Paulo Freire

Paulo Freire’s pedagogy was developed for the oppressed adult illiterates of Brazil, but it also inspired  teachers and social educators all over the world.

Replacing the banking model

“The teacher is a lecturer, and the students are containers that need to be filled by the teacher. The more he puts into the container, the better a teacher he is. And the meeker the containers let themselves be filled, the better the students.”

This is how the Brazilian pedagogue Paulo Freire described the typical teaching situation with lectures, homework and questioning. He devoted his life to change this type of teaching and learning.

He thought the “banking model”, as Freire called the type of teaching, where the student’s consciousness was considered “a bank” in which the teacher deposits knowledge, was oppressing. The model reduces both students and cognition to objects which the teacher can manipulate at will.

Critical pedagogy

Paulo Freire created “critical pedagogy”, where the teacher doesn’t teach, but is learning while in dialogue with the students. And the students learn while teaching. In critical pedagogy, the student’s actions aren’t limited to receiving, sorting and storing the teacher’s banking deposit. On the contrary, the student has a real opportunity to recognize reality and to act on that recognition.

A battle against poverty and oppression

Paulo Freire was from the upper middle class in Brazil, but early on he had to experience poverty himself, when his family lost all their money during the great depression in 1929. This founded his lifelong battle against poverty and oppression.

Young Freire initially wanted to study law, but he acknowledged that the court system only served the ruling class. Instead he became a pedagogue, and already in 1947, he took the initiative to initiate a literacy project among the poor and oppressed farmers. At that time around half of the 30 million inhabitants of Brazil were illiterate. Under these circumstances, Freire developed his pedagogical principles.

Dialogue as supporting principle

The farm workers’ particular reality was the starting point for his method. The reading class began with selected words that were highly emotive and expressed the students’ life situation.

Hence, the dialogue was the supporting principle – or as Freire expressed it:

“The teaching must begin with solving the teacher/student contradiction, by reconciling the opposite poles, so that both parts are both teachers and students at the same time. And in such a manner that the students’ creative ability isn’t belittled or destroyed, and their credulity enhanced.”

Imprisoned and tortured

According to Paulo Freire, the purpose of teaching is to support the student’s critical sense, so they are not easy to dominate but able to act. And that is not in the interest of the oppressors, says Freire. On the contrary. The oppressors only try to change the mind-set of the oppressed – not the situation which is oppressing them.

The Pedagogy of the Oppressed

The oppressed are treated as individual cases, as marginal persons who deviate from the general configuration of a “good, organized and just” society. They are regarded as the pathology of the healthy society which must therefore adjust these “incompetent and lazy” folk to its own patterns by changing their mentality,” Freire writes in the book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, his manifesto.

The solution is not to “integrate’ the oppressed into the structure of oppression, but to transform that structure so that they can become “beings for themselves.” 

Persecution and exile

A pedagogical programme like this was not accepted, since the military took over power of Brazil in 1964. Freire was persecuted, imprisoned and tortured, until he escaped to Chile. Here, he became a leader of a literacy programme under UN, and Salvador Allende’s socialist government used his ideas in their educational planning.

However, in 1973 the elected socialist government Chile is overthrown in a military coup, and Freire, his wife and their five children need to run again. Freire worked at Harvard University for a year, then he became consultant for the World Council of the Churches with headquarters in Geneva as he developed specific teaching principles in Guinea-Bissau, Nicaragua and Angola.

After 15 years in exile, Freire returned to Brazil in 1979, where he taught at the Catholic University in Sao Paolo until his death.

Inspiring progressive educators worldwide

Freire’s teaching principles have inspired progressive movements in the third world. Freire’s ideas continue to inspire teachers, social educators and pedagogues worldwide as they recognise the importance of dialogue, and the necessity to base any teaching on the children’s own lives and experiences. 

“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the
powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral. ”
― Paulo Freire

The Father of Critical Pedagogy

Paulo Freire was one of the most influential philosophers of education of the twentieth century. He worked wholeheartedly to help people both through his philosophy and his practice of critical pedagogy.

A native of Brazil, Freire’s goal was to eradicate illiteracy among people from previously colonised countries and continents.

His insights were rooted in the social and political realities of the children and grandchildren of former slaves. His ideas, life, and work served to ameliorate the living conditions of oppressed people.

In his later work “Pedagogy of Solidarity”, Paulo Freire presents his ideas on the importance of community solidarity in moving toward social justice in schools and society. In a set of talks and interviews shortly before his death, Freire addresses issues not often highlighted in his work, such as globalization, post-modern fatalism, and the qualities of educators for the 21st century


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