Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Paulo Freire

And so to Paulo Freire (1921-1997), a towering figure in adult education for social purpose.

Freire was the Brazilian educator, political philosopher and writer, best known for developing his highly influential Pedagogy of the Oppressed. He used his own experience to shape his educational practice, having suffered from poverty and hunger as a child and imprisonment and exile as an adult. He spoke movingly about how hunger had limited his own ability to learn in school – an issue that’s all too relevant for some children and schools today.

A persuasive man with an impressive intellect and strong convictions, he was determined that the world’s poor and exploited people should have better lives, especially in his native Brazil.

Freire believed that education has an essential role in relieving poverty and transforming lives. He developed methods of encouraging literacy while also raising social and political awareness through his educational work with impoverished Brazilians. He showed that oppressed people could become involved in democracy even if they hadn’t known about the concept before. He won poor people’s trust and attention, convincing them that they should and could have a say in the day-to-day decision-making that affected their lives.

Freire firmly opposed the idea that an education system should be like a bank, with students expected to withdraw specific types of knowledge that more powerful people had decided were necessary. (E.g. UK education policies of recent years?) Instead, he believed that there should be dialogue between the student and teacher and that the teacher should never impose their views of a problem on a student.

In Freire’s approach, literacy workers studied their students’ lives and derived a curriculum that promoted their sense of dignity and self-worth in their own knowledge. The educators encouraged students to develop literacy skills while they explored issues of exploitation, the meaning of culture and the power of written language through critical action learning. He and his colleagues created more than 20,000 ‘culture circles’ throughout Brazil using these principles. They worked on the basis that ‘understanding the world was as important as understanding the word’ and that students’ increased awareness of political matters could provide a basis for action to improve community wellbeing and resilience. (These concepts are highly relevant to the current review and development of the WEA’s curriculum .)

Freire proposed that the use of his ‘see-judge-act’ student-centred methods could raise critical consciousness and create change by inspiring students to:

  • see the systems that preserved injustice
  • judge the assumptions that maintained those social systems
  • act to achieve equality and democracy.

The Paulo Freire Institute was created in Sao Paulo in 1991. It brings scholars together to foster dialogue about new educational theories and interventions in a Freireian tradition.

Freire was a brilliant thinker and his ideas about education and society were original and effective, so it seems odd that his writing (or his translators’ interpretation) is unexpectedly complex for someone so interested in making ideas more accessible to the masses. Evidently he wasn’t a fan of dumbing down. He didn’t patronise the poor, but worked with them to broaden their horizons and to make sure that they could be involved actively in democratic processes.

This is a very condensed summary of Freire’s work. Please feel free to add any comments about his relevance to current educational policy developments at a time of austerity, pointers to other resources or any other thoughts on Freire’s contributions.

Pedagogy of the NEETs?

About Ann Walker
Adult education and lifelong learning specialist and campaigner. LinkedIn:

7 Responses to Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Paulo Freire

  1. Rev John Smallwood says:

    Freire is not a one off.

    For an example of the same epistemology as Freire I commend the Gospel of Solentiname by Ernesto Cardenal. Why? Because of his use of dialogue in creating new understanding of the meaning of the Christian Gospels. What is important is the idea that formal training in their interpretation can prevent understanding them, though at times he uses examples of specialist subject knowledge, such as his knowledge of New Testament Greek, to spark ideas in those with whom he is in dialogue. It is hard to use Freire’s and Cardenal’s dialogical methodology if the tutor believes that there is a ‘right answer’ to questions, and in my teaching I have to find ways to avoid a colleague giving the opinion that there is a right answer, and that she knows it. How much does accreditation – whether for funding purposes or because the learners want it – and a skills based model limit the creation of new knowledge and understanding by giving a set of correct behaviours, attitudes and truths? Do we sell our souls in return for accreditation and funding? Do we find our souls and our selves by learning with no boundaries set by pre-post-modern grand meta-narratives?

  2. Good morning Ann! I’ll recommend this blog to Year 1 Certs students thinking about embedding literacy today.

  3. Ruth Tanner WEA Trustee says:

    For me, what encapsulated Paulo Freire,s motivational was to learn that in his native Brazil in the 1950s, literacy was actually a qualification for the vote, a fact which makes explicit the implicit reasons we support literacy and basic skills projects on our work today. The fact that during his time as Director of Cultural Exrension in the early 60s 300 sugar cane workers were taught to read and write in 45 days pays tributenot only to his learning methods but also to his belief that theory is but idle philosophising unless put into practice and his comitment to “fight alongside the people for the recovery of their stolen humanity.”

  4. Val Woodward says:

    An excellent summary, thanks. His ideas, along with those of others writers, underpin the philosophy of the Community Research for Better Health project, (West Midlands WEA). I still had not got round to writing a blog myself. These pieces show how much writing there is that can help us reflect on and develop our own policy and practice. And help us explore ways we see the world and understand knowledge creation (epistemology and ontology). Something we too rarely get to do. I’m pleased to say CRBH has been widely praised for its different, and useful approach to physical activity, health, research and communities.

  5. Simon Skidmore says:

    Its an excellent article Ann. However, I would like to highlight that the “See Judge Act” Method attributed to Paulo Freire was certainly not his idea but is in fact borrowed and developed from Cardinal Joseph Cardijn and the Young Christian Workers Movement.

    • Ann Walker says:

      Thanks for the comment Simon and for the interesting link – one to follow up further. Does this link with Rev. John Smallwood’s comment above?

      Thanks also to Rev. John, Lou, Ruth and Val for earlier comments. I’m sorry that I’d missed them until now.

  6. Sometimes ideas come full circle, and the “See/Judge/Act” which Freire adopted as “Naming/Reflection/Action” (i.e. ‘Praxis’) has become popular in Trade Union Education as “Problem/Information/Planning”. P Taylor’s (1993) The texts of Paulo Freire (p.73) makes the link between Base Ecclesial Communities in Latin America and Freire, though the insight with TU Ed is my own as a WEA tutor. All three are about transformational learning, and education for a social purpose.

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