Learning Theories/Post-Modern Theories

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Overview[edit]

Postmodernism, by the nature of the movement itself, is not easy to define. To understand postmodernism in the context of adult learning, it may be beneficial to first understand that the postmodern movement is much larger than adult learning. It is inclusive of a wide variety of disciplines and areas of study including art, architecture, music, film, literature, sociology, communications, fashion, technology, and education (Klages, 2003). Because postmodernism is as much a philosophical movement as it is a learning theory, it is impossible to discuss the movement without also discussing the underlying philosophy and ubiquity of the postmodern movement.

Post-modernism differs from most approaches to learning in two fundamental ways. The first is that rationality and logic are not important to attaining knowledge. The second is that knowledge can be contradictory. Because of the contextual nature of knowledge, individuals can hold two completely incongruent views of one subject at the same time (Kilgore, 2001).

Post-modernism relates to post-industrialism. The industrial era came about as a result of Newtonian thinking – an era wherein thought and processes were considered in mechanistic terms of efficiency and effectiveness and understood scientifically through the processes of reductionism (the simplification of the complex into understandable, and at times oversimplistic terms). The learning gleaned from the industrial (modern) era laid a foundation for the world to add new knowledge through a new era - what is now termed as the “post-modern” era. Presently, several post-modern theories exist, but at the core of each of these theories is the basic concept that what was once only understood within the context of reductionism is now beginning to be understood within the context of interrelatedness - an understanding that “things are much more diverse, fluid, illusionary, and contested, including the reality of the world itself” (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999, p. 356) than originally thought.

Though truth is central to postmodern thinking, it is not the search for truth that is valued. In contrast, the postmodern mind challenges what is accepted truth. According to Astley (1985) and Gergen (1992), as cited in Dierkes et. al. (2003), postmodernists challenge "the conventional wisdom, routines, static meanings, and axioms of 'normal' science, thereby exposing knowledge to non-dogmatic forms of thought" (p. 44). One can see how this philosophy has become embraced in academia and one could argue that it is the primary modus operandi in many institutions of higher learning, especially in philosophy and the humanities.

The postmodern approach to learning is founded upon the assertion that there is not one kind of learner, not one particular goal for learning, not one way in which learning takes place, nor one particular environment where learning occurs (Kilgore, 2001).

Kilgore (2001) makes several assertions about the postmodern view of knowledge:

  1. Knowledge is tentative, fragmented, multifaceted and not necessarily rational.
  2. Knowledge is socially constructed and takes form in the eyes of the knower.
  3. Knowledge is contextual rather than “out there” waiting to be discovered.

Hence, knowledge can shift as quickly as the context shifts, the perspective of the knower shifts, or as events overtake us.

The label of postmodernism defines a shift in culture that occurs over time. This can be understood best through defining causality, an understanding of cultural shifts, and collecting the basic overall concept of postmodernism.

Defining causality (What causes shifts)[edit]

Ultimately, shifts occur through modes of communication. The largest shift in the past century is the development of a global community through the use of internet. Past shifts in society have also connected to modes of communication. Technology shifts like Guttenberg and his creation of the printing press gave the power of books into the hands of the common people. This empowerment of information started a shift in society that affected the world.

Cultural shifts (How it occurs)[edit]

Cultural shifts happen in waves. Postmodernism as a cultural shift began its shift as early as the 1930s and 1940s in conversations about postmodernism and architecture. Over time the concepts and ideas that are on the fringe of society will affect conversations, artistic pieces, and eventually become pervasive on a large enough scale to affect the whole of a society.

The current debate (The basic definitions of PoMo)[edit]

In postmodernism everything is relative and is deconstructive. The division of the term "postmodernism" breaks down into two major parts, post and modernism. Post is built philosophically on thoughts from multiple arenas, and varied sources, who use deconstructionism as a modus-operandi. The idea of postmodernism is not to know what you are not, but to not really know what you are. What postmodernism is not is modernism. It is an after effect of the modernistic era that capitalized on individuality, built on absolutes, and the scientific method as its structure. Postmodernism in its current form is still developing and is not completed. Leonard Sweet and other futurists say this wave will be complete somewhere in the range of 2020, shifting the society from modernism into what it will become. All that may be understood at this stage is what the society on the fringes is saying we are not, which is modernism.

Deconstruction is a powerful postmodern tool for questioning prevailing representations of learners and learning. According to Kilgore (2001), the purpose of deconstruction is to identify and discredit the false binaries that structure a communication or “discourse”; that is, to challenge the assertions of what is to be included or excluded as normal, right, or good. In postmodernism there are no universal norms or “truth” on which to judge the validity of any message of knowledge; rather the postmodernist works toward a continuous construction of truth as multiple alternatives are included in the body of known information.

Sometimes it is easier to understand what a concept is by comparing it with what it is not. For example, according to Boje & Prieto (2000), when comparing modern to postmodern principles in the area of leading, Theory X or Y is modern while servant leadership is postmodern. Centralized leading is to modern as decentralized, wide spans, and few layers is to postmodern. Modernism is boss centered while postmodern is people centered. White male career track reflects modernism and tracks for women and minorities looks like postmodernism. Comparison of the theories indicates that servant leadership can indeed be considered a postmodern theory.

Merriam and Caffarella (1999) contend that "The self in post modern thought is not the unified, integrated, authentic self of modern times. Rather, the self is multiple, ever changing, and some say fragmented" (p. 357). Postmodern thinking has moved individuals to consider a new reference for self-identification. A life that was once in order based on societal norms is now in a state of constant flux as societal norms have shifted dramatically in recent decades. The "Leave it to Beaver" lifestyle is a faded memory. This causes educational institutions and adult learners to shift education and teaching toward a more non-traditional forms.

Postmodernism accepts a worldview that what is real is what one observes, believes, or experiences. For example, anthropologists see that … “the relation between part and whole has been made problematic”… because “the conception of the whole is a construct of the observer … (Smith, n.d.). Hence, what is real is what one observes occurring around them and gives definition and reality to a situation.

Postmodernism calls into question many of the assumptions once accepted by modernists. “From the postmodern point-of-view, modernism is defined by its belief in objective knowledge” (Lemke, n.d.). “Postmodernism … argues that what we call knowledge is a special kind of story, a text or discourse that puts together words and images in ways that seem pleasing or useful to a particular culture. … It denies that we can have objective knowledge, because what we call knowledge has to be made with the linguistic and other meaning-making resources of a particular culture, and different cultures can see the world in very different ways, all of which "work" in their own terms. It argues that the belief that one particular culture's view of the world is also universally "true" was a politically convenient assumption for Europe's imperial ambitions of the past, but has no firm intellectual basis” (Lemke).

So what about the age-old questions about truth and knowledge? Postmodernists might say, "Truth is what people agree on," or "Truth is what works," or "Hey, there is no Truth, only lots of little 'truths' running around out there!" Postmodernists tend to reject the idealized view of Truth inherited from the ancients and replace it with a dynamic, changing truth bounded by time, space, and perspective. Rather than seeking for the unchanging ideal, postmodernists tend to celebrate the dynamic diversity of life (Wilson 1997).

One can see that even once firm historical events, verified through empirical verification, are no longer viewed as an objective truth, but became the object of one’s understanding of the historical perspective out of their interpretation and story. Lemke quotes Foucault who “said, in effect, that it was chimerical to imagine that historians could reconstruct a real past; historical discourse is a discourse of the present, serving present ends, making sense for us today out of the archeological traces of past human activity”.

One of the significant difficulties organizations and individual relationships encounter is communication breakdowns when widely varied world views exist in the same discussion or dialogue. Lemke suggests that: “The phenomenological perspective does not need to be limited to conceptualizing how the world looks different to men and women; it can be used to examine how it looks different to the young and the middle-aged, to the novice and the expert, the student and the teacher, the ghetto child and the comfortable academic. We each construct our own lifeworlds, and even when we are in the same room, trying to talk to one another, we may still be worlds apart”. Kilgore (2001) points to the difficulties in communication that often misrepresent a message. The communication process is so convoluted that a message can be distorted in many ways. The construction of the message in the language used can be misinterpreted and misapplied by the learner. The cultural context of the communication can cause a lack of clarity or bias. The recipients of the knowledge are affected by other messages and experiences that result in many interpretations of the same information.

Postmodernism, in the context of an adult learning theory, invites contention in the attempt to discover the truth. Once considered a passing fad, postmodernism earned a strong following because of its motivation to draw upon multiple theories. In higher education, postmodernism encourages its followers to question every facet of the institution's structure and learning methods.

Case studies & workplace examples[edit]

The postmodern approach to learning offers the freedom from absolutes. There is no one good way to learn. In fact, there is not one good thing to learn. Learning takes place in the experience between the learner and the knowledge presented. Our current experience with all the do-it-yourself and information presenting, learning-based television shows illustrates this point. So many of us find ourselves watching a television show that informs us of a process or experience in which we will never participate or apply that knowledge. We will never overhaul a car, build a fountain in our backyard, travel to Peru to examine ancient ruins, or remodel our neighbour's house. The experience of interacting with the knowledge brings satisfaction in and of itself. What each of the viewers takes from the same show is inconsequential to most of the producers, the importance lies in interacting with and enjoying the content.


Constructivist Theories · Adult Learning Theories

Constructivist Theories · Learning Theories · Adult Learning Theories
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Theories : Behavioralist · Constructivist · Post-Modern · Adult Learning
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