Paradigm Shifts


Rapid and broad shifts in collective sensibility

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … all coherent paradigms
  • Knowing is … applying a coherent interpretive frame
  • Learner is … cultural system of assumptions and propositions
  • Learning is … evolving; shifting
  • Teaching is … N/A




By definition, a “paradigm” is a model, illustration, or typical example of something. In the context of discussions of cultural knowledge, the word has come to refer more broadly to internally consistent clusters of concepts, assumptions, and activities. The theory of Paradigm Shifts asserts that the major dynamic in cultural knowledge is not gradual growth, but successive transitions from one paradigm to another – in manners that are often experienced as revolutionary. A commonly cited illustration is the shift from the earth-centered Ptolemiac universe to the sun-centered Copernican universe. Kuhn proposed three paradigms for science:
  • Normal Science (Thomas Kuhn, 1960s) – the version of science that operates on assumptions of widespread, general agreement on the nature of scientific methods, evidence, and interpretations. Physis and chemistry are typically identified as paradigmatic examples. Proposed prior stages to Normal Science include:
    • Immature Science (Thomas Kuhn, 1960s) –  a stage of scientific inquiry characterized by a commitment to finding facts, but lacking the robust methods, theoretical consistency, and broad-based evidence to realize that commitment. Many have suggested that educational research falls into this category.
    • Preparadigmatic Science (Thomas Kuhn, 1960s) – a stage in the development of a science in which there is an awareness of the standards of Normal Science, but not yet means to achieve those standards in relation to the phenomena of interest. Many have suggested that Psychology falls into this category.
With regard to schooling, the phrase Paradigm Shifts has been applied to some broad evolutions (“turns”) in cultural sensibility that have influenced beliefs and practices of formal education. While not entirely consistent with Kuhn's definition, these turns have included:
  • Epistemological Turn (~1500s–1700s) – the historical shift from the cultural prioritizing of Gnosis to the prioritizing of Episteme (see Epistemology), which is marked by such co-entwined events as the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and the emergence of the modern school (see Standardized Education)
  • Interpretive Turn (mid-1800s) – an historical shift in western academic perspectives on the nature of reality, away from assumptions of a static universe that strictly obeys Newtonian mechanics to a conception of reality as emergent (see Complex Systems Research) and constantly evolving (see Universal Darwinism). Phrased differently, the Interpretive Turn could be framed as the problematization of Correspondence Discourses of reality and the embrace of Coherence Discourses. Educationally, the Interpretive Turn is aligned with the emergence of Authentic Education.
Constructs and discourses associated with the notion of Paradigm Shifts include:
  • Belief Perseverance (Conceptual Conservatism) – the maintenance of a belief, despite empirical evidence and/or rational arguments to the contrary
  • Culture Complex – a distinctive and interrelated cluster of cultural activities and convictions that cohere around a common trait or a clearly discernible and characterizable core or paradigm
  • Epistemological Obstacle (Gaston Bachelard, 1930s) – originally coined to describe major assumptions or assertions that both define particular interpretive systems and thwart thinking outside those systems (hence the need for shifts in paradigms). In education, the notion has been taken up to refer to a “scaled-down” notion that operates at the individual level, by which one is unable to perceive/conceive ideas because another idea is holding sway.
  • Framing Theory – the suggestion that one’s attitude toward and actions around an issue arise in the manner in which that issue is "framed":
    • Frame – a coherent and resilient system of ideas, typically operating in relation to a specific issue. The word Frame is often used more broadly as a synonym for Paradigm.
    • Metaphorical Framing (George Lakoff, 2000s) – a reference to the manner in which one’s interpretations of a phenomenon (and actions based on those interpretations) are oriented and channeled – and can be manipulated – by the metaphors used to describe that phenomenon
  • Learning Paradigm – (1) a perspective on learning that is sufficiently popular for some to regard it as foundational. In our analyses, the perspectives that are most often identified as Learning Paradigms are Behaviorisms, Cognitivism, Non-Trivial Constructivisms, and Socio-Cultural Theory … but different commentators vary dramatically on the matter. (2) within formal education, a shift from teacher-centered emphases to learner-centered emphases – that is, from an “Instruction Paradigm” to a Learning Paradigm.
  • Paradigm Clash (Thomas Kuhn, 1960s) – the tensions and conflicts that arise when an emergent paradigm (i.e., coherent set of assumptions about the universe) is recognized to be incompatible with an established one
  • Zeitgeist (Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, late-1700s) – meaning “spirit of the age,” a reference to the enacted convictions and unstated assumptions that shape the perceptions, interpretations, and  activities of that are defining of a community and/or an era. A Zeitgeist perspective on history stresses cultural mindsets as well as situational factors, and is offered as a critique and alternative to the popular-but-problematic Great Man Theory:
    • Great Man Theory (of History) – a widely rejected, causal view of history, by which major events are seen to have been driven by a small number of exceptional individuals – almost all of them males
(Note: The five paradigms at the bottom of our map are intended to exemplify Paradigm Shifts while illustrating that, in contrast to the tendency for one paradigm to supplant another in science, there is a tendency for them to accumulate within education.)


While rarely explicitly noted, Thomas Kuhn’s notion of Paradigm Shifts bears some striking resemblances to Jean Piaget’s Genetic Epistemology. Kuhn identified two processes of cultural knowledge evolution – namely, “normal science” (steady production of new insights fitted to a prevailing model of reality) and “revolution” (a sudden and drastic shift to a new model) – which map onto Piaget’s two processes of individual meaning making – namely, “assimilation” (steady elaboration of established understandings, prompted by ongoing experience) and “accommodation” (sudden and dramatic reconceptualizations). In effect, then, Paradigm Shifts can be construed as a theory of cultural learning.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Thomas Kuhn; Imre Lakatos

Status as a Theory of Learning

If culture is understood as a learner, then Paradigm Shifts is a theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Paradigm Shifts is not a theory of teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Kuhn’s theory of Paradigm Shifts was met with extensive criticism when first published, but it has since ben broadly embraced while being extended from its focus on the sciences to other domains of knowledge, including the arts and humanities. It meets our criteria of scientific theories.


  • Belief Perseverance (Conceptual Conservatism)
  • Culture Complex
  • Epistemological Obstacle
  • Epistemological Turn
  • Frame
  • Framing Theory
  • Great Man Theory (of History)
  • Immature Science
  • Interpretive Turn
  • Learning Paradigm
  • Metaphorical Framing
  • Normal Science
  • Paradigm Clash
  • Preparadigmatic Science
  • Zeitgeist

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Paradigm Shifts” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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