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The theoretical developments of Modernism and Postmodernism

| November 26, 2012

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Sociologists Cohen and Kennedy  (2000) have traced the emergence of ‘modernity’ to the 17th century and the dawn of the revolutionary Enlightenment age which brought about historic changes and influenced European societies by dramatically transforming primary and secondary institutions. The term ‘modernity’ encapsulates the progress of society, from primitive civilisation through modern era characterised by industrialisation and capitalism and arriving at the current post-modern state of globalisation which is shaping contemporary society at an ever increasing momentum (Giddens, 2002). The Industrial Revolution in Western Europe throughout the mid-eighteenth century and the French Revolution of 1789 gave rise to the realisation of democracy which free-thinking people demanded (Browning, Halchi and Webster 2000:166). This radical defining feature of Enlightenment brought about significant changes in society and in the way people thought about the world (Craib, 1997). In short, science became the basis or the main source of knowledge and the notion of ‘people’ and ‘democracy’ replaced ‘religion and the monarchy’ as the main platform of government (Kirkby, 2000:503). Previously agricultural and rural societies were transformed by urbanisation and industrial productions. These developments collectively led to the emergence of modern society and modernity.

Lyotard suggests that modernity is not an epoch but a mode within thought, speech and sensibility and which is governed by the Idea of emancipation (1997:24). Depending on the philosophies of history or the grand narratives that attempt to organise this mass of events, the Idea of emancipation is framed in many ways. There is the Marxist narrative of emancipation from exploitation and alienation through the socialisation of work, the capitalist narrative of emancipation from poverty through techno industrial development, the Aufklärer narrative of emancipation from ignorance and servitude through knowledge and egalitarianism etc.(Lyotard, 1997:25). Whatever the narrative, universal freedom or fulfilment of all humanity is regarded as the end product, however elusive it may be. Similarly, the movement of emancipation in modernity is one in which the third party who are initially external to the emancipator avant-garde, join the community of speakers. It is an only you and me tradition.

However, in the course of the last fifty years the principles behind the grand narratives of emancipation have become invalidated. Auschwitz is a prime example that refutes the doctrine that ‘all that is real is rational, and all that is rational is real’. (Lyotard, (1997:29). Hence, Postmodernism developed with the growing signs of the failing of modernity. It grew out of a profound dissatisfaction with the modernist project of enlightenment and reason. It holds that rational thinking and scientific perspectives have fallen short in providing the ‘truths’ they were once presumed to hold. During the industrial era, science, rationality and technology were thought to hold promises of a better, safe and humane world. However, postmodernists now question the validity of scientific enterprise often pointing to the unforeseen and unwanted consequences of resulting technologies.

There is however, much difficulty in defining postmodernism. Andreas Huyssen claims that ‘the amorphous and politically volatile nature of postmodernism makes the phenomenon itself remarkably elusive and the definition of its boundaries exceedingly difficult, if not per se impossible’ (Huyssen 1988:58 cited in Earnshaw 1994:24). Hassan also concurs that there is no clear consensus about its meaning among scholars (Hassan 1985:121 cited in Earnshaw 1994:24). Nevertheless, Lyotard describes it as ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ (1984: xxiv). Basically, Postmodernism rejects the concept of western history as ‘progress’ which was present in the sociologies of both Functionalism and Marx. They have rejected the ‘grand narratives’ and replaced them by a more dispersed and discontinuous set of narratives which, has led to a shift from structuralism to post structuralism. They have also rejected the concept of science and rationalism as leading to truth about the world and replaced it by a model of sociology which is always open to both falsification and subjectively based biases in the paradigms that are chosen. The French philosophers Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida were important figures in constructing postmodernism. Foucault completely rejects the premodern idealist and realist claims that there are universal and unchanging truths and contends that what experts pronounce to be objective truth is really a disguised rationale for the elites to hold power and want to use it over others, especially the poor, the minorities, and women (McNicol 2005).

Sociology as a discipline arose out of a series of debates which began during the period of Enlightenment between philosophers, scientists and other intellectuals about the origin and nature of human societies (Skidmore, 1979:1). During the period of Enlightenment questions began to be asked about what societies are and how they function, the relationships between individuals and societies and about social change. Different views, perspectives and ideas emerged in response to these questions leading to the development of sociological theories which are explanatory frameworks within which specific social phenomena can be understood as part of a much larger social, cultural or economic processes. Skidmore (1979:4) suggests that most sociological theories are developed out of our desire to find solutions to ‘theoretical problems’.

Theories have arisen in order to explain modern societies of which Marxism, Functionalism and Interactionism are important.

Marxists believe that modernity was brought about by the development of capitalist societies which comprise of two classes with different aims, always at conflict with each other. Marx’s view of society in The Communist Manifesto states ‘Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other – Bourgeoisie and Proletariat ‘ ( Marx pg 82, cited in Kidd et al 2004:135). According to Marx the bourgeoisie or the ruling class own the means of production (land and factories) whereas the proletariat or working class work for the ruling class to survive. This forced labour alienates people from their true nature and identity as ‘the work is external to the worker…not part of his nature, that consequently he does not fulfil himself in his work but denies himself, has a feeling of misery, not of well-being…’(Marx cited in Kidd et al 2004:135). Thus, capitalism makes people slaves to work, oppressing and dulling their senses and alienating them from their true identities.

Marxists view society as a system having an economic base infrastructure which shapes everything in society and a superstructure which includes all the major agencies of social control such as education, politics, medicine, and religion. The superstructure inevitably reflects the interests and desires of the dominant bourgeoisie class. Human relationship in this society is defined in terms of money and position in the division of labour. Individuals are shaped by power and authority and social order is maintained through force. People are seen as commodities that can be brought and sold to the highest bidders (Kidd et al 2004:135).

Functionalists, on the other hand believe that modern societies developed out of consensus and mass production using industrial technology. Functionalism emerged from biology and sociology and states that ‘society is an organism which requires people and organisations to perform functions in maintaining social order’ (Rojek 1995:36 cited in Hermans 2003:27). It examines society through a functional framework which stresses that everything no matter how strange, out of place or harmful they may seem all serve a purpose. Functionalists consider society as a system having interconnected parts all working together to form a whole. Hence, social institutions like family, religion are analysed as part of the social system rather than as isolated units. Bohm states that the world is a system of interrelated parts, and each part makes a necessary contribution to the vitality of the system (Bohm, 2001).

Division of labour according to Functionalists is based on meritocracy where people are rewarded on the basis of their achievements and capabilities. People are not discriminated on the basis of class, gender, or race. They further contend that roles and identity in modern society are achieved and not ascribed and society ensures that the most important positions are conscientiously filled by the most qualified persons using social stratification. This ensures effective role allocation and performance to the positions in society. Society hence, moulds people to perform societal functions. In short, functionalism maintains that the dominant condition of society is order reinforced by stability and consensus and not conflict based on coercion and dissention.

Interactionism in sociology grew out from the works of Charles H Cooley, George H Mead, and John Dewey. According to Interactionists, society is created through our constant action and interaction with each other and not through structures or systems of society. They contend that the structures and systems of society do not create or shape our thoughts, actions, and behaviours but that people as reflective and thinking beings create their own identity in modern society. This is because according to Blumer ‘human beings interpret or define each other’s actions’ (Blumer 1962:19 cited in Rosenberg 1983:153). People are able to anticipate and weigh possible reactions to their behaviour because social situations are seen from the perspectives of others.

Interactionists believe that individuals create their own social world through interactions or sharing and it is through that, that social order is maintained. This is in contrast to the views of functionalists and Marxists where social order is imposed upon people. This however leads to difficulty in understanding where power in society comes from. Social change in their view occurs when the position and communication with each other changes.

Postmodernism however, is the view that society has now entered into a new phase which is fundamentally different from the societies described by functionalists, Marxists, or interactionists. Society is now increasingly fragmented and not built on the value consensus described by functionalists not class division described by Marxists because new social divisions have arisen based on gender, sexuality, ethnicity etc. People can now have varied identities rather than being classified as middle or working class people. The characteristics of post modernity have been identified in terms of work, culture, identity, globalisation, and knowledge.

According to Michael J Piore (1986) capitalist societies have now entered into a post-Fordist era where work is now organised according to the principles of flexible specialisation (Cited in Haralambos et al, 2004: 641). As consumers are increasingly demanding more specialised products, technology is helping industries meet the changing demands resulting in a decrease in the mass-production of articles. These developments have resulted in flexible working practices and flexible specialisation. People no longer expect a job for life but are continuously driven to increase skills that lead on to job satisfaction.

Postmodernists believe that people’s behaviour and sense of identity comes from the images that they consume via the media. This is contrary to the meritocracy beliefs of functionalists and class beliefs of Marxists. Taylor states that ‘society has now been transformed into something resembling an endless shopping mall where people now have much greater choice about how they look, what they consume and what they believe in’ (Cited in Moore et al 2001:20).

Postmodernism is also characterised by cultural diversity and pluralism in a range of social context like family, media, youth culture etc. Consumption has now become the central defining feature of post-modern culture where global marketing of cultural forms like cinema, music and computer games and global expansion of trans-national companies have enabled consumption on a global scale.

Postmodernists also contend that people in the post modern society cannot put their faiths on great truths. They insist that truth is both unattainable and irrelevant in the post modern world. They stress on the relativity of knowledge, ideas, and lifestyles and that one explanation is in principle as good as another and should be judged on how useful and helpful people find them.

Since society is changing education is also going through profound changes in terms of purpose, context, and methods. The difference in modern and post-modern conditions of knowledge lies in the purpose of knowledge (Lyotard, 1984). The dissemination and generation of knowledge in modernity is justified in relation to the grand narratives and its contribution to liberty, pursuit of truth and the betterment of humanity. Rationality, discipline, and scientific investigations are legitimised by the grand narratives which also form the basis for the development of state supported educational practices. In post modernity however, the purpose of knowledge is ‘performativity’ which is taken to mean ‘the optimising of efficient performance’ (Usher et al 1997:14). Education is necessary in order to develop transferable skills, self-motivation, self-supervision, and creativity to meet the rapid pace of globalisation and technological changes in the present world.

According to Usher (1997, cited in Webb et al 2004: 145) education in the modern society is controlled by the state and takes the ‘one size fits all’ approach whereas in the post-modern society it is controlled by the communities and is diverse and customised to the needs of individual learners. Education is fixed in time and space and takes place during a fixed period of an individual’s life in modern society whereas it is more flexible and learning takes place throughout an individual’s life in order to meet the needs of the changing economy in post-modern times. Similarly, in modern society education is teacher led where learners are passive recipients of knowledge whereas in post-modern education the learners are active participants who learn through their own experiences.

Thompson (1992) too, argues that education is changing to meet the differing needs of diverse communities as societies become more fragmented. Postmodernists reject the fact that education produces class inequalities but rather diversity. They envisage a diverse education system that responds to the need of different individuals and groups. They are sceptical of the functionalist claims that education produces shared values and social solidarity, of liberal claims that human potential can be achieved through education and radical claims that education can produce equality of opportunity in a just society. Usher and Edwards (1994) say, ‘Postmodernism teaches us to be sceptical of foundationalism in all its forms, of totalising and definitive explanations and theories and thus of the dominant taken-for-granted paradigms in education, whether these be liberal, conservative or progressive’ (cited in Haralambos et al 2004:128). In their analysis of education postmodernists use the concept of subordination where the powerful elite control disempowered groups and classes, and marginalisation where the social, political, economic, and educational processes push powerless groups to the edges of society.

Consequently, as demarcation between formal and informal education institutions are continuously breaking down adult education is filling up some of the spaces created by the fragmentation of the modern educational systems and is closely linked to post-modern consumption. According to Usher et al (1997) adult education has been particularly responsive to the post-modern trend towards greater choice and diversity. Individual needs are met through greater tailoring of the content and pace of education through flexible and distance learning programmes.

According to Bryson adult education in modernity is seen as ‘all the activities with an educational purpose that are carried on by people engaged in the ordinary business of life’ (1936:3-4). It is a voluntary learning activity initiated by learners themselves. The motives being personal improvement, remedial, occupational, liberal, political, or relational. However, in post-modern times adult education has become more of a consumer product involved in lifestyle choices where it is more of a playful leisure activity rather that a purposive goal orientated one. Knowledge is valued on the basis of its usefulness and its ability to be exchanged for money in the labour market rather than for just providing ‘the truth’. Furthermore, since it can be consumed, many people are consuming it to escape from oppression and disadvantage. Usher et al say ‘there are many groups who see empowerment in terms of the increased consumption of desired goods…’ (1997).

Therefore, new forms of provision and delivery in the contemporary education landscape are developing. Open and distance learning has increased in prevalence where ‘the post-modern phenomenon of space-time compression has meant that learners and providers become increasingly available to each other on a global scale’ (Edwards 1994 cited in Usher et al 1997:23). The diverse desires of a diverse range of adult learners are readily satisfied by ODL provision. The relationship between learning, face-to-face interaction and pre-planned curricula is fractured without the need to attend specific places of learning at specific times.

The postmodernist interpretation of contemporary society is that fragmentation, diversity, difference and multiple identities are replacing cohesion, convergence sameness, and singular identities in working, civic, and private lives. This is true of the UK’s population which has become inundated with immigrants from different nations, speaking many different languages and dialects. There are refugees, asylum seekers, migrant workers, family migrants and members of settled communities who are in turn, not homogeneous (Dalziel and Sofres (2005), Ivanic et al (2006), Baynham et al (2007) and Pitt (2005). Although diverse, there are some commonalities within and across these groups and there is a wide spectrum of needs and expectations. Learners from these groups bring diverse educational, cultural, employment backgrounds, life experiences, histories and skills. Their circumstances affect what they want to learn as well as where and how they want to learn. Their motives to learn the English language varies from securing and progressing in sustainable employment, accessing services, supporting children and taking up opportunities to participate in community and cultural activities. Hence adult education in the form of ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) as an activity is seen as becoming more urgent and central.

The nature of ESOL how it is talked about, how it is practised, and how it is affected by other areas of social policy has changed over time and continues to do so. The 2000’s saw an unprecedented policy focus on adult education via the Skills for Life strategy which in turn grew out of the Moser report to the Department of Education (DfEE 1999). Adult ESOL in the UK has been included under the Skills for Life policy umbrella along with adult literacy and numeracy. The attempt to fit adult ESOL into generic Skills for Life pedagogy built up tensions as it is distinct, and a generic one-size-fits-all focus threatened to sideline the needs of ESOL learners. With the publication of the working group report, Breaking the Language Barriers (DfEE 2000) ESOL entered wholly into the adult basic skills agenda. This brought about the creation of a statutory ESOL Core Curriculum (DfES 2001), a new teacher training framework and qualifications mapped against the national standards. With the Leitch (2006) report, the drive for an across-the-board improvement in the skills base of the UK arose so that the country could compete in the global market. This strengthened the connections in policy between learning in the Further Education sector and business. ESOL departments in colleges are expected to provide work linked courses and cooperate closely with local employers through various programmes.

Similarly, the rapid rate of globalisation, technological and social changes is making it extremely imperative to up skill or reskill. Firms are being forced to increase efficiency through down sizing, out sourcing and providing flexible working practices. Even low skilled workers are expected to have basic literacy, numeracy, and IT skills along with the ability to learn and adopt. Both the government and individuals themselves are seeking opportunities to raise their qualifications and skills to enhance employability and avoid the fate of being marginalised in developed societies. (Hutton, 1995). As such, education and training programmes are required to produce more people who have higher levels of language competency and skills. The ESOL policy therefore aims to respond to the global economic changes by seeking ways to increase the general level of language competency and skills of learners.

The values expressed in the Adult ESOL Core Curriculum (AECC) mainly corresponds to the Reconstructivism value system which focuses on the knowledge and skills relevant to the learner’s everyday life needs and the practical needs of society. The strategies used are community-based learning, group work, role-playing, inquiry, and discussions which are in line with post-modern perspectives of learning. These strategies require learners to process new materials and make personal sense of it. It involves the practise of high-order mental skills such as creativity, evaluation, synthesis and analysis and also practise common skills like the ability to work with and communicate with others (Petty 2004:219). Learners and teachers work together to uncover, solve, and propose solutions to selected problems. Reconstructionists believe that students learn more, remember it longer, and apply it to new situations better if they learn through experience rather than through being told to do something. Hence, AECC is a learner centred curriculum which focuses on the learning needs and future goals of learners and finds meaning from student feedback. Since focus is on learners it provides direction for the curriculum and forms the basis of a post-modern curriculum design.

As the nation’s population has become diverse with multiple identities, educators have sought instructional practices that will expedite English language acquisition in a practical, efficient, and meaningful way. Amongst the plethora of theories that have evolved Constructivism is deemed as the post-modern technique of knowledge. It is the main underlying learning theory in post-modern education (Braund 1966). The basic idea behind this theory is that knowledge is constructed or invented in the mind which opposes the modernist mindset which says that knowledge is discovered rather than constructed. Knowledge is seen as a human construction, tentative and conjectural, which keeps on undergoing revision as learners acquire more experience. Usher and Johnston assert that this experience is not to enumerate the knowledge gained and become a better person but, is an end in itself, leading to further experience (1997:10).

Constructivists and postmodernists ‘leave behind one-size-fits-all methods and negotiate activities and objectives based on the needs of the learner, using knowledge of learning styles and multiple intelligences and encouraging meta-cognition and self-reflection in order to increase students’ self knowledge and capacity for making conscious meaning’ (Diaz-Rico, 2008). Likewise, they stress on the fact that collaborative learning or the sharing of experiences and ideas through language makes language both a personal and social construction (Zahorik, 1995:10-13). This is in contrast to the modernist view where individual consciousness is seen as the absolute origin of knowledge and action (Hadden, 1997:19). Consequently, Task based instruction has been chosen as the best method of language teaching by post-modern ESOL teachers. The ‘learning task provides a framework for meaningful interaction to take place, using ‘purposeful’ situations which refine cognition, perception and affect’ (Breen and Candlin, 1980:91).

According to Ellis, tasks can be seen as tools for constructing collaborative acts. He states that tasks cater for learning by providing opportunities for learners to use new language structures and items through collaboration with others, subsequently engaging in more independent use of the structures they have internalized in relatively undemanding tasks and finally using the structures in cognitively more complex tasks (Ellis, 2003:178).

Task based learning combine many features of post-modern education, viz. collaboration, autonomy, student-centeredness and negotiation of meaning. Tasks involve the learners in their learning which in turn promotes active decision making, problem-solving, critical thinking and responsibility of learning. It also includes formative self-assessment which requires learners to set goals, assess their achievements and reflect on their needs. This is a key aspect of post-modern education which considers every learner to be unique having a unique learning style.

Despite education being greatly influenced by postmodern practice, according to Taylor (1992:2) Postmodernity is not just a new theory in sociology but rather a challenge which questions the very bases of conventional sociological understanding. Incredulity as referred to by Lyotard is a scepticism that results from discrepancy between modernity’s ideas and promises and the actuality of the oppression and destruction that characterises the contemporary world. Postmodernity however cannot provide an alternative grand narrative making it impossible for adult educators to completely disinvest from the ‘grand narratives’ despite gradually losing faith in them. This is evident in the fact that adult educators cannot avoid talking in terms of ‘progress’ while at the same time doubting whether more of the same will automatically continue to do so (Usher et al 1997:7). In other words, modernist discourse provide us with ways of talking and knowing which we cannot readily dispense with and postmodern attitudes enable us to recognise this.

Although postmodernism lacks a concrete model, consumerism has taken the place of science, religion, and reason. People see themselves as consumers and producers. One implication of this on education is that it is seen as a product having a customer service. Learners are viewed as customers who are allowed to select the products they desire and the nature of the delivery of the products. This is a fundamental paradigm shift from the traditional model of education where students accepted the school’s prerogative in defining the nature, purpose, and methods of the educational experience. Learners are now able to look for the best deals, feel a sense of entitlement, negotiate, and can become litigious if disappointed.

Education these days teach that truth is relative, all cultures are equally deserving of respect, and all values are subjective. We cannot however ignore the fact that Western culture continuously comes under severe criticism and racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia are considered to be universally evil. Subject matter of courses have shifted dramatically away from traditional fare as colleges and universities are increasingly offering courses that are non traditional which focus on themes of sex, race, gender. Similarly, the Open University is an example of a postmodern education organisation which uses a more flexible approach to teaching. It uses electronically mediated communication to advertise and teach within higher education both domestically and globally.

Although postmodernism seems to have evolved in the higher education sector of the UK it has not been openly received by the education system as a whole. Schools are still bound to the concept of performativity like nationwide league tables and standard attainment target tests and the education system continuous to be shaped by wider political and economic forces which postmodernists tend to ignore. According to Apple (1997 cited in Haralambos 2004:730) types of knowledge that are valued by postmodernists particularly cultural theory, are not highly valued or seen as important in the exercise of power. Instead he believes that ‘technical/administrative knowledge’ is considered to be of the highest value and people gain position, power, and influence by possessing such knowledge. Apple argues that contemporary societies are still run by capitalism and we should not allow postmodernists make us think otherwise.

Furthermore, although consumption has increased in importance the nature of consumption still depends upon income which is in turn is determined by occupation and social class. Hence, much disparity still exists in education as it relates to racial, ethnic, or disadvantaged groups. The national curriculum still represents a male-dominated, European-centred, Western and capitalist culture and contributions of underrepresented groups like Asians, Africans, the economically disadvantaged etc. are still not included. A culturally diverse curriculum is still to be created in order to reach all the learners especially those marginalised in contemporary schools. This however remains at odds with the centralisation of power in the hands of the government.

Hence, although postmodenists have been anxious to attack all grand narratives they have avoided claiming their approach as a coherent theory. Conversely, they have attempted to offer an explanation for what and how education works which in itself can be regarded as a theory. Having said that, postmodernism lacks sufficient empirical research to test its propositions. Although it does represent an important social theory, it fails to live up to the promise of sociology or to develop a set of scientifically and empirically tested propositions about how the social world works.




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