Re-Engaging the Learning – and Unlearning with Relearning – Paradigm

21 Jan
Barr and Tagg quote from

Image from All Things Learning – 21 December 2012

Writing in 1995, Robert Barr and John Tagg described a paradigm shift

…taking hold in American higher education. 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. It is both needed and wanted.

These educational researchers named the learning paradigm as a win-win for both teachers and learners, with each agent “tak[ing] responsibility for the same outcome [learning] even though neither is in complete control of all the variables. When two agents take such responsibility, the resulting synergy produces powerful results.”

The learning paradigm certainly has deeper roots even than Barr and Tagg.  Even in my own life, I experienced its operation in my first grade classroom (and read about it later in the teacher’s 1958 thesis) and again in a concentrated way during the 1979-1980 year I finished an undergraduate major in political science at Mankato State University.  Now, I see it in the classrooms I observe here on campus and as I go visit colleagues as well as past students teach across campus types and countries.

Common across that “resulting synergy [that] produces powerful results”?  Each teacher defined learning, described in some appropriate way her or his understanding and application of learning theory, and talked with us as students about the specific ways we’d need to work together – in student-teacher, student-student, and student-community ways – to make learning happen during the ensuing term.  The synergy, I learned from a pair of political science teachers, came through working to learn while unlearning (misinformation, misconceptions, single approaches) and relearning (with new information sources, thicker contexts and additional theories).

Like Barr and Tagg, my teachers moved from a teaching paradigm based primarily on behaviorism and cognitivism toward enacting constructivist learning theory and practices.  

More important for me as a learner then – and a teacher now – was that my teachers first understood theories of learning when planning and enacting courses, then drew students’ attention to learning by including definitions, expectations, responsibilities and meta-discussions of learning into the first days of a class.

So, here’s the question of the week:  What is your understanding of learning? Of theories of learning? Of a complex learning that can guide – even synergize – your students’ understandings and practices of learning?  As Barr and Tagg’s learning paradigm idea nears 20 years of public conversation, we’ve also crossed into a 21st century of learning and teaching made even more complex by world political, social and environmental contexts as well as wired worlds across education, commerce, culture, communities and daily life.  In this moment, then, “learning about learning” as well as “learning to learn” become pressing needs.   To jump start that “learning about learning,” this infographic provided by Educemic (and one segment briefly clipped below) seems a brilliant start for the term:

Screen Shot 2013-01-16 at 11.15.55 AM

What do you believe about learning?  How does that show up in your teaching practices?  In the learning practices you expect from – and talk about with – your students?


All Things Learning (blog).  “Evolving the Learning Paradigm.” 21 December 2012.

Robert B. Barr and John Tagg. “From Teaching to Learning. From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education.”  Change (Nov/Dec 1995): 13-25.

Edudemic (blog).  “A Simple Guide to 4 Complex Learning Theories.” 24 December 2012.


One Response to “Re-Engaging the Learning – and Unlearning with Relearning – Paradigm”


  1. Re-Engaging the Learning – and Unlearning with Relearning – Paradigm | MAIS final project | - 22 January 2013

    […] Writing in 1995, Robert Barr and John Tagg described a paradigm shift …taking hold in American higher education. In its briefest form, the paradigm that has governed our colleges is this: A c…  […]

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