, the instructional and learning model(s) of ANY institution are inherently worthy of reflection, observation, discussion, and modification.

    Testing and assignments are but two ways to place value on group or individual learning, college level or elsewhere. What I would like to point out, though, is that any institution, Marylhurst included, currently engages, already to some degree, in the evolution of the learning module, as opposed to the “I teach, you fulfill the outcome requirements” model. How can I say “any” institution? Because the law of averages says there has to be at least one teacher on staff that wants their students to learn and apply, not memorize and regurgitate. From personal experience, I include and know that Marylhurst strives to provide an education for each person that is meaningful, relevant, and lasting. I have taken classes and become familiar with teachers where my learning has been questioned, changed, measured, quantified, then applied.

    I would hope that if further dialogue is created along this vein that the entire staff at Marylhurst be sought after for their knowledge (expertise), experience, and input so that the learning paradigm can be looked at as the benchmark the University might want to follow. Everywhere, post-secondary education has some serious soul-searching to do to be able to mainstream its students back into any infrastructure in order to help us all.

  2. Thanks for your response Marti. I completely agree that the need for a different paradigm is called for in multiple kinds of educational settings and not just higher education. Tagg actually writes about the challenges of supporting students “following” their secondary educational paradigms — but suggests that they become almost irrelevant as “challenges” if we move to a learning paradigm (not irrelevant entirely, just as challenges, because that would be the students’ experience of learning / teaching / school they’d bring).

    I agree with you that there is a LOT we do that is learning focused – it’s why I work here. 🙂 But there is also a lot we do, and a lot of conversations we have, in which we forget to put that perspective in the room at all. My point is that we should always try to put learning at the center of our discussions and decisions. Easier said than done, right?

    Thanks again! 🙂

  3. Pingback: She Had A Pleasant Elevation « PrattleNog

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