Heather Hardie

2nd Year, Art Education Major

Pedagogy and Postmodernism: Influences of Postmodern Thought on Educational Philosophies

In art, postmodernism rejected any singular aesthetic that other art movements embraced. Therefore postmodernism cannot be considered an art movement at all, but rather an overarching change in perception and meaning.

There is a plethora of research and writing on the postmodern educator. Focusing here mainly on art education, I will examine some of the various postmodern topics and methods of teaching in terms of their strengths and weaknesses in today’s educational system. Given the ever-increasing media saturation in contemporary society, I believe a critical visual awareness is essential. In the field of art education, we as educators can choose to ignore the popularity of mass culture and focus only on classical and historical frameworks, or we can choose to include and embrace other frameworks in order to create a conversation between fine arts and popular culture. In this essay, I will discuss the main ideas of postmodern thought, thinkers who have influenced its theories, and their application to the field of Art Education. A key idea in postmodern thought is that truth is merely a social construct and facts are just interpretations “mediated by culture and language” (Barrett, 1997, p.17). Similarly French philosopher Jacques Derrida affirms that there is no absolute truth, and as a result, there cannot be one perfect method of teaching (Trifonas &Peters, 2004, p.1). Joan Wink, Professor Emerita in the Department of Teacher’s Education at California State University states, “Critical pedagogy has taught me that education is rampant with complexities, contradictions, multiple realities, and change. It has taught me that I don’t know everything” (2007, p.5).

I believe that these perspectives offer a refreshingly open-minded approach to education. Rather than relying heavily on a set educational approaches, postmodern teachers accept the idea that there may be a multitude of ways of looking at an issue, presenting information and learning. To understand some of the main characteristics of postmodern thought, however difficult and contradictory, one must have prior knowledge of modernism. Modernism started roughly in the 1880s, reached its peak in the early to mid 20th century and ended in the 1970s, according to art critic Robert Atkins (as cited in Barrett, 1997, p. 20). Rooted in the forward-looking ideals of new science and technology, modernists embraced the future and rebelled against conservative values from the past. Similarly, postmodernism emerged as a critique of everything ‘modern’, arguing that modernity created “social practices and institutions that legitimate domination and control by a powerful few over the many, even though modernists promised equality and liberation of all people” (Barrett, 1997, p.18). This critique is the defining characteristic of postmodern thought, which questions as well as re-interprets society and culture in a new and subjective light.

In art, postmodernism rejected any singular aesthetic that other art movements embraced. Therefore postmodernism cannot be considered an art movement at all, but rather an overarching change in perception and meaning. Within postmodernism emerged two competing philosophies: structuralism and post-structuralism. Briefly, structuralists were inspired by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who proposed that language is a system of signs and signifiers that work as codes for meaning (Barrett, 1997, p.19). Structuralists believed that with enough analysis of certain subjects, they could unearth hidden natural codes and systems to achieve greater objectivity and understanding of a topic, similar to the modernists who sought absolute truth (p.18-19). Post-structuralists rejected this notion, suggesting that “language, culture and society are arbitrary and conventionally agreed upon, therefore should not be considered natural” (p.19). They believed that history, as it unfolds, shapes the culture and language we experience today. Rather than searching for universally applicable truths, post-structuralists “accept the limitations of multiple views, fragmentation and indeterminacy” (p.19).

By reconsidering dominant ways of thinking, post-structuralists engaged in what we consider critical discourse. Professor Rebecca Martusewicz from Eastern Michigan University considers that understanding post-structuralist theory is highly important in pedagogy (2001, p.12). Teacher-student communications is not necessarily always definite or clear. As with any conversation, there is an act of translation occurring: one person translates their thoughts into a few sentences, while the second person listens and translates what she or he hears into meaning and tries to comprehend. Therefore with every conversation there is the potential for misunderstanding. This means that a person may receive and translate the information they are presented differently than intended (Martusewicz, 2001,p.13-14). Language is most often the basis for education, whether it is in the form of reading, a lecture or a group discussion. However deriving meaning from what is taught goes beyond comprehension. In various forms of assessment, teachers examine students’ work to get a sense of what they have learned. The student often must demonstrate this knowledge through some sort of synthesis, such as writing an essay, a test, or creating a piece of art. According to educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy of learning, evaluation and synthesis are among the most complex levels of learning, beyond memorizing, understanding and applying (O’Donnell & al., 2008, p. 371-372).

Bloom’s taxonomy is structuralist in nature; it defines a system of learning that teachers may use to reflect on their own pedagogical methods as well as students’ learning. However, it is quite objective and only broadly defines these levels of learning without giving any explicit reason of how or why they should be used. Also, it does not address any circumstances in which exceptions may apply. These circumstances affect translation and interpretation. What if the student lacks the ability to communicate well because English is not their first language? What if the student suffers from a learning disorder such as dyslexia or Attention Deficit Disorder? As a result of these or other issues, the student may derive a different meaning from the lesson than their fellow classmates. This subjectivity of interpretation makes assessment difficult, especially when it comes to art. If language is considered a social construct, what about art forms such as drawing, painting, sculpture, etcetera? And what about the stages of a child’s artistic development? Are these intrinsic? Or are they socially constructed as well? Theorists disagree.

On the one hand, social constructivist theorist Lev Vygotsky, who precedes post-structuralist thinking, proposes that language and other cultural ‘tools’ are a product of social development over the course of history. He believes that child development is the responsibility of elders (Beliavsky, 2006, p.2). For a maximum learning experience, a child must be ‘scaffolded’ by community members to achieve a zone of proximal development, or in other words, have a mentor show them the ropes so that they find themselves in a position where learning comes naturally and freely (p.5). Ninah Beliavsky, Associate Professor in Languages and Literatures at St.John’s University in New York also writes, “[…] the analysis of cognitive functioning requires studying how a child’s social interaction with more competent peers of their culture is mastered and internalized” (p.2). This essentially means that to know if the child has gained some form of knowledge, one should be able to see evidence reflected in what they say and do. In the case of creative expressions such as drawing, a child would learn to draw through demonstration by someone older. They would be taught how to draw lines and shapes then objects and scenes. The child is likely to copy what others do, and this is evidence of art development as a social construct. Even when a child creates something from imagination, he or she is still using the tools learned from another member of the community, such as how to hold a crayon, draw a circle, make objects look a certain way, etc.

On the other hand, Viktor Lowenfeld and Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget believed that children are intrinsically motivated to draw based on stages of cognitive and emotional development. Lowenfeld and Piaget divided these stages into various groupings based loosely around age, with descriptions of the actions and abilities of the child (Alter-Muri, 2002, p.170-173). For example, in the pre-schematic drawing stage, children aged 3-4 would most often be engaged in drawing lines and shapes, but still struggling with representation.

Besides remarking the obvious failure to include the stages of development in other areas of art such as sculpture and dance, critics of Lowenfeld’s theories note that these observations were accurate for a set group of children, but failed to address children in all socio-cultural contexts. This is interesting to consider since Lowenfeld himself was a Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied Austria, who later became Chair of the Art Department at an African American college in Virginia (Alter-Muri, 2002, p.175). His decision to leave cultural politics out of his writings may or may not have been intentional, but most see this as a major oversight in the validity of his theories. Another factor Lowenfeld did not consider was social influence, which is central to Vygotsky’s theories. At the time when Lowenfeld’s book, Creative and Mental Growth (1947) was popular in the 1960s, media were not as prevalent as today (p.176-177). Now, children are exposed to a wide variety of social networking websites and mobile technology, which influence their development and undermine common applicability of Lowenfeld’s theory.

For example, children’s art in a small Egyptian village was found to be very different from that of children living in an urban area, and according to the researchers who conducted the study, the village children had “a restricted graphic depiction of humans” because of their lack of exposure to various media (p.176). As Professor Anna Kindler from The University of British Columbia writes, artistic development is essentially a graphic language that springs from both “psychobiological foundations” and socially influenced factors (as cited in Alter-Muri, 2002, p.176). She suggests that, as children grow physically and cognitively, they develop the ability to create forms and images, but the exposure to the graphic language of their peers and mentors is equally important.

If we consider graphic representation as the basis of art education, in what meaningful way does the postmodern educator present this to their students? Engaging in conversation is perhaps quite obvious, but in public education, the direction of the language used in classrooms is often one-way, from the teacher to the student. Many argue for the need of a multi-directional use of language: as author Annette Swann writes, “The concept of knowledge has never been verifiable through one’s perception, but rather it gains clarity through negotiation with others” (2008, p.36).

The Reggio Emilia approach to teaching is representative of postmodern theories on culture and reality as discourse. Rather than assigning a predetermined curriculum and teaching style to the teachers and the students, postmodern discourse in education asks, “What is important to you? What do you want to learn today?,” taking students’ questions and concerns as starting points for discussion.

A concrete example of how this concept has been applied in education is at the Reggio Emilia Schools. These pre-schools were founded in the 1940s in Northern Italy and have inspired countless like-minded schools around the world. The central philosophy is that children learn through a discovery-based method by acting on their surrounding environment (Swan, 2008, p.36). By removing the traditional authoritarian role of the teacher and replacing it with a mentor or guidance role, children actually come to the teacher with what they want to learn. According to Swann, the Reggio Emilia approach focuses strongly on the expressive media of the arts and uses the arts as a method of communication within student-teacher relationships.

She writes:
The founder of the Reggio Emilia Schools, Loris Malaguzzi (1998) labelled the communicative arts approach the hundred languages because of the in-depth capacity and expressive vocabulary of each learning medium. Reggio Emilia students have been able to translate multiple themes of interest across several media languages into “poetic understandings” […] and preschool [aged] children’s precocious artistic abilities, astute perceptual awareness and general advanced expression in the visual arts have appeared to be that of children many years older. (p. 36-37)

The Reggio Emilia approach to teaching is representative of postmodern theories on culture and reality as discourse. Rather than assigning a predetermined curriculum and teaching style to the teachers and the students, postmodern discourse in education asks, “What is important to you? What do you want to learn today?,” taking students’ questions and concerns as starting points for discussion. This method of teaching allows learning to be open-ended, and collaborative, and as research has shown, proves to be effective in children’s learning (p.37). Similar to the Reggio Emilia approach is the Montessori approach. Maria Montessori was an Italian physician and educator who worked closely with children with special needs. In 1907, she founded the first Montessori school in Rome, under the philosophy that all children are born with an innate motivation to develop and learn, similar to the beliefs of Piaget and Lowenfeld (O’Donnell & al., 2008, p. 39-40). While growing up, children are closely in tune with their surroundings. Therefore to encourage the greatest potential growth and development, children must be surrounded by a pleasant, nurturing environment (Bates & Lewis, 2009, p. 144).

To conclude, what I have learned from this research is that postmodern theory allows for different approaches to pedagogy. I believe this is key when considering that no child or community is the same, therefore as art educators, we must recognize and respond to diversity as a predominant part of contemporary society. By adopting a critical awareness to social constructs such as communication and language – including visual languages – we can support a meaningful approach to a child’s social and cognitive development.

Alter-Muri, S. (2002). Viktor Lowenfeld revisited: A review of Lowenfeld’s preschematic, schematic and gang age stages. American Journal of Art Therapy, 40(3), p. 170-192.
Ashcroft, B., Griffiths, G., & Tiffin, H. (2000). Post-colonial studies: The key concepts. New York: Routledge.
Barrett, T. (1997). Modernism and postmodernism: An overview with art examples. In J. Hutchens & M. Suggs (Eds.), Art education: Content and practice in a postmodern era, (p.17-30). Washington, DC: NAEA.
Bates, J. & Lewis, S. (2009). The Study of education: An introduction. London: Continuum.
Beliavsky, N. (2006). Revisiting Vygotsky and Gardner: Realizing human potential. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 40(2), p.1-11.
Lowenfeld, V. (1947). Creative and mental growth. New York: Macmillan.
Mastusewicz, R. (2001). Seeking passage: Post-structuralism, pedagogy, ethics. New York: Teachers College Press.
O’Donnell, A. & Reeve, J. & Smith, J. (2008). Educational psychology: Reflection for action. Mississauga, On.: John Wiley & Sons Canada.
Swann, A. (2008). Objects and relations: Constructivist foundations in the Reggio Emilia Approach. Studies in Art Education, 50(1), p.36-50.
Trifonas, P., & Peters, M. (Eds.). (2004). Derrida, deconstruction and education. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Wink, J. (1997) Critical pedagogy: Notes from the real world. New York: Longman Publishers.