Why Paradigm Change in Education?

The New Paradigm: Education 3.0

Table of Contents



We know that students learn at different rates, yet our schools teach a fixed amount of content in a fixed amount of time. 
By holding time constant, we force achievement to vary. 
The current paradigm is designed to leave some children behind.
Only fundamental, paradigm change can fix this problem. 

- Charles M. Reigeluth


This page offers information and insights about why paradigm change is the only way to significantly improve student learning in schools.


This page addresses:

  1. The difference between sustaining change (piecemeal change) and disruptive change (paradigm change)

  2. Three paradigms in education

  3. Why disruptive, paradigm change is needed at this point in history

1. Two kinds of change: Sustaining & Distruptive

There is a crucial distinction between piecemeal change and paradigm change.  Clayton Christensen and colleagues have helped to raise greater awareness of this distinction in their book, Disrupting Class, in which their “disruptive innovation theory” distinguishes between “disruptive innovation” (paradigm change) and “sustaining innovation” (piecemeal change). 


Earlier, Peter Drucker distinguished between “continuous” (piecemeal) and “discontinuous” (paradigm) change in his book, The Age of Discontinuity.  Others have used such terms as “restructuring” and “systemic change” as distinct from piecemeal reforms in education, but some people have persistently adopted those terms as new buzzwords for piecemeal change, corrupting their meaning.

Paradigm change (disruptive, discontinuous, systemic)

entails replacing one system with another, such as the railroad replacing the horse and buggy as a system of transportation, or the incandescent light replacing the candle as a system of lighting, or the factory model of schools replacing the one-room schoolhouse. Biological examples include the caterpillar turning into a butterfly and a polliwog turning into a frog.

Piecemeal change (sustaining, continuous)

entails making changes within a system that do not alter the fundamental structure of the system. They include all the changes we have made to our public education systems since the development of the factory model of schools in the early 1800s, such as consolidating school districts, introducing overhead projectors and PowerPoints, and adopting block scheduling.

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More Resources

Branson, R.K. (1987)

Why the schools can't improve: The upper limit hypothesis. 

Covington, M. V. (1996)

The myth of intensification.


National Education Commission on Time and Learning (1994) 

Prisoners of time: What we know and what we need to know.


Reigeluth, C. M., & Karnopp, J. R. (2013)

Reinventing schools: It’s time to break the mold. 


Wagner, T., & Dintersmith, T. (2015)

Most likely to succeed: Preparing our kids for the innovation era.

New York: Scribner. 

For a review, click here.


When new systems are developed, piecemeal change is highly beneficial.  The railroad has improved much since the first steam engine.  But when the larger environment within which a system exists undergoes dramatic change, piecemeal change is seldom enough for the system to thrive.  Only paradigm change can do that.  For more information about this, see Why paradigm change is needed in education – The societal perspective.

2. Three paradigms in education

Paradigm change is not new to education.  We know of three fundamentally different paradigms of education, all of which currently exist. These three paradigms correspond to different stages of societal evolution and progressively increase in complexity. 

Agrarian-age paradigm

The one-room schoolhouse, tutoring, and apprenticeship. There were no grade levels, no courses.  There were multi-age grouping and multi-year mentoring.  Students typically worked on something until they learned it, and then moved on right away.

- Education 1.0

Industrial-age paradigm

The factory model of schools (teacher-centered). Grade levels and courses (based on Carnegie Units) were developed to standardize instruction.  Norm-referenced grading systems were developed with group-based student progress to sort out the future laborers from the managers and professionals, because little education was needed for manual labor, the predominant form of work.

- Education 2.0

Information-age paradigm:

The personalized model of education (learner-centered). Student progress is based on learning, so there are no grade levels, and student assessment is criterion-referenced (competency-based).  Intrinsic motivation is cultivated through authentic tasks as vehicles for just-in-time instruction, so projects replace courses and lists of attainments replace grades.  The teacher is a guide-on-the-side rather than a sage-on-the-stage.  For more information about this paradigm, see The New Paradigm.

- Education 3.0

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3. Why paradigm change is needed in education

There are two considerations that help to understand why paradigm change is needed in education today instead of piecemeal reforms: societal considerations and personal considerations

Societal Considerations

Alvin Toffler has convincingly described how societies undergo massive waves of change, from the hunting-and-gathering age, to the agrarian age, the industrial age, and the information age. Each wave has brought about paradigm change in all of society’s systems:

The following table shows some major differences between the industrial age and the information age. This side-by-side comparison highlights general ways the paradigm of education needs to change in order to meet the current needs of students, organizations, and communities. It also shows ways that all other systems are transforming: business, healthcare, communication, and so forth.

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The reason for these paradigm changes is that each wave of change creates different ends and means – different purposes for education and different tools for education.  During the industrial age, manual labor was the predominant form of work.  We did not need to educate many people to high levels; rather we needed to separate the future laborers from the future managers and professionals by flunking them out.  We needed a system that could sort the students – that would leave the slower students behind.  So we invented time-based student progress, norm-referenced testing, and letter (or number) grades.


The one-room schoolhouse was the predominant paradigm in the agrarian age; the current “factory model of schools” in the industrial age; and the learner-centered paradigm (which only exists in about 1% of schools in the U.S. so far) in the information age.  Bela Banathy wrote about the “evolutionary imbalance” that has resulted from society evolving into the information age while our educational systems are still in the industrial age.  This evolutionary imbalance poses a severe threat to our country, our society, and our individuals.


But in the information age, knowledge work is becoming predominant, so we need a system that is focused on maximizing every student's learning – one in which no child is left behind – one  in which student progress is based on learning, not time.  The hidden curriculum in the industrial-age paradigm includes compliance and tolerance for boring tasks, which were important preparation for the assembly line but are counter-productive for knowledge work.  Now we need a hidden curriculum of initiative, problem solving, and collaboration


Personal Considerations

One of the few things all people agree on is that students learn at different rates, yet our current paradigm of education tries to teach a fixed amount of content in a fixed amount of time.  So the current structure, by basing student progress on time rather than learning, is designed to leave children behind:

  • It forces slower students on before they have mastered the material (so they accumulate deficits that virtually condemn them to flunking out), and

  • It holds faster learners back, demotivating them and squandering their sorely needed talents.  


For personal considerations we must transform education so that each student moves on only when s/he has learned the current material, and as soon as s/he has learned the current material.  Until we do this, all changes we make will be inconsequential, and we will continue to leave many children behind, especially those who are disadvantaged.  


Of course, customizing student progress like this requires fundamental changes throughout the entire system: the instructional, assessment, and record-keeping subsystems; the roles of teachers (from sage on the stage to guide on the side), roles of students (from passive, teacher-directed to active, self-directed), roles of parents (from cookie bakers to partners in their children’s learning), and roles of technology (from tool for the teacher to tool for the learner); and much more.  It requires paradigm change.  The nature of the changes needed is described in The New Paradigm



The sage on the stage


The guide on the side



Passive, teacher-directed


Active, self-directed



Cookie bakers


Partners in their children's learning



Tools for the teacher


Tools for the learner

Sorting the students

© 2015 by The Systemic Change Research Group at Indiana University

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