January 2016        

Paulo Freire: Revolutionary educational thinker

Eoghan O’Neill

Paulo Freire was one of the most revolutionary of educational thinkers. His seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, is a major contribution to the concept of learning. It delves beneath the mechanics of the methodology of learning to encompass concepts such as conscientisation—developing consciousness with the power to transform reality—and praxis, which involves reflection and action and reflection on action.
    In tandem, these two concepts move learning from the passive sphere of teacher and student to an active “dialogical” interaction of teacher as student and student as teacher, which helps to integrate learning in lived reality.
    Freire’s methods provide the means for an inclusive process of education. However, it is Freire’s insistence that these methods of education be centred on the reality of the student that transforms the method into a revolutionary act.
    “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
    Freire’s central argument is that education is always a political act. It can be used to maintain the status quo, or it can be used to bring about social change. He calls the traditional form of teacher-student teaching “banking education,” whereby learners are not encouraged to think critically and consequently do not challenge their social and political positions; instead they receive knowledge “deposits,” which are absorbed without reflection. Their oppression is perpetuated by this inability to question, failing to take into account the notion of their own agency.
    Freire argues that under traditional education the oppressed follow what they are “taught,” and that no resistance to their oppressor takes place. Indeed the oppressed form an identity with their oppressor. “The oppressed, having internalised the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom.”
    Freire also warns against those leaders, particularly those on the left, who, under the guise of liberation, would seek to impose their will upon the oppressed. “Leaders who do not act dialogically but insist on imposing their decisions do not organise the people—they manipulate them. They do not liberate, nor are they liberated: they oppress.” And “to simply think about the people, as the dominators do, without any self-giving in that thought, to fail to think with the people, is a sure way to cease being revolutionary leaders.”
    Some critics argue that Freire’s argument is flawed, as he does not consider such issues as gender and racism. However, such criticisms are misplaced. Freire provides us with the educational tools for engaging with all the issues that workers experience. Whether it is class, gender, or racism, the tools of dialogue, praxis and conscientisation provide a means whereby workers can engage with these issues.
    There are four elements in Freire’s theory:
    (1) Dialogical rather than curricular. This emphasises his belief that we can learn from each other. An important aspect of the dialogical approach is Freire’s emphasis on respect, which involves people working with each other rather than one person acting on another. This emphasis on respect foreshadows Jürgen Habermas’s argument for the necessity of respect in public discourse.
    The dialogical approach also acts as a counter to “banking,” whereby the tutor views the student as an empty vessel, to be filled with his knowledge. “In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those who they consider to know nothing.”
    (2) Praxis, which is a process of reflection and action and reflection on action. Praxis is the point of the dialogical experience. The praxis arising from the co-operative activity can enhance the sense of community and build social capital. It is not enough for people to come together in dialogue in order to gain knowledge of their social reality: they must act together upon their environment in order to critically reflect upon their reality and so transform it through further action and critical reflection.
    “People will be truly critical if they live in the plenitude of the praxis, that is, if their action encompasses a critical reflection which increasingly organises their thinking and thus leads them to move from a purely naïve knowledge of reality to a higher level, one which enables them to perceive the causes of reality.”
    (3) Freire’s method gave emphasis to naming the world. This is an important aspect for those who do not have a voice. It arises from the process of conscientisation: consciousness-raising. Learners developed a consciousness not only of the reality in which they lived but of the causes of that reality.
    Furthermore, conscientisation has within it the power to transform reality. “The term ‘conscientização’ refers to learning to perceive social, political and economic contradictions and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality.”
    (4) Freire insisted on situating the educational activity in the lived experience of the learner. “Problematising” was the kernel of this educational process. This opened up a series of possibilities for the way informal educators can approach practice. “In problem-posing education, people develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality but as a reality in process, in transformation.”
    Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a must-read for all who are interested in working with workers to challenge the forces of capitalist and imperialist oppression. It provides a blueprint that places workers to the fore in understanding the nature of their oppression. Freire gives to workers a means of building revolutionary consciousness and provides a means for informed action against the forces of oppression.

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