Education paradigm: How you get there may not be where you are going


Higher education is often challenged by the competing interests of society and the individual student who wishes to attend. The reasons for attending a University are as varied as the student population. Of interest to students, parents, faculty, and administration are the misperceptions of what a University education has come to mean. Of interest to industry and government should be the fundamental changes funding and gerrymandering of education goals have created.

Ask any student why they went to college and the answers will be varied but honest answers will have a fairly unique theme. First the students will tell you that they wanted an education and after their fellow students get done harassing them they will answer truthfully. So some reasons?

1) Money. The path to career choice and a job in the future is straight through the diploma acquisition process. Students either want to insure they equal or exceed their parents earning income potential or escape from a life style they find difficult. In many ways this leads to a Ponzi scheme effect and expectation for education.

2) Expectation. Parents who have been saving for some amount of time to put their child through college push their children into an education. Sometimes dictating the education they receive and in what discipline. Further exacerbating this problem is the fact that a young adult entering an education program will have no internal drive to succeed. All goals have been set externally and there is a recipe for disaster.

3) Next. Students who have this view of education think that college is next after high school. They have never considered what might happen other than college, but they know the next step is college or University. Unfortunately when they arrive they find out that higher education is not programmed like high school and they flounder for some period of time looking for a path.

This may seem like dire criticism but it really is not. Where in the past the student might take a year or two off to make money for University they enter sometimes days after graduation from high school. In some cases students are taking college classes alongside their high school classes. With some students, and especially non-traditional or adult learners, they have a complete other set of goals. The goals though are pretty much centered around money.

The problem is that for discipline specific students are looking for training and not an education. They have a very applied goal towards a job or career field and they want whatever it takes to get that job. Not a bad goal but in an environment of screaming fast technological events much of what a student learns in four years is outdated by the end of their program. The more applied a program the less flexible that program almost as a rule. The more theoretical a program the more basics a student can learn and take out into the world and apply as knowledge. Training and education are not synonyms. Training is a vocational effort that allows for students get into a career with very specific expectations. Education is about the theory and application follows based on the principles rather than a technology. As an example I can train you to use a wrench, and a very good wrench user can likely make a new wrench, but a really good wrench designer can use the wrench AND make it better.

To put it more succinctly the difference between training and education is easy to understand. The explanation to me, though salacious, gives the best application I know of (apologies to those who are offended). To quote the originator:

Training and education are as different as night and day. Would you rather have your fifth grader exposed to sex training or sex education? – Anonymous by choice

As per national and many state standards there is a health module that explains sex as biology in the fifth or sixth grade. This concept of a difference between training and education cemented the difference for me. In a society where people are planning what colleges their child will attend while the child is in pre-school understanding the differences in education is important.

Education Paradigm

(Figure 1) Graphic of applied and theoretical relationships to students

There are applied and theoretical threads in education. The more applied an education the more like training it will be. It is not necessarily going to be training, but it will have that appearance. In figure 1 we see the two halves of education in the application and theoretical foundations. Student “A” is being exposed to very little applied education and a large amount of theoretical. This as only an example could be a student who is involved in astronomy. Application in the use of instruments, or how orbital mechanics affects satellites is important. Student “B” is split right down the middle and there are many different disciplines split along those factors. Student “C” is heavily applied in nature and minor amounts of theory. The disciplines of information technology, construction management, safety, and military sciences have heavy applied orientations. We will talk later about how we can get Student “C” by using Student “A” as a template later.

This concept of differing areas of education has created a set of issues because the Kuhn concept of paradigm shows up in the change between high school and University. The University system is usually set up as a broad set of silos of education. Each discipline, school, college, and department feeds these vertical professionalized and specialized environments. Science has different epistemological approaches but in general we rely on an amalgamation of refutations and statistical principles. Each discipline has their own method of applying these principles as codified by their procedural and community standards.

Higher, high school, elementary education differences

The high school student is used to a broad “well rounded” education that covers every semester the basics. The base of education is broad and stacked not as silos but as layers of a cake from the elementary education clear through the advanced high school topics. Students in many states are required to take very strict paths of curriculum if they plan on attending a University. Core disciplines or tracking students creates a set of issues within the high school and for students in later life. If the core classes for students bound for college are full or students are tracked to vocational plans then they will not be able to compete at the same level. There is little in the way of community over sight toward these types of policies and it may be a non-issue. The authors experience is that some students report they had to attend community college and then enter University because they were not allowed to take college preparatory science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) courses such as calculus in high school.

Education Paradigm

(Figure 2) Education silo effect

So as we see in figure 2 the student will transfer from an education system at the high school level that is very broad and brings in elements from many areas (not a complete list), and that education then for University is suddenly vertical. This vertical silo arrangement for the duration of their higher education will likely be physical, emotional, and educational. The student will go to different buildings for different disciplines. In rare cases people within the liberal arts may teach “inter-disciplinary” courses such as history and sociology, but it will not be taught by a chemist.

Interdisciplinary is an important part of the process as the segmentation along discipline lines has created a drag on the research focus of the University. If a University took interdisciplinary work seriously they would mix chemistry labs with literature lecture halls. Not a great method of saving money on space, but that brings up the possible topic that a University is supposed to be making money. The current silo effect creates political polarization and places disciplines in conflict with each other. More importantly it creates a situation where a high school student is expected to choose a degree path on day one of entering the University. The path can be so specific as to lock them into a plan of study early on that may not fit their needs.

So we have an expectation that the student who has never attended University, the parent who may have attended but likely not recently, are the individuals who are going to pick a path for the career and discipline to be studied for the rest of a persons life. Of course, retention has issues, and change of degree options are a problem. The high school student is exiting a broad based general education environment and entering a highly specialized discipline.

The training and education paradigm

The University system was instituted to serve society, provide a method to regulate education, insure that knowledge has a systematic method of archiving, and that credentials were standardized. It is not so long ago that there was one or two degrees in all of the University system. The Bachelor of Arts was awarded to future lawyers and writers, while the Bachelor of Science was awarded to the future doctors and chemists. The split between physics and chemistry is not quite that long ago either. With each discipline making claims on the other. Where we might consider the institution standardized in fact it is highly malleable. When you add into this equation the relatively new and now rapidly decreasing federal funding of research the orientation of the University has changed.

Industry really would like to see a trained work force that basically pays for all of its own training. Moving the apprentice master model of education into the University out sources the training to the education system and the future employee pays for it. The capitalist system has found a way to heavily subsidize industry heavily by moving the apprenticeship into the University. There are a variety of political theories that suggest the elite class of a society only wants to see education flourish that supports the current needs of industry. The worth of an individual being that which they bring to the table in skills that are saleable the individual has desires at odds with industry. Few Universities have alumni on their advisory groups unless those alumni also represent industry. Industry can be any of the private or public entities that employ or use students for their own needs. Even the University itself sometimes plays the part of industry towards their students.

Education Paradigm

(Figure 3) Training paradigm as apprentice through master relationship

The model that industry pushes is a training model or a paradigm of training where a student starts out as an apprentice and with little knowledge about the specific discipline. As wee see in figure 3 the knowledge of the individual grows over time. This model fits well into the discipline silo that the University has created. The student is within the University to advance through education to higher levels of knowledge. The definition of knowledge is information that is measured in facts, skills and abilities. The attainment of knowledge is very specific in the fact gathering and skills attainment portion of knowledge. This is very application oriented approach. The student within this paradigm is not expected to ever create knowledge.

The training paradigm has become a large part of what the University does but it has no bones in it for structured research. The research agenda is very much an iterative problem solving for current needs within the training paradigm and those disciplines that evoke it. I would suggest that disciplines that rely on the training paradigm will show a plethora of curriculum literature. There will be a substantial amount of criticism by academia over the reliance on such a simplistic model, but future research into the curriculum of disciplines within the training paradigm will likely show a preponderance of certifications and simply utilitarian knowledge. This is not a criticism of those disciplines as they fit quite neatly into the silo they have been allotted. The structure of the University and the gap of expectation, requirements, and realized knowledge is heavily under the critical eye of review.

Education Paradigm

(Figure 4) Education paradigm

The other paradigm is that which most disciplines and specializations would suggest they are engaging in. Where the training paradigm is about breadth, the other option, the education paradigm, is about depth. This fits nicely to the academic roles and degrees of the University. The general knowledge of the high school student feeds into the general knowledge category of the associate degree. The problem is that the base of the pyramid in figure 4 is only a little wider than the silo of the chosen discipline. As the next degree is achieved the depth of knowledge the student attains is ever more specific. The associate degree for computing is awarded, the bachelors degree for computer science is then awarded, then a masters degree in computer science systems engineering, and finally a doctorate in computer science systems engineering algorithm development regarding counting pennies. The depth of knowledge at the highest degree attainable is extremely specific in the depth of that topic. The matriculated doctoral student is an expert in a very specialized topic.

The education paradigm is also somewhat limited. The pinnacle of the education paradigm is theory. The creating of new knowledge through the process of research as a doctoral student as evidenced by the dissertation is end of academic achievement. The missing point that the University often struggles with is the application of that highly specialized theoretical knowledge. Industry rarely has need of that kind of knowledge until there is a perceived need. This is where much of the “what use is a PhD” argument comes from. Yet it is of national and strategic importance to create and innovate not simply make small movements forward through incremental improvement. Creativity is energy fed by the fuel of intellectual discourse and domain knowledge. The broader the domain knowledge of an individual the more likely that they can draw upon new and more effective tools to solve problems.

Synthesis paradigm

For the most effective educated work force that serves the needs of all stake holders including the student a new paradigm for education is needed. The paradigm should build upon the entirety of the general education that a student receives in high school. Because the volume of knowledge is so vast it should approach the application side of the equation first thereby producing a capable work force entrant at the community college level. The bachelor degree level should have some theory and each discipline may need more or less depending on their field. The bachelor degree though should create a journeyman practitioner or engineer capable managing and inclemently advancing the discipline. The spilt between theory and application for a masters degree should equate to near equality. The master degree suggests that a student has relative mastery of a topic or discipline. At this point the student should have a breadth of knowledge that is inclusive of the discipline. At the point the doctoral degree is awarded application has been overtaken by theory. This is not the end as there is even more theory to be worked with but the scope broadens.

Education Paradigm

(Figure 5) Synthesis paradigm

As we can see in figure 5 the final idealist view is of two pyramids attached with one pyramid being application and the second inverted pyramid being theory. This model allows for the base of the bottom pyramid to expand outside of a single discipline and produce a capable if limited worker for corporate needs. The inverted pyramid allows for and suggests that the discipline it is being applied towards is substantive enough to create a research environment. The synthesis paradigm is also very much an inter-disciplinary model of education.

The synthesis paradigm also reflects the growing cognitive capability that advances meta cognitive skills found almost exclusively in graduate education suggest. The model suggests a construction of curriculum and a series of expected outcomes from a curriculum. Though depicted as they are in figure 4 the relative altitude of the inverted point over the base of the bottom pyramid is a variable. The more interdisciplinary and balanced the education the lower the point will go. For a fully integrated theory and application curriculum they might be completely overlapping as seen in figure 6.

Education Paradigm

The full synthesis paradigm is where the training/education and application/theory components of the education environment have been fully realized. There is specificity in the fact that the application portion is the base and the theory portion is the roof. Not all students will have the ability to advance through the academic rigor to the highest degree achievable. This model though works extremely well with the current silo and specificity of degrees found in the higher education system currently. If you overlay the full synthesis paradigm over the silos of education found figure 2 you end up with a graphical representation similar to figure 7. Figure 7 shows how a specific discipline stays consistently the focus (science in this graphic) and that other disciplines are represented as having differing levels of applicability or theoretical nature depending on the arrangement of the silos.

Education Paradigm

(Figure 7) Cohesive fully integrated academic model

The final model represented in figure 7 is cohesive and integrated from high school all the way through a doctoral degree. Though I am sure it will be relatively massacred by the academia I believe the model can stand the test of time. Though only a relative representation of curriculum it should allow those stakeholders to have a fairly good understanding of the mechanisms they can gain. Previous models have professed training or education over the other, or they have looked at knowledge, skills and abilities within a particular discipline. This document and the associated pictures are from a lecture that I give to my incoming freshman and juniors (junior college transfers) for my thoughts of how curriculum should be built and to explain to parents of my students what to expect.


This brings us back to the original question of why people go to University in the first place. In general it is to get a diploma so they can go make money. They are at first interested in training and subsidizing the corporate world as willing shills to take their place as workers in industry. I don’t do that with my students. I am all about the concepts found in this model. Training at first so that the student has the professional skills necessary to get a job early, and building from primarily application with some theory to highly theoretical with some application. At the under graduate level the students will draw upon the knowledge, skills and abilities that they gained in high school. What ever the discipline it is imperative that the student have as broad a knowledge set as possible so that at later stages they can draw upon it in the theoretical area and build upon it there.

Rise of the meta-scholar

Where issues arise is between disconnects in expectation from high school to University. A consistent criticism by the University professor is that a student cannot write, read, or is wholly ungifted in a specific discipline. Looking at the general education nature of high school and the specificity of the University that criticism is not unique. It should be consistent from what discipline to another, but it is likely that another discipline would say the same thing about a graduate from another discipline. Domain and inherently specificity of knowledge are not attainable across domains unless they are specifically sought out. This is why we see so many life long learners and inherently a variety of degrees and postgraduate work among faculty. It is a method by the scholars to broaden their own horizons. Usually a meta-scholar will look at the system and through their own inquisitive nature read outside their discipline.

The first purpose of this document was to put down a lot of things that I fundamentally understood or were the lessons I learned the hard way. To the student you should take away from this process the knowledge of pitfalls and opportunities in how higher education works. To the parent of a student you should take away the knowledge that there are fundamental systemic issues you may need to help your student with while in University. To the industry member looking at how students impact your business you should be aware of the cost and time you owe every graduate before they begin working for you. To the faculty member and peer reviewer this represents my opinions and your take away should be the consideration of a meta-scholar and how you would represent change in the curriculum.

There are no footnotes or citations, early adaptations of this document were sent to journals and rejected instantly, it is based completely on my experience and lectures to my students. The work is wholly my own though heavily influenced by a substantive reading list starting with Dewey and continuing through today. I cannot claim credit on anything other than the synthesis of these words and the graphical representations. I created the term meta-scholar as a representation of scholarship about scholarship. This work was created as a corollary to other work on the theme of scholarship of teaching and learning and the pending renaissance of scholarship. In other words this is part of a larger work on a meta-renaissance (which is likely only funny to a few people).

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