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.


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.

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2020). “Paradigm Shifts” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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