The 30-Second Encyclopedia of Learning and Performance: A Trainers Guide to Theory, Terminology, and Practice - page 68


Paradigm: a constellation of concepts, values, perceptions and practices shared by a community, which forms their vision of reality.

—Thomas Kuhn, 1962

A paradigm is a mindset or "mental model" (from the Greek). In ages past, in the world of philosphy, it has also been referred to as a world view or belief system or "spirit of the time"; in psychology it has been called an episteme (way of knowing) by the epistemologists and a schema by the phenomenologists.

Whatever version we invoke, a paradigm is generally a belief held by a group or organization. The belief is seldom stated explicitly and it is generally unquestioned. An example of a paradigm is the "training" paradigm, whose assumption is: "I am a trainer and whatever you bring to me to fix (like the proverbial man with the hammer), I will fix it by delivering a course to you. That is my job." A paradigm "shift," on the other hand, designates a fundamental change in perspective. For instance, if the paradigm shifts to a "performance" oriented perspective, you would say: "I am a performance consultant and will be happy to diagnose what's wrong; if it's a training problem our training department will be able to help you out; otherwise, if it's a compensation, motivation, managerial, or process problem, I will direct you to the right resource." The mental paradigm shift has caused you to change your stance from a focus on training activity to business results.

The concept of the paradigm shift was introduced and promoted by Thomas Kuhn (1922–1996) in his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The shift referred to here is the mind set that accompanies each major breakthrough epoch in science, as in the shift during the 1600s from Aristotle's static paradigm of descriptive science to Galileo's and Newton's dynamic view of a quantitative science. A later shift would occur around 1900 when Newton's own paradigm would be replaced by Einstein's paradigm of relativity.

Paradigms in Learning and Performance

The concept of the paradigm was first applied to the learning and performance arena in the early 1990s by Richard Pascale and several other key management theorists. Until we break our old mindsets, Pascale writes, new models of change, learning, and performance are not possible. Moreover, only when we see old problems in a new light does the real problem show up—and only then are we able to address it. Otherwise we're simply going about fixing old problems (like the trainer delivering training classes when training is not the answer). As Pascale sums up, we need to constantly "disturb equilibrium" in our organizations if we are to maintain the creative ability to bring appropriate solutions and change.



Kurt Lewin: "The Conflict Between Aristotelian and Galileian Modes of Thought in Contemporary Psychology," Journal of Genetic Psychology 5 (1931): 141–177. Stresses that modern psychology should make the paradigm shift from thinking in static Aristotelian terms to the dynamic terms of Galileo. Extremely influential paper in psychology.


Thomas Kuhn: The Copernican Revolution. On the paradigm shift from an earth-centered view of the universe to a sun-centered one.


Fred E. Emery: The Emergence of a New Paradigm of Work.


Thomas Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.


Joel Barker: Discovering the Future: The Business of Paradigms.


Richard Pascale: Managing on the Edge: How the Smartest Companies Use Conflict to Stay Ahead. Lucid and compelling on mindsets and mental maps as the hidden drivers in the world of learning and performance. Includes case studies. See in particular the chapter on "Disturbing Equilibrium."


Joel Barker: Future Edge: Discovering the New Paradigms of Success.