Paradigm Project

Bringing Theory to Practice works to renew and transform higher education, to support a national community of educational changemakers, and to shift public discussion about the future of higher ed. That work is now centered on the Paradigm Project.

The Paradigm Project

The Paradigm Project is a multiyear initiative launched in 2022 to develop new models of holistic, inclusive, engaged education, support institutional change-makers, and catalyze systemic change—beyond piecemeal innovation—across higher education.  It’s based on three related ideas:

  • first, that holistic, transformative learning requires transformative change in academic institutions
  • second, that such change depends on integrative, campus-wide collaboration by faculty, staff, and administrative leaders
  • and finally that networked collaboration and collective movement building across higher education hold the key to creating and sustaining the conditions for big change.

What We Are Doing

The Paradigm Project is designed to put these goals into action.  Key activities include:

  • our Emerging Models community of practice, which comprises partnerships with innovate institutions and consortia to develop new models of holistic change in such areas as curricular redesign, civic engagement, and support for low-income and first-generation students.
  • our institutional changemakers network, which brings together leaders and innovators working for transformative institutional change on campuses across the country.
  • our narrative change work, which advances a vision of the future of higher education that can unite the goals completion and economic mobility with attention to the personal, social, and civic purposes of education.

Why Is the Paradigm Project Needed Now?

As older model of the college experience – one in which full-time students entered college after high school, studied with tenure-stream faculty, and graduated four years later—no longer reflects the reality of higher education or the goals and aspirations of its students. Its curriculum is too often disconnected from students’ lives and needs; its pedagogy is too often stale and exclusionary. The social compact based on that conventional model, the belief that college could underwrite the democratizing of the American Dream, has withered in the face of mounting student debt, students leaving college without degrees, and class and racial disparities in student success. These failures have simmered for decades, but the Great Recession and the pandemic brought them to a boil.

Big change is inevitable—indeed it is already happening—but its outcome is not determined. The crises that higher ed faces may well catalyze positive solutions. But they can just as easily reinforce the downward trends of inequality, disinvestment, and fragmented, short-term training. There is no returning to the old paradigm, but the future remains up for grabs.

From Innovation to Transformation

Yet even now—especially now—higher ed possesses a deep reservoir of creativity and resilience. The period of crisis has also be one of remarkable innovation:

  • growing (if still incomplete) support for students of color, low-income and first-generation students, and adult, working (and parenting) students, who together make up the new majority of college-goers
  • growing (if still incomplete) understanding of well-being and self-authoring as core goals of the college experience
  • new pedagogies focused on active, integrative, inclusive learning
  • new interdisciplinary fields that enrich our understanding of human identities, social relations, and the physical world
  • the growth of ‘high-impact practices,’ both curricular and co-curricular, that are shown
    to deepen student engagement
  • a robust national movement for community and civic engagement
  • the emergence of competency-based and digital platforms for learning
  • effective strategies for improving completion and student academic success.

The storms of academic crisis coincided with a ferment of creative change, driven by faculty, staff, students, and administrators working across (and often against) the silos of the old regime. This confounds the stereotype of an inert academy mired in the past. The problem is not that higher ed refuses to innovate; it is that the innovations remain disconnected and piecemeal, boxed within the silos of the old regime. As students navigate that regime, many of them—maybe even most of them—find opportunities for transformative experiences: a career-changing internship, an inspiring mentor, a great research capstone, a student-led creative project or activist campaign. But these do not constitute holistic change. They stand out because they are peak experiences, not touchstones for the undergraduate journey. And access to such peak experiences is unequally available to different students from different backgrounds in different institutions.

In other words, the crises are systemic, but the innovations are piecemeal. The Paradigm Project seeks to alter that: to build a movement of changemakers who can imagine and realize new models of the college experience, holistic and transformative, greater than the sum of its parts. The current inflection-point of crisis and opportunity makes such change urgent—and makes it possible.

To learn more about the vision and strategy of the Paradigm Project in BT2P Director David Scobey’s article “The Paradigm Project: A Call for Radical Renewal of Higher Education” in the March/April 2023 issue of Change.

To take part in the work of the project, reach out to us at [email protected].  We need you.