Kuhnian Paradigms

When authors, presenters, leaders, and others describing “paradigm-changing” practices and ideas, make sure to ask if they are talking about a Kuhnian paradigm. Here is my take on the four characteristics of paradigms:

According to Kuhn (1970), paradigms are comprised of four components, and a paradigm shift requires new understanding be recognized and implemented within each. Those advocates for “paradigm-shifting methods” who make me shudder are recommending different practices which represent only one component of a paradigm. They appear oblivious to the other components of paradigms and fail to realize that the exemplary practices in a paradigm emerge from and are embedded within the paradigm; one does not shift paradigms by imposing or adopting new practices.

Kuhn called the first component of a paradigm the symbolic generalizations and these include the natural laws that are the foundation of the science. Kuhn’s examples from physics included Ohm’s Law which describes the flow of electricity through circuits. Because education is a social endeavor as opposed to a natural science, it is more difficult to recognize the symbolic generalizations in education than in physics, however. Education has been built on the assumption that educators know how to transmit curriculum into students’ brains, and embedded in this are symbolic generalizations about how brains work to construct and apply knowledge. The learning sciences and cognitive sciences are elucidating the natural laws and symbolic generalizations relevant to this component of the Kuhnian paradigm for education, and these are much different than the symbolic generalizations that informed previous generations of educators.

The second component of a Kuhnian paradigm is the metaphysical paradigms which “supply the group with preferred or permissible analogies and metaphors” (Kuhn 1970, 185). In the 20th century, the idea that the world is filled with well-defined information and skills representing necessary human knowledge that can be stored in and applied by human minds is a metaphysical paradigm that has been applied to education. This “mind is a container” metaphysical paradigm is being challenged by evidence that human knowledge is a social construction. Another metaphysical paradigm that has influenced K-12 schools is that technology is a neutral aspect of information and of culture; we will see how that is being challenged as well.

Values are the third component of paradigms and include the broadest ideas that connect the group. In science, values include valid and reliable data and open sharing of data. In education, an example of a value is the assumption that the purpose of schools is to ensure students become educated so they can fully participate in the economic, political, and cultural life of the society. Another is that adults understand and have a role in preparing young people to participate in society.

The final component of a paradigm includes the exemplary practices that those who are entering the field are expected to master. In science, Kuhn suggested, these are identified in textbooks through the problems students are expected to solve. As part of educators’ professional preparation (and his or her on-going professional development), they are introduced to and expected to gain experience using various teaching and evaluation methods. A sign of the need for a paradigm shift is the series disparate and mutually exclusive practices that have been promoted to educators; political and social leaders perceive 20th century education as insufficient to meet the needs of 21st century society, but they are unsure of the necessary curriculum and instruction, so they advocate for practice after practice in search of the elusive exemplary practice. Once the paradigm shift in education is complete, it will become clear what learners should experience and how teachers should design classrooms.


Kuhn, Thomas. 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. enlarged. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.