Six Paradigms of Education

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Six Paradigms of Education

The Re-framing of OBE

6 Paradigms

As my work has evolved over the past decade, I have become increasingly drawn to a framework concerning five distinctive paradigms of education that I have directly experienced and advocated over the course of my career.  I now realize that there are six of them, and, among other things, these paradigms represent divergent views of what the fundamental essence, purpose and character of education either IS or SHOULD BE.  And, of course, with each paradigm comes very different perspectives on learners, learning, curriculum, assessment, performance outcomes, credentialing, and school structuring. They form a continuum that is portrayed in the diagram that accompanies this text, which I have very recently revised and expanded.  They’re labeled as follows:

OBE Success

Dilemmas with Outcomes and OBE

As you know, as soon as you say “Outcomes” these days, up comes the label Outcome-Based Education (OBE) – for which I am both famous and infamous, depending on which of these six paradigms you favor and advocate.  From the beginning of my exposure to OBE in 1968, I’ve known it to be a model /approach /system of learning and education committed to expanding what my colleagues and I came to call the ‘Conditions of Success’ in schools.  When those Conditions are expanded or maximized, we argued, one of OBE’s fundamental premises can be realized:  ALL STUDENTS CAN LEARN AND SUCCEED, BUT NOT ON THE SAME DAY IN THE SAME WAY.

Hence, until fairly recently, I always assumed that OBE was inherently a vehicle for doing good in the world by improving the chances of all students to emerge from their schooling experience as SUCCESSFUL LEARNERS and to be treated that way going forward in their lives.  Said differently, I assumed that OBE was a vehicle for promoting learner empowerment, and that empowerment was a valuable asset in today’s world.

I was half right.  Yes, OBE is a vehicle that advances learner empowerment and success, but I now realize that NOT all Outcomes, i.e., not all learning successes, are regarded as positive, benign, or beneficial to all cultures and social entities, including civilization as a whole.  In other words, it is very possible to use the ‘Success for All’ philosophy and principles of OBE to foster Outcomes that clearly UNDERMINE what is regarded as the GREATER GOOD, including the concept of Success itself.  I didn’t fully appreciate this decades ago, even though one of my ‘Spadyisms’ was:  NOT ALL OUTCOMES ARE CREATED EQUAL.  Indeed, they are not.


This realization has helped me see that both Outcomes and OBE mean something very different within each of the six paradigms noted above – particularly when these terms are so widely used today at all levels of education in connection with practices that I don’t regard as ‘Outcome-Based’ at all. While these differences can to some extent be linked to the labels Traditional OBE, Transitional OBE, and Transformational OBE, which I have used a lot in my work, they imply more than that.  Hence, I no longer find these latter three labels useful and won’t be using them in my future work.

Then, Is What I Think OBE And Outcomes Mean and Represent to the

advocates of each of these six paradigms

six paradigms

To those who advocate the prevalent ACADEMIC STANDARDS paradigm of learning and education, Outcomes are defined primarily as Demonstrations of Cognitive Achievement, and OBE is seen as a vehicle for:

Assuring student and system performance and accountability.

To those who advocate the pragmatic APPLIED PERFORMANCE paradigm of learning and education, Outcomes are defined primarily as Demonstrations of Technical Skill, and OBE is seen as a vehicle for:

Developing tangible and practical abilities and competences.

To those who advocate the future-focused LIFE CHALLENGE paradigm of learning and education, Outcomes are defined primarily as Demonstrations of Complex Role Performances, and OBE is seen as a vehicle for:

Cultivating essential, versatile, life-role abilities.

To those who advocate the humanistic PERSONAL INTERESTS paradigm of learning and education, Outcomes are defined primarily as tangible Expressions of Individual Originality, and OBE is seen as a vehicle for:

Facilitating innate learner curiosity and imagination.

To those who advocate the empowering PERSONAL FULFILLMENT paradigm of learning and education, Outcomes are defined primarily as tangible Expressions of Committed Endeavor, and OBE is seen as a vehicle for:

Enhancing individual passions, talents, and potentials.

To those who advocate the holistic INNER REALIZATION paradigm of learning and education, Outcomes are defined primarily as inner states of Openness to Universal Connection, and OBE is seen as a vehicle for:

Advancing human awareness, harmony, and sustainability.

Yes, here are six different definitions and philosophies of OBE and their intended Outcomes; and within each of them you’ll find parallel definitions, purposes, and philosophies of learning, curriculum, instruction, learning opportunity, and all the rest.  Just take a closer look at the accompanying diagram, and you’ll see many of them.

Advancing humanity

Advancing human awareness, harmony, and sustainability.

Enhancing potentials

Enhancing individual passions, talents, and potentials.

Facilitating Imagination

Facilitating innate learner curiosity and imagination.

Developing competences

Developing tangible and practical abilities and competences.

Paradigm Shifts

On Paradigm Shifts within OBE

Just as educators across the world have a very ‘loose’ definition of OBE, so does the public at large in relation to Paradigms and Paradigm Shifts.  I hear presumably well-informed people using these two terms in disturbingly casual ways, as if they simply mean ‘changing your opinion of something’.

So I’ll stake out a stronger position here.  Following the impressive work of the futurist Joel Barker decades ago, I regard a paradigm as the way you view and do everything because, to you, the paradigm you live within represents your REALITY.  It’s your picture of what ultimately exists, what’s ultimately true, what’s ultimately right, and what’s ultimately possible.  And, as I say in one of my PowerPoint slides, people often defend the validity and legitimacy of their paradigm to levels of vigor and violence that the result is WAR and DEATH.  That’s why I don’t treat them casually at all.  So when I think of Paradigms and Paradigm Shifts, Barker’s famous saying always comes to mind:

When a paradigm shifts, everyone goes back to ZERO.

And while ZERO sounds frightening and feels dangerous, I like to add that it’s what philosophers call the ‘point of creation’ – when you are free to choose to view and do things in a fundamentally different way, unencumbered by previous beliefs, assumptions, behaviors, etc. that you now recognize are not the only choices available, no matter how habitual and ingrained they may be. So here’s my ‘ah-ha’ about this:

Every paradigm shift is a liberation and transformation, no matter from which paradigm you just shifted and to which you are evolving.  The old paradigm doesn’t cease to exist; you simply choose to view and use its defining elements in a different way, modifying and discarding as you go.

So to illustrate this fundamental point, here’s what this means in terms of the first few Paradigms in my accompanying teeter-totter diagram and their related OBE types.

From the closed-system perspective of the Academic Standards paradigm, CONTENT is king, and so is the way it’s defined and organized within disciplines and subjects.  I can assure you that until the mid-1980’s, the entire focus of this paradigm was on having students cognitively know and understand content and concepts at increasingly more complex levels over time.  When we introduced the notion of using action verbs to define an Outcome, the whole field panicked.  Having students do something tangible wasn’t within their paradigm – other than having them do assignments and ‘projects’ that were entirely about academic content.

So a Paradigm Shift ensued, and it TRANSFORMED educators’ views of what was possible and desirable.  Learning suddenly became two-dimensional:  Cognitive Processing plus tangible Skills, Competences, and Performances.  When that happened educators were compelled to consider all the kinds of skill and competence they weren’t teaching, and this further compelled them to assess whether all the content they had been teaching was really all that essential for students.  Consequently, both curriculum and teaching changed a lot.  The new Paradigm led to a reassessment and re-framing of the old.  Content and concepts didn’t disappear; they got redefined and prioritized differently.

Then a couple of years later we added the third dimension, CONTEXT – the future challenges and conditions students would be facing after they graduated.  Were all that content and all those ‘school skills’ really preparing them for those context demands? The answer was a resounding NO, and things TRANSFORMED again – another Paradigm Shift that fundamentally changed what was significant and relevant.  Now learning was suddenly seen in three-dimensional terms:  Context determined the Competences students needed, and those Competences, in turn, determined what Content was essential and significant.  Content and Competence didn’t disappear, they got redefined and re-framed.

Notice, however, that as these Shifts occurred the entire Paradigm of learning and education expanded and evolved. Transformation meant seeing a bigger, deeper picture of what was there all along, but somehow was never able to penetrate the walls that defined existing paradigms.

Today education is facing three other Paradigm Shifts and challenges represented on the right side of the teeter-totter diagram, all of them representing a TRANSFORMATION of awareness about what’s relevant and essential if learners are really going to be prepared for those anticipated Context Challenges.  This mega-shift to the right side of the teeter-totter places the learner as an innately gifted human being at the center of the education process, and that is a huge redefinition of education’s highly structured, system-driven focus.  What’s implied?  Shift after shift after shift, and transformation after transformation after transformation.

So where does that leave me in terms of my past thinking and verbiage about OBE?  Well, I do continue to believe that the Academic Standards paradigm is ‘Terminally Traditional’, no matter how much advanced technology you sprinkle over the top to facilitate it.  Second, I believe that this entire framework is Transitional.  As education transitions from Paradigm to Paradigm, each is simply a way station on the evolutionary path to Inner Realization.  Hence, the first five types of OBE are all Transitional.  Finally, every transitional step represents a Transformation in its own right.  Each means going back to ZERO and assessing the value and relevance of all that’s gone before.  So in that sense the five paradigms to the right are all experienced as Transformations when they happen.  So, may education keep on Transitioning and Transforming without end!

Dr. William Spady

May, 2016

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