Postmodernism and the Challenges Facing 21st Century Educators

Much of what has been written relative to postmodernism is a critique of modernism (Baumgartner, et al., 2003, p. 38). Because of this critical perspective, postmodernism does not lend itself to full development as a comprehensive philosophy of education. Postmodernism is critiqued as deconstructing the ideals of modernism rather than with laying down principles concerning the development of knowledge and its relationship to higher education.

Hierarchies and Postmodernism

One of the criticisms that postmodernists direct at modernisim is its reliance on the development and maintenance of hierarchies. (Bloland, 1995, pp 526-530) Presidents are higher than deans, deans higher than chairs, chairs higher than instructing faculty, instructors higher than students. This is the manner of things in higher education — and, for that matter, in most modern organizations. Hierarchies also exist in the relationship of higher education disciplines to each other (sciences being higher than arts, and arts being higher than professions), credentials (doctoral degree over masters degree over baccalaureate degree over associate degree) and institutions (university over university-college over community college).

These hierarchies set up definitions about whom or what qualifies as being “in” or “out” or as “top” or “bottom.” The minority student or minority institution is certainly not at the top of the list. (Bergquist, 1995) Making space in a hierarchy is making room for someone to be superior and someone to be inferior. Hierarchical institutions are valuable if we believe that what the hierarchy perpetuates is more important to the well being of society than what individuals might want. We might not have the ability to recognize what is important to the well being of the greater society, this argument goes, but the hierarchy keeps the society’s needs in balance.

Hierarchy might not be such a good thing if those who lead us are unaware of the interweaving of hierarchy, power and knowledge. (Broom and Klein, 1999) Who is allowed to ask questions? Who is allowed to generate and disseminate knowledge? Knowledge creation is political. Who in higher education presently asks the questions that promote the generation of new knowledge? It is not the students. It is the professors and the granting bodies who are interested in the creation of questions. Who has defined that we study disciplines as they are presently arranged? Who has equated learning with the granting of the credit?

Like the villagers in The Saber-Tooth Curriculum (see below) we plunge generation after generation headlong into the past to find the roots of the curriculum upon which our search for knowledge is raised. We perpetuate the higher education approach we already have taken, because that view has already been fashioned. This view is robust in that it can accommodate reorganization. It can be replicated as a university or as a college, for all collegiate institutions are bound by their organizational DNA to move toward being a large, modern, hierarchical institution. According to the postmodernists, higher education organizations must find an alternate root from which to grow the postmodern organization or at least a branch or two that can be grafted onto the old oak.

There is another side to this same coin. If the academy and its work are given over to the vagaries of individual choice, chaos will prevail. So a paradox remains: How to balance the aims of the status quo (hierarchical organizational model) with the emerging needs of the digital-aged postmodern student who may want transformation (and transformation of the organization itself) at every turn? The issue at hand concerns voice and narrative. Lyotard (1984) identifies and criticizes our reliance on a modern meta-narrative and prompts us to examine this narrative. Although this narrative gives our lives direction and structure, it also traps us to a way of thinking. (Bloland, 1995, pp. 533-536) The modern meta-narrative keeps us in a performance-oriented mode.

Modernism is based on science and the scientific method. Ironically, as a science becomes more and more managed, it becomes less scientific and more technological. However, postmodernists suggest that science (and management) is just another meta-narrative and should have no more of a priority than any other meta-narrative. Postmodernists can create new meta-narratives – often they create narratives that are pastiches of the old and the new. We see premodern, modern and postmodern occurring simultaneously and harmoniously together – in architecture, in business, in culture and yes, in the academy. (Bergquist, 1993)

Lyotard and many other postmodernists proclaim that the grand narrative of modernism is failing to accommodate new conceptions of how the 21st Century world is constructed, how it operates and how we operate within it. The modern grand narrative, that claims there is objectivity, universality and truth is being undercut by the connections we can make between others in the world, by the fleeting facts that come and go, and by the various ways of seeing the world of which we were unaware even moments before. How do we respond to both sides of this coin? How do we maintain the aims, the benefits, the stability and the once-removed authority of the status quo, while allowing for emerging postmodern needs?

A specific satire, called The Saber-Tooth Curriculum by J. Abner Peddiwell (a.k.a. Harold Benjamin, 1939), influenced one of us during undergraduate years. A village was under attack by saber tooth tigers and the older warriors taught the younger ones how to hunt the tigers. When the tigers became extinct, the curriculum continued. It became elaborated, but was based on the old world view. (‘Saber tooth tigers will be the basis of our curriculum.”) New forces arose that challenged the village in ways that the villagers had not addressed in their learning. As a result, the village died. The curriculum failed to inform the learners about the new realities. It was a solution to a problem that no longer exists.

Meta-Curriculum as Map-Making Rather than Map-Reading

Important learning, says Stan Lester (1996), is not extrinsic to the learner; it is intrinsic and develops capacities for a sustainable society and for individual needs: “In the kind of learning society is to develop which is adequate to 21st century contexts, learning will need to be accepted as natural and endemic rather than as something which occurs as a result of discrete learning events or through following a curriculum.” (Lester,1996, Online, p.7) Lester (1996) proposed two paradigms for learning. Model A learning is the modern, industrial way of piecing together chunks of information about the world. Hopefully, the learner will be able to chain these chunks together for an understanding of the greater picture. Model B learning is intended for the post-industrial era — it requires a meta-curriculum “which is concerned with this creative, critical activity of mapmaking rather than with the content of any specific map.” (Lester, 1996, p. 8)

Whereas Model A learning is specific and technical, Model B learning is holistic and creative. Model A relies on the assumption that learners are citizens who will refer to existing standards to build on the existing knowledge base (primarily engaging deductive and analytic reasoning). Model B, on the other hand, sees learners as unique individuals who judge not by existing standards, but by fitness for purpose (how does this fit or suit this situation) using inductive and abductive reasoning (intelligent intuition). Using Model A, learners are being trained to solve problems using logic and proof. With Model B, learners are being educated in understanding problematic situations, and in framing desired outcomes using values, ethics, systemic interrelationships, theory, and a faith claim that any curriculum has an underlying learning by-product. The Model B meta-curriculum is (Lester, 1996, p. 8):
“. . . concerned with fundamental processes such as enquiring, reflecting, evaluating, and creating, enabling the individual to continuously develop abilities which enable content-learning appropriate to purpose and context. It is also reflexive as the self-managed, self-evaluated learning processes are capable of being applied to themselves to generate an upward spiral of metalearning, as well as facilitating development of situational knowledge and ability.”

If there is such a thing as postmodernism, how (if at all) does it affect education? How might education incorporate postmodern ways into the methods that are now deployed in education? Furthermore, if postmodernism is developing in our society, and the youth of today will be carrying this perspective forward with them into their adulthood, what might they demand from the educational system relative to their postmodern views? We propose that there is a place for a postmodern view of learning in higher education, and specific instructional approaches can embody and convey this viewpoint in an effective manner—we identify these approaches as an appreciative model of learning.

The Individual in Relation to the System

Members of pre-modern societies are given an identity through status in their specific society. Their role is predetermined and fixed. One’s life is patterned after one’s parents’ or after one’s family’s life. Identity is determined by one’s status in that society: “My family was engaged in an occupation, and so I and other members of my own family will be engaged in this enterprise.” This occupational identity defines one’s social-economic class, one’s primary interpersonal affiliations and even one’s faith practices. One lives one’s life in a rather automatic way with a tacit (unconscious) rather than explicit (conscious) sense of personal identity, personal values and life purposes.

Modern society defines an individual’s identity through the function she chooses to serve in this society. There are choices about which role shall be adopted by the individual. However, there is little choice about how that role will be played out in this society. The role that an individual chooses to play will determine who they are, what they value and what defines their life purpose. The modern world is concerned with right and wrong, with yes and no thinking, with maintaining a certain distance and staying in one’s role. One’s identity is defined by (and relies on) the external judgment of one’s organization and society. In modern learning there are comparable right and wrong answers. The roles of teacher and learner are clearly defined. The teacher is the censor through which “right learning” is validated. (Reigluth and Avers, 1997)

Postmodernists rely upon their own definition of self. Their role is defined and redefined by themselves. They forge a place for themselves in the world. They create their own space, their own niche. That niche can be refashioned or discarded in changing circumstances. Their self can remain intact, because it does not have to rely upon anyone else’s definitions. Postmodern teachers and learners have differentiated roles, but these roles are not discreet. The learner is encouraged to find personal meaning from the learning, as the teacher is allowed to discard the mask of authority and be more themselves, modeling the lifelong learning value of postmodernism. Educators must find connections for the learner to their true self. “In organizations, just as with individuals, a clear sense of identity – the lens of values, traditions, history dreams, experience, competencies, and culture – is the only route to achieving independence from the environment.” (Wheatley, 1999, p.86) Postmodern implies a system that is open to the influences of the external environment. Consequently, the learner (and teacher) must be secure in their own self-identity. This secure self-identity is needed in order for the learner and teacher to maintain personal integrity in the face of this unclear, relative, disruptive postmodern life.

Effects of Postmodernism on Ways Learners Learn and Instructors Teach

Postmodern life is not predictable. We must live in the moment in order to be in tune with the ever-changing conditions. We need meta-strategies or ways of thinking about which strategy to employ. Better yet, we need ways of knowing how to create and tailor new strategies to respond to the learning needs in our various contexts. It is critical that we know how to live and learn in an open system, open to ambiguity, open to serendipitous development.

Postmodern society is inundated with information. Information has become abundant and free during the 21st Century. Information is now fully accessible. We live in a democratized society of digital interactivity. Postmodern learners are required to know the difference between data, information and knowledge. Students must develop information literacy skills and the awareness of their own selection bias. The postmodern instructor must be able to walk with their students through the data and information to the knowledge that is both involved with the purposes of the course of studies and with the meaning relative to the life of each individual student.

Modern thinking uses the executive brain. The executive brain is logical and serves control functions. Life is structured, ordered and hierarchical. There is a proper place and a proper function for everything. If it is not ordered or logical, let’s figure it out. Deductive, scientific thought prevails in this world-that-can-be-known. The executive brain controls communication and actions. Modern students rely on this kind of logic and on dogma. They rely on learning what they are told because it is in the best interest of the role they are to play. Modern educational theory attempts to classify and segment learning. The world is taken apart, split into disciplines, objectified, quantified and then repackaged as courses with learner objectives. This model relies on “the sage on stage” to parcel out the information to learners. Learners can utilize strategies to improve learning. A grade is assigned based on the degree to which the learner has achieved these teacher-determined objectives.

Postmodern life is not just about rapid and turbulent change. It is also about fragmentation of old systems and expectations. There are constant disruptions. It is hard to count on any one set of values or any one paradigm. To deal with the fragmentation of the old paradigm, postmodern students apply their own story and experience to the learning environment. They learn to trust not only their own rational processes (housed primarily in their prefrontal cortex), but also their exceptionally gifted intuition (housed primarily in their much older, larger and more mature limbic brain). (Lehrer, 2009) The postmodern instructor engaged with a learner from an appreciative perspective encourages this person to relate the directions of the course or program to their personal experiences, instead of viewing this as past baggage that should be left outside the educational experience. Instructor/tutor and student co-create new learning and understandings in the moment.

Postmodern learning is a creative act. It involves ever-changing environments and learning arrangements. Individual plans can be created wherein the learner is an active participant. The postmodern teacher and mature student are partners in learning a body of knowledge within a contemporary context. Other methods are not discarded, but they are used, modified and recreated to suit the situation at hand. The postmodern instructor is a “guide on the side” whose role is more to facilitate learning experiences toward the meaningful aims. Alternate views and content integration are encouraged. Ideas are brought together through a holistic approach to form new ways of knowing the world. New learning relationships and knowledge creation potential are heightened and become an exciting aspect of the postmodern class.

Implications of the Postmodern Condition for Adult Education

What are the attitudes, processes and structures that instructors need to provide a post-modern education to adults? Teaching and learning in the postmodern world addresses these points:

  • Meta-strategies or ways of thinking about which strategy to employ; ways of knowing how to create and tailor new strategies to respond to the learning needs in our various contexts;
  • Knowledge about ways in which to live and learn in an open system in which there is considerable ambiguity and serendipitous development;
  • Information literacy skills for students and awareness by students of their own selection bias; the postmodern instructor leads their students through the data and information to the knowledge that is involved with the purposes of the course of studies and with the meaning relative to the life of each individual student;
  • Relationships between the course’s and program’s directions, and the individual’s personal experience; new learning and understandings is co-created in the moment;
  • Creation of individual plans wherein the learner is an active participant; creation of partnerships between teachers and students in learning a body of knowledge within a contemporary context;
  • Creation of instructor role as a “guide on the side” — tutor, learning coach and facilitator — of learning experiences toward meaningful aims;
  • Ideas are brought together through a holistic approach to form new ways of knowing the world; new learning relationships and knowledge creation potential are heightened and are an exciting aspect of the postmodern class;
  • Meta-strategies (or meta-cognitive strategies) are required; students learn how to learn;
  • Learners are encouraged to find personal meaning from the learning, as the teacher is allowed to discard the mask of authority and be more themselves, modeling the lifelong learning value of postmodernism; and
  • Learners (living in a postmodern world) are encouraged to formulate and engage a clear, stable, sustaining image of self.

What then is changing in adult education relative to postmodern influences?

Tailored Programs, Prior Learning and Learning Portfolios

Increasingly, we are seeing a more open system for program development — and the systems that are being created do not even necessarily serve the mature learner. At the Union Institute, doctoral students create their own program of studies, gather together their own doctoral committee and call their own meetings. The doctoral student is recognized as an adult learner who can, at a doctoral level, direct the spirit, if not the letter, of their learning. At the University of British Columbia, doctoral students in some disciplines choose their five courses that the graduate school faculty members approve as assisting them prior to their dissertation work. A similar model at an undergraduate level is engaged at Evergreen State College (Washington State).

Programs at these institutions are designed by the student and approved by the organization as an individual plan. This plan will assist the student in achievement of their learning goal and ultimately achievement of their degree. An open system of this type is most likely to be found in undergraduate settings where there is also the granting of credit for learning achieved through life experience. The assessment of prior learning can be time consuming and costly in some cases. In other cases, however, it allows students with years of work experience to demonstrate the learning that this experience has given them. This learning is most often demonstrated through a portfolio of learning, and applied against coursework criteria at the institution.

The postmodern age requires that we be aware of intentions. (Bergquist, 1993) The development and implementation of learning outcomes is one way to convey to students the learning intentions of a course. The modern method of instruction fills the minds of students with content; it tries to elicit a specific way of thinking. This modern approach to learning requires that an instructor be firmly in charge of student learning in the classroom. The instructor or department directs the student in their specific learning.

By contrast, a postmodern approach allows students to self-direct their learning. They interweave their ongoing work “in the world” with their educational program — gaining credit not for their prior experience, but instead for their current, ongoing experiences. Parameters of a program are set out for student groups (cohorts) and the student cohorts self-direct their shared programs. Using dialogue and meta-dialogue (“What are we saying by saying this?”) the cohort decides what it wants to learn (relative to a course or the program), how it wants to learn, which directions it will take in the learning process and which steps need to be taken to achieve the aims of the individual cohort members and the group in this learning process. For example, the course parameters might be outlined jointly by the instructor/tutor and mature learner as follows:

“At this level we need to demonstrate analytical learning related to six theories of group dynamics through development of a case example (or better yet, a plan related to our own experience/practice) that blends the use of two of these theories. Compare the kinds of effects of using these two as opposed to using the other four. Why were the other four theories eliminated? Extension: Can each of us or both of us, jointly, develop our own theoretical base? How would that apply to this specific case?

“The tutor and learner or learning cohort then directs individual and collective learning activities to achieve (individually or collectively) the learning parameters of the course. In cases like this, the institution provides the learning expectations related to each component of the program. If the program is cohort based, then members of the cohort meet regularly to discuss their learning plans, their achievements and their individual and group processes. The cohort and the individual student are responsible for their learning; the instructor enters the discussions when invited and coaches the students relative to the intentions that they face and the actions that the cohort is taking or planning to take.” (Cumming and Pawlak, 2003)

The System Needs to Think Differently

To effectively make the changes that are suggested above relative to our fourth model, attention must be directed to instructional attitudes, structures and processes. (Watson and Johnson, 1972) The organizations in which we work need to be examined in light of pressures from the postmodern arena. It is difficult to think of doing anything vastly different when we base our plans on our present perspective. If we are stuck in our own thinking, we need to go elsewhere for ideas on how to re-conceptualize our situation. We are not businesses and we are not buyers and sellers. We don’t have customers or products (in fact that notion is rather modern). We do have relationships with our students. We do exchange something in that process. This system of exchange can be conceptualized as an economy. As such, it is a huge market. People within the academy are not usually trying to get out of it and are, in fact, fighting to stay in this system. In spite of cutbacks and “reorganizing,” our academic exchange system is relatively comfortable and safe at present. However, we might find in the next twenty years that the higher education market is becoming quite vulnerable.

In their book, Unleashing the Killer App, Downes and Mui (2000) propose that managers in many sectors must abandon many of their planning and control procedures if they want to survive the information economy. They suggest the application of twelve principles to manage these turbulent times. We believe that these principles would be useful to apply to educational institutions that are serious about focusing on the postmodern learner. The modern economy brought us mass production. The postmodern learner expects mass customization of the learning experience. We need to redesign our learning economy around this mass customization — that is, define goals and processes that will enable us to approach each student as an individual with a unique set of learning needs. We must also think of innovation and partnering as extensions of the work we do in higher education rather than as something that is foreign to us.

If we design service-oriented learning activities around each individual’s needs, we may find that we are creating communities of value in which the fundamental question is: why do students come to our institution for their learning? These communities will engage students so that their learning will be continuous throughout their lives. Furthermore, our students will be willing and expecting to do more in the administration of their learning. Students might be involved in their own curricular planning, instructional delivery, records management, and systems design. We might assign students various tasks that are related to their learning — including the generation of information that assists them in meeting their learning goals.

What would our own higher education institution look like if these principles were followed? Would instruction improve? Would the learning needs of students be served more completely? If we were to truly adhere to these principles, our educational systems would be uniquely focused on the postmodern learner’s needs. Education would have open curricula, waste less energy on redundant and unwanted systems, and yield innovative learning artifacts. “To succeed at digital strategy, your organization must be a learning organization, more focused on ideas and experiments than detailed plans and forecasts.” (Downes and Mui, 2000, p. 167) We might be tapping a vein of postmodern gold: “In this work, the focus is not on technology and what it might be capable of doing for us or to us. Rather, the goal is to paint a picture of what the organization wants to be doing with its time and resources in the future.” (Downes and Mui, 2000 p. 171) this will involve setting aside our existing (status quo) assumptions and brainstorming, criticizing, attacking, or challenging our preset ideas about the higher education organization and the learners it serves. However harsh, this process might enable us to determine what the organization should look like in the next five years. It might even include ideas that contradict one another. (Johnson, 1992)

We would like to offer yet another postmodern perspective on 21st Century academies. In their book, The 500-year Delta — What Happens After What Comes Next, Jim Taylor and Watts Wacker (1997) offer advice on how to manage institutions; what they define as a shift from reason-based to chaos-based logic. Like other postmodern observers, they suggest that the market is controlled increasingly by the consumer – in our case, the learner. As soon as learners understand that ‘the credit’ is not actual ‘learning,’ but is an arbitrary middleman’s chip, the loyalty of students to the modern academy will vanish. They will leave the traditional institution because they can do so without sacrificing opportunities for rich learning. If higher education systems do not destroy traditional assumptions about value chains and reconceptualize the market of learning in the knowledge economy, the private sector or students themselves will. It is, after all, a huge market.

Taylor and Wacker suggest that a different set of rules now applies in 21st Century organizations. Rules from the corporate world have to be modified for use by a higher education system that is now adjusting to the postmodern learner. They recommend, first, that we stop planning around chains of causality and plan instead around the certainty of uncertainty. If the environment is continually changing, then we must focus on outcomes rather than products. In an unpredictable environment, the outcome is not predicable in terms of behaviors and actions. Outcomes need to be based on the core business and values of the enterprise.

In this type of organization, behaviors are not controlled, but risks are controlled. This allows individuals to act in ways they deem will be best suited to the core values of the organization rather than to a role that has been assigned to them. Administrators must surrender control of their faculty’s behaviors. They must infuse and constantly reinforce values of the organization in their faculty. This allows all employees to embrace changing conditions, while relying on the stability of foundational values. In this organizational setting, diversity operates as a window to see alternate views and as a system that invests in innovative paths. Rather than trying to minimizing mistakes, administrators in this organizational setting would expect (perhaps even welcome) mistakes — knowing they will happen. They would think of mistakes as ways of looking at one’s own foibles and identifying systems that are required to successfully innovate in the organization.

Taylor and Wacker suggest that we need to treat each student as an individual market. Each student requires an individual plan for their lifelong learning. Giving control over to the student seems like a huge risk; however, students will still need the history, validity, resources and support of an institution to assist them in achieving their lifelong learning:
” How do you survive and prosper in a world in which change has been so rapid and has accumulated such mass…? You survive and prosper – you thrive – by focusing, settling and simplifying. Amidst the ambient chaos of our times, you thrive by sticking to basic principles.” (Taylor and Wacker, 1997, p. 245)

We simplify our focus and make what we have learned in the past co-exist with the future — with where we are going.

A Postmodern Education

For decades in North American higher education we have had a “build it and they will come” attitude. This attitude was based on the well-founded assumption that higher education was in demand – there were more students trying to get into higher education that there were seats available. We could build it as we had always done or we could offer what we thought would be suitable, without necessarily referencing the needs or desires of our students.

This has all changed. Students no longer line up for hours to register for courses. Students also have many more choices in 21st Century higher education. A student can take an on-line degree in England and link that credit to a master’s degree in Australia. Residency requirements, even for doctorate degrees, can be minimal to non-existent. Transparency of geography is but one example of how the “markets” of higher education have been changing. Over the past decade, the academic world has shifted from a seller’s market in which students accept whatever we offer to a buyer’s market in which students are “shopping” us. With their own life demands (part-time work, family commitments, travel concerns), students may attend two or three undergraduate institutions in order to put together enough transfer credit to move into the fourth year at their most desirable institution.

Who is in control of this market? We have thought of ourselves in higher education as indispensable to the students. Think again. It is only a matter of time in a demand-driven higher education economy until higher education institutions begin to compete with one another and students assume greater control of the marketplace — they will come to control the competitive exchange with academic market players. As institutions compete for the student market, as more private institutions (including corporations) are able to offer degrees, as employers are able to frame and reframe how and what they value in education, and as students begin increasingly to independently articulate and defend their own learning, the less control institutions of higher education will have on their primary currency: the academic credit.

The value of this currency is based on a combination of grades, relative value of the curriculum, and status of the institution granting the credit. The currency (credit) is defined by the system and traded between institutions by students. We enter a very different marketplace when students come to realize that academic credit is not equivalent to “learning” and that they can curtail the present involvement of higher education institutions by demonstrating and validating their learning in other ways. Even if we continue to value the academic credit, institutions competing for students will offer novel and authentic ways for students to achieve this credit. A shift in the valuing and use of academic credit will alter the offerings of competing institutions and expand the learning possibilities for students.

Concluding Comments

Tierney (1999, pp. 12-16) claims that to build a more responsive, high performance organization for the 21st Century we must consider five principles. They are a commitment to: an educational community, academic freedom, access and equity, excellence and integrity, and commitment to inquiry.

One process that must be repeatedly performed, according to Tierney (1999, p. 147) is to address three questions:
“Are the institution and its employees better off because of what we have decided?
Are students better served by the decisions we have just made?
Have we enhanced the environment for teaching, learning, and research by what we have just done?”

Addressing these three questions and an application of the five principles moves the group away from the focus on individualism and toward communal goals. This might lead us to a more unified, dynamic and responsive academy (Tierney, 1999, p. 16):
“I neither believe the suggestions I will propose are a cure-all for the ills that plague us nor see myself as an academic ‘Chicken Little’ worried that the collegiate sky is falling. If anything, my life in the academy has left me as something of an idealist; we are able to do better and we are capable of improvement. It is possible to keep pace with the flux of social and cultural changes that swirl around us and maintain those five basic commitments. And yet, if our beliefs remain stable, our organizational forms will not.” (Tierney, 1999, p. 16).

In this monograph we have laid out a picture of the post-modern condition and some possible implications of that condition for learners, instructors and higher education organizations — and in particular for a new model of adult education. As leaders of the academy we continue to be challenged while exploring the nature of learning — particularly as it relates to postsecondary education institutions. We continue to wonder how we might shift our thinking about how it is that we do what we do. Such a shift might alter our actions for the improvement of student learning. There can be nothing more important, nor unifying, than sustained attention to this type of improvement.