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!