Steve Hunsaker reviews a landmark article in higher education.

June 12, 2012
Writer: Steve Hunsaker

Two Paradigms

In the relatively young field of the scholarship of teaching and learning (or scholarship of learning and teaching, if you prefer), Robert B. Barr and John Tagg's "From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education" (1995) is a colossus.  The essay is constantly invoked in books, articles, and conference presentations for its prescient and agenda-setting insights and for the stiff challenge to tired assumptions that it represents.  That challenge is drawn from two contrasting conceptions of the purpose of higher education.

"A college is an institution that exists to provide instruction."

"A college is an institution that exists to produce learning."

The essay is an elaboration of the contrast between the first statement (the Instruction Paradigm) and the second (the Learning Paradigm).  As the title makes clear, the authors urge their readers to make the move from the first paradigm to the second.  Barr and Tagg are careful to note that "the two will seldom be as neatly parallel" as their charts and descriptions imply, but with that acknowledgment that there is a fair amount of oversimplification at work, they plunge into a discussion of six aspects of higher education as viewed in those two paradigms.

Hoping that you will locate the entire essay and talk about it with friends and colleagues, I will cite a few memorable lines from Barr and Tagg on each of six dimensions: mission and purposes, criteria for success, teaching/learning structures, learning theory, productivity and funding, and the nature of roles.

Let me know what you think!

Mission and Purposes

"In the Instruction Paradigm, the mission of the college is to provide instruction, to teach.  The method and the product are one and the same.  The means is the end."

"In the Learning Paradigm, the mission of the college is to produce learning.  The method and the product are separate.  The end governs the means."

"The Learning Paradigm shifts what the institution takes responsibility for: from quality instruction (lecturing, talking) to student learning.  Students, the co-producers of learning, can and must, of course, take responsibility for their own learning.  Hence, responsibility is a win-win game wherein two agents take responsibility for the same outcome even though neither is in complete control of all the variables.  When two agents take such responsibility, the resulting synergy produces powerful results."

Criteria for Success

"In the Instruction Paradigm, teaching is judged on its own terms; in the Learning Paradigm, the power of an environment or approach is judged in terms of its impact on learning. If learning occurs, then the environment has power. If students learn more in environment A than in environment B, then A is more powerful than B."

Teaching/Learning Structures

"In the Instruction Paradigm, the teaching and learning process is governed by the further rule that time will be held constant while learning varies."

"In a Learning Paradigm college, the structure of courses and lectures becomes dispensable and negotiable. Semesters and quarters, lectures, labs, syllabi - indeed, classes themselves - become options rather than received structures or mandatory activities."

Learning Theory

"The Instruction Paradigm frames learning atomistically. In it, knowledge, by definition, consists of matter dispensed or delivered by an instructor. The chief agent in the process is the teacher who delivers knowledge; students are viewed as passive vessels, ingesting knowledge for recall on tests."

"The Learning Paradigm frames learning holistically, recognizing that the chief agent in the process is the learner."

Productivity and Funding

"Under the Learning Paradigm, productivity is redefined as the cost per unit of learning per student."

"Under the Learning Paradigm, producing more with less becomes possible because the more that is being produced is learning and not hours of instruction."

The Nature of Roles

"In the Instruction Paradigm, faculty are conceived primarily as disciplinary experts who impart knowledge by lecturing. They are the essential feature of the instructional delivery system."

The Learning Paradigm, on the other hand, conceives of faculty as primarily the designers of learning environments; they study and apply best methods for producing learning and student success."


"From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education" Robert B. Barr and John Tagg Change, Vol. 27, No. 6 (Nov. - Dec., 1995), pp. 12025