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Paulo Freire was born and grew up in the Northeast of Brazil where his experiences deeply influenced his life work. The world economic crisis forced Freire to know hunger and poverty at a young age. Because Freire lived among poor rural families and laborers, he gained a deep understanding of their lives and of the effects of socio-economics on education. His experience with poverty helped him to realize that the ignorance and lethargy of the poor people in his country were the direct product of the whole situation of economic, social and political domination.
This essay argues that the theories and approaches of Paulo Freire are still relevant to education and development particularly to the global south which is under the influence of neo-colonialism and where there are the vast majority of the world’s illiterate population. However, it asserts that their genuine applicability is unlikely due to influences from both undemocratic governments in the global south and the existing powerfulness of the northern nations to influence the policy makings of the south countries. In doing so, the essay discusses some important educational concepts of Freire such as banking education and the problem posing model, and goes on to discuss on their current relevance for education and development.
Paulo Freire (1921-1997) is one of the world’s best-known and most influential philosophers and educators from the South whose ideas have subsequently influenced many other academic disciplines. Born in Recife, Brazil, he grew up in a lower middle class family and, as a child, did himself experience hunger, malnutrition and poverty. He even went on to work with the poor and this sharing of their life led him to the discovery of what he describes as the culture of silence, of the dispossessed (Fritze, n.d.:1). These experiences helped him to realize that the ignorance and lethargy of the poor people in his country were the direct product of the whole situation of economic, social and political domination (Ibid). He is best known for his work in and influence on literacy campaigns and programs first in Latin America, Africa and Asia.
Education, for Freire, is a part of the process of the revolutionary transformation of society. Freire’s philosophy places a deep respect and humility before poor and oppressed people and a respect for their understanding of the world they inhabit. He considers their contributions no less important than the knowledge of dominant groups or as he calls them ‘the oppressors’. This respect and humility fosters a condition of trust and communication between teacher and learner in which education becomes a collective activity, a dialogue between participants rather than a top-down one-way lecture from one person for the benefit of the other. As Gadotti (1994) puts it, cited by Nyirenda (1996:7), Freire’s literacy method is founded on the dialogical and dialectical relationship between the educator and the educatee who in this relationship should learn together. He rejects the teacher-student dichotomy, suggesting that a deep reciprocity be inserted into our notions of teacher-student and student-teacher relationships (Gadotti and Torres, 2009: 1260).
However, this doesn’t mean that learners’ knowledge, feelings and understanding should go unchallenged or that the teacher should act as a mere facilitator. He should intervene in order to help the learner reflect on aspects of his/her cultural, social and gender constructs and help the learner to think critically (Rugut and Osman, 2013:24). Freire’s view of the teacher having authority without being an authoritarian (Ibid) who listen to and affirm the experiences of the learners without legitimatizing or validating their content. Freire asserts that all experiences, of both students and teachers, should be critically interrogated and analyzed and their ideological assumptions and ideas should be explained. ‘Praxis’ is the term developed by Freire to describe this process of dialogue and reflection leading on to change through action or intervention and or political change
‘Banking education’ is a phrase coined by Freire to explain the model of education in which the job of the teacher is to deposit in the minds of the learners, considered to be empty or ignorant, bits of information or knowledge, similar to that of depositing money in a bank account. Freire criticized this model of education because he believed it made students into passive objects to be acted upon by the teacher. He argued that the goal of ‘banking education’ is to demobilize the people within the existing establishment of power by conditioning them to accept the cultural, social, political status quo of the dominant culture. According to Nyirenda (1996:13), in ‘banking education’:
Knowledge becomes a donation from those who know to those who don’t know anything. Hence banking education aims at maintaining the division between those who know and those who don’t know, between the oppressors and the oppressed. It denies the learner and educator the possibility of dialogue. Banking education fails to stimulate intellectual discipline. Instead it kills curiosity, creativity and any investigative spirit in the learners and encourages the passive behavior of the learners. In this model knowledge is seen as a gift presented to the student from the teacher and learners are considered as marginal, ignorant and resource-less. Freire saw this as false generosity from the dominant group (oppressors) and a way of dominating and controlling the people (the oppressed) to improve or maintain their own interests. ‘Banking education’ inhibits creativity and domesticates the intentionality of consciousness by isolating consciousness from the world, thereby denying people their ontological and historical vocation of becoming more fully human (Freire, 2000:83). Some of the tools a banking education model uses include a pre-prescribed curriculum, syllabus or course book, which either takes no account or makes assumptions of learners’ views or knowledge of the world which Freire calls ‘primers’.
Problem-posing model of education is the antidote for the ‘banking education’ model proposed by Freire as an instrument for liberation. Those truly committed to liberation must reject the banking concept in its entirety, adopting instead a concept of women and men as conscious beings, and consciousness as consciousness intent upon the world (Freire, 2000:79). In the problem-posing model, the teacher and learner discuss and analyze their experiences, feelings and knowledge of the world together. Instead of the belief that learners’ and teacher’s situation in the world is fixed, as the banking model suggests, the problem-posing model explores problems or realities people find themselves in as something which can be transformed (Mclaren, 2000), quoted by Rugut and Osman (2013:24). According to Freire, the job of the teacher is not to provide answers to problems, but to help learners achieve a form of critical thinking about the situation – Freire called this conscientization, i.e. the process of developing a critical awareness of one’s social reality through reflection and action. This makes it possible to understand that the world or society is not fixed and is potentially open to transformation and to imagine a new and different reality. Freire (1997), cited by Rugut and Osman (2013:27), wrote that the development of critical awareness through conscientization alters power relations between students and teachers, the colonized and the colonizer, thereby transforming objects of knowledge into historical subjects.
In order to successfully undertake the process of conscientization, the oppressed must challenge their own perception of the oppressor. Freire argues that the oppressed think of themselves as ‘less than’ or something lacking. He contends that they have been conditioned to view the practices and behaviors of the dominant groups as complete, whole and correct. To become whole complete and correct means to imitate the practices of the dominant culture. To counter this perception means engaging the learner in a process of dis-identification with dominant culture/oppressor and to help the learner to imagine a new being and a new life according to their own rationality (Freire,1973). Freire introduced conceptual tools such as ‘cultural circles’ as opposed to the ordinary classroom setting; ‘generative themes and codifications’ as opposed to pre-prescribed curriculum; and dialogue as opposed to making the teacher the only responsible person depositing knowledge in the student.
The culture circle is a non-hierarchal ‘class’ model in which the teacher and students together discuss generative themes that have significance within the context of students’ lives. The culture circle involves creating a democratic space where both the teacher and students are free to articulate their shared understanding of how their world came to be like it is and how to act to change their future and where everyone’s’ voice has equal weight (Rugut and Osman, 2013:25). The conditions needed for this, i.e. generative themes, have to be actively created as it does not often occur naturally which can mean challenging cultural, gender and other status related power relationships and stratifications (Ibid).
Dialogue is one of the central components in Freire’s liberating education which he conceptualizes it as a conversation among equals. It is an encounter, mediated by the world itself, between men and women to make sense of the world. According to Freire (1988), dialogue cannot occur between those who want to name the world and those who do not want this naming; between those who deny other people the right to speak their world and those who are right to speak has been denied to them, cited by Joshua et al. (2014:23). Freire argues that dialogue is not just about deepening understanding but is part of making a difference in the world (Rugut and Osman, 2013:27). Dialogue becomes a form of collective praxis directly concerned with unveiling inequitable conditions obscured by the ruling classes which is important process that can enhance community and build social capital which lead to justice and human flourishing (Ibid).
Generative themes and Codifications
Generative theme are a cultural or political topics of great concern or importance to participants from which discussion can be generated. Freire believes that in order for an educational experience to be relevant and important, the teacher-student and the student-teacher need to work together to identify the themes to create the program content or educational units of study (Freire, 1978), quoted by Joshua et al. (2014:24). Generative themes are represented in the form of codifications – the representation of generative themes either by a word or short phrase or a visual representation (picture or photograph). Participants are able to step back from these visual representations of their ideas or history and decode or explore them critically by regarding them objectively rather than simply experiencing them (Ibid). These decoding processes make it possible for participants to intervene and initiate change in society. Freire highlights that this process should not be carried out mechanically but through creatively awakening the consciousness of the learner.
‘… people who live in poverty should understand their experiences of want, fear, discrimination and exclusion in terms of human rights abuses, violations and exploitations, and not in terms of natural phenomena, as consequences of their own failings, or as situations they have brought upon themselves’. (ActionAid, 2008:1)
I will try to discuss this section in light of the global south which is under the influence of neo-colonialism and where there are the vast majority of the world’s illiterate population. These societies are currently still commanded by elites, be they military or bourgeois politicians, and the ordinary citizens have become mere objects or things without being aware of it (Nyirenda, 1996:14). Given the realities of the global south, i.e. illiteracy, poverty, lack of democracy, and the like, I believe that Freire’s theories and approaches are of relevance contemporary in providing the education which can lead to personal liberation, self-determination, political mobilization and action, and radical social transformation. Freire did not address the question of development from the perspective of the economist, but rather from the perspective of the political and pedagogical scholar-activist trying to reinvigorate the question of ethics in education and its implication for citizenship building (Gadotti and Torres, 2009: 1257). Participation and empowerment are key factors for sustainable development. Cornwall (2000) characterizes Freirian approach to development as ‘people’s self-development’ where they themselves are involved in collective action and mobilization intended to lead to self-reliant development and the capacity to negotiate on new terms with those with power including the state (cited by Barroso, 2002:4). Empowerment occurs when people realise that they can make a contribution or solve problems, and they have a right and responsibility to do so. In this regard, the concept of conscientization has a great deal to offer by making people aware that the oppression they suffer is not a permanent fact, rather it results from the operation of unjust structures and mechanisms in society which, once understood, can be changed. Empowerment leads to people, organizations, and communities gaining control over their lives, enabling them to move from powerless non-participants to active and effective citizens.
Literacy programs that appropriate parts of Freire’s method while ignoring the essential politicization of the process of reading the world as a limit situation to be overcome distort and subvert the process of literacy education (StateUniversity.com). Hence, it is my contention that the genuine applicability of Freire’s liberating education is unlikely due to influences from both undemocratic governments in the global south and the existing powerfulness of the northern nations to influence the policy makings of the south countries. Concepts like participation, empowerment, social justice and equality are not just pleasant and friendly ideas for non- democratic states. Hence, given the political nature of Freire’s ideas political confrontations with the state becomes inevitable inducing development practices to move towards more mechanical service delivery based on the mainstream participatory development paradigm, relegating threatening Frierian issues to the discourse level (Barroso, 2002:22). Similarly, development work is too often drawn into the latest fashions of government policy agendas because that is where the funding is which takes it all back to the conditioning of the global south to accept the cultural, social, and political ideology of the global north.
Freire views education as a deeply political project oriented toward the transformation of society. According to Paulo Freire education has to be a liberating force for the oppressed in which the oppressed involve in dialogue by raising questions and debating answers which encourages critical thinking. Therefore, he criticizes what he termed as banking education model which made students into passive objects to be acted upon by the teacher. Instead, he promotes the problem posing model wherein the teacher and learner discuss and analyze their experiences, feelings and knowledge of the world together. In this model, teachers need to be learners themselves who do not force their views on students. Freire’s generative themes is a student centered system of learning that challenges how knowledge is constructed in the formal education system and in society at large. This essay claimed that Freire’s theories and approaches are relevant and useful in the world today, especially for the global south, for there is need for critical analysis of the situation, dialogue, intervention and action. Nonetheless, the essay further contended that genuine applicability of Freire’s liberating education is unlikely due to influences from both undemocratic governments in the global south and the existing powerfulness of the northern nations to influence the policy makings of the south countries.