Post-modern just means ‘coming after’ modernism. The term is used to refer to a period in history (the one we’re in now), but it is also used to refer to a set of ideas that ‘go with’ this period in history. This set of ideas is a reaction to—and, to some extent, a rejection of—the ideas of modernism.

What are these ideas–and why do they matter?

First of all, what are modernism’s ‘big ideas’? These ideas are important because they frame most of the thinking of most people in ‘Western’ cultures (whether they know it or not). They also frame our major institutions, including those of education.

Beginning in the mid–late 18th century, the modern period of European history was a time of great social, political, and economic change (the Industrial Revolution and the American and French Revolutions took place in this period). It saw the development of capitalism, industrialisation, nation states, and science, as well as a major expansion of European interests into the rest of the world. It was seen as a time of great progress–and ‘progress’ is an important metaphor for this time

All this was made possible by some ‘big ideas’, which, very briefly, are as follows.

First, is the idea of people as rational, autonomous individuals or ‘selves’, who think and act independently of other selves. This idea, which seems natural and obvious to those of us enculturated and educated in the Western European tradition, underpins all modern social, political, and economic thought (including education). It is, however, a construct, and it is a construct that has some important material effects. Among other things, it excludes many people, and it de-emphasises the relationships and connections between people.

The second ‘big idea’ of modernism is the notion of reason and knowledge (particularly scientific knowledge) as the route to human freedom and happiness (and education as having a major role to play in this). The knowledge being talked about here is ‘know what’ knowledge of a particular kind: it is knowledge that describes and articulates a stable order of things, a ‘grand plan’ that will, eventually, all be known. It is also knowledge that assumes a particular kind of ‘knower’–the rational, autonomous, individual described above.

These ideas have long been criticised by people from groups who are marginalised by them (e.g. women, indigenous peoples, and working-class people).

Post-modernism is basically a critique of these ideas.

According to one theorist, post modernism is the passage from ‘solid’ (stable) times to ‘liquid’ times (Bauman 2007). It is the end of traditional structures and institutions, and the end of what another theorist calls ‘grand narratives’–the big, one-size-fits-all stories of modern thought (Lyotard 1984). There is a loss of faith in the idea of ‘progress’, the idea that we are gradually heading along the one true pathway towards certain universal goals – such as the full picture of knowledge, or equality and justice. Instead, there is an emphasis on multiple pathways and plurality; on diversity and difference; and on the partiality of all knowledge (that is, the idea that we can only have an incomplete picture, and the idea that all knowledge is biased). Change is seen, not as a linear progression, but as a series of networks and flows, connections and reconnections that, because they are always forming and reforming, never have time to solidify.

Thus, where modern thought emphasises direction, order, coherence, stability, simplicity, control, autonomy, and universality, post modern thought emphasises fragmentation, diversity, discontinuity, contingency, pragmatism, multiplicity, and connections.

This has major implications for social theory, political thought, and education in the 21st century. Read more about the ideas on this page (Link to a PDF of Jane Gilbert’s paper in the NZCER 2008 Conference Proceedings – Making Progress, measuring progress – pp.65-73).

Read more about some of the theories behind the shift to 21st century learning, or click on one of the specific theories below.


Bauman, Z. (2007). Liquid times: Living in an age of uncertainty. Cambridge UK: Polity Press.
Lyotard, J-F. (1984). The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge. Manchester: Manchester University Press.