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Paulo Freire

Page history last edited by Stephanie Knox 13 years, 8 months ago

Paulo Freire: Lesson Objectives

After this section, participants should be able to meet the following objectives:

  • Understand the main principles of Freire's educational philosophy
  • Describe Freire's contribution to the field of peace education
  • Understand how to apply Freire's ideas to a classroom setting
  • Understand how to apply Freire's ideas to teacher education 


Guiding Questions 

Before you read the following section, consider the following questions: 

  •  What does it mean to be oppressed? Do I experience oppression? How do my students experience oppression?
  • What is my relationship with my students like? How can I describe it? How would my students describe it? 
  •  What is the relationship between what my students learn and their living reality? Is their learning situated in their life context, or is what they learn in school separate from this reality?





Paulo Freire (1921-1997) was a Brazilian educator and pedagogue, and has been one of the most influential thinkers in the field of peace education. Freire was best known for his work in the field of critical pedagogy (see also Critical Peace Education ). While there is no static definition of critical pedagogy, and it has undergone many transformations since its inception, the term has traditionally referred to "educational theory and teaching and learning practices that are designed to raise learners' critical consciousness regarding oppressive social conditions" (Stevens, 2002). 
In Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1972), his first and most famous book, he introduces his main concepts and theories, such as the relationship between the oppressed and the oppressors, the banking education system versus problem posing education, the student-teacher relationship, and praxis, which are described below. When Freire's dialogic method of teaching was introduced in the seventies, it was rapidly embraced by peace educators (Reardon, 1999). 


Freire's Philosophy: Key Concepts

The oppressed, the oppressors, and their relationship

According to Freire, the social order consists of oppressors and the oppressed, and the oppressors use education as a form of oppression to maintain unequal power relations. The unjust social relations between the oppressed and oppressors results in the dehumanization of the oppressed, and they must struggle to overcome this in order to restore the humanity of both (Freire, 1972). The oppressed cannot be liberated by the oppressors, but rather by themselves and "by those who are in true solidarity with them" (1972, p. 45). True solidarity means struggling alongside the oppressed in order to transform reality for the liberation of all humanity, including the oppressors.


It is important to note that there are elements of oppressors and oppressed in everyone, and thus no one solely belongs to one group. Furthermore, usually in the struggle for liberation, the oppressed have a tendency to become oppressors themselves. Freire gives the following example: "It is a rare peasant who, once 'promoted' to overseer, does not become more of a tyrant towards his former comrades than the owner himself" (1972, p. 46). Thus it is common for the oppressed to become oppressors, and vice versa, resulting in an unending cycle of oppression of all.


Education, therefore, must take into account this power relation. The pedagogy of the oppressed is "a pedagogy that must be forged  with, not for, the oppressed" (1972, p. 48). Through this pedagogy, oppression and its causes become objects of reflection by the oppressed, and from that reflection comes action towards liberation. Freire also emphasises the dynamic nature of this pedagogy, and that it will be "made and remade" over the course of this process of reflection. A key component of this reflection is the realization that reality is not a static, unchangeable world, but rather "a limiting situation which they can transform" (1972, p. 49). This understanding is necessary for liberation, and is a motivating force for taking action. 


According to Freire, the pedagogy of the oppressed has two stages:
1. The oppressed unveil the world of oppression and through the praxis (see below) commit themselves to its transformation.
2. After the reality of oppression has been transformed, the pedagogy becomes of all people in the process of permanent liberation (1972, p. 54).


The first stage deals with the consciousness of both the oppressed and the oppressors. The oppressor consciousness "tends to transform everything surrounding it into an object of domination" (1972, p. 58). The oppressed consciousness maintains a sense of fatalism, the resignation to the fate of being an object of domination by the oppressed, and the lack of awareness that the situation can be transformed. The oppressed are also likely to be attracted to the oppressor way of life, and to be self-deprecating and even violent to themselves or others of their group. The oppressed lack self-confidence, and have a "magical belief in the invulnerability and power of the oppressors" (1972, p. 64). 


In order to transform this consciousness, critical dialogue is used as a tool. This dialogue must translate into action in order for it to be truly liberating. This process of consciousness transformation is called conscientization, or critical consciousness (see below). 


Freire also discusses how, in the struggle for liberation, the leaders of the oppressed often end up using "educational" methods used by the oppressors, such as propaganda. Revolutionary leadership must practice "co-intentional education," a process of common reflection and action, through which leaders and people (or teachers and students) discover that they are permanent re-creators of the world, and through committed involvement, engage in the struggle for liberation.


 The banking system

Freire's development of critical pedagogy stems from his critique of what he calls the "banking system" of education, which is found in educational settings throughout the world. In the banking system, the teacher is the owner of knowledge, and transmits this knowledge to students, who are seen as empty vessels who lack knowledge. This system, he argues, is an instrument of oppression, and is used to maintain the existing societal power relations. The characteristics of the banking system include:
  • The teacher talks about reality as if it is "motionless, static, compartmentalized, and predictable"
  • The teacher teaches and the students are taught (the teacher does not learn in this process)
  • The teacher knows everything and the students know nothing
  • The students receive, memorize, and repeat the "knowledge" that the teacher gives them (1972, p. 71-73).
By minimizing the creativity and critical thinking of the students, the banking system serves the oppressors by preventing the students from understanding or transforming reality.  


Implicit in the banking system is the dichotomy between human beings and the world, that human beings are simply in the world and separate from it. The individual thus possesses an empty "mind" passively open to deposits of reality from the outside world (1972, p. 75). Therefore, the role of the educator in the banking system is to regulate the way reality "enters into" the students. Education also serves to indoctrinate the students to adapt to the world of oppression. Education itself is thus a form of oppression, and serves to maintain the existing social order. 


Education for the struggle of liberation, therefore, must involve the rejection of the banking system and the reconciliation of the student-teacher relationship, so that both are simultaneously teachers and students (72). In the banking system, the student-teacher relationship is vertical, with the teacher in a position of power and superiority. To resolve this, a more horizontal relationship between teachers and students should be promoted, as both have knowledge to share, and both have the capacity and need to teach and learn. 


Problem-posing eduction

Friere sees problem-posing education as the antithesis of the banking system, and through problem-posing education both teachers and students can achieve liberation. The key pedagogical principle of problem-posing education is dialogue between teachers and students. Through problem-posing education, the oppressed critically question reality, and engage in acts of cognition rather than transfers of information (1972, p. 79). In order for problem-posing education to occur, the student-teacher dichotomy must be resolved. The teacher is no longer the one who teaches, but is rather engaged in dialogue with the student, who in turn teach the teacher. Both teachers and students teach and learn through this process. Through this process of dialogue, teachers and students critically examine reality, and come to realize its dynamic, transformational nature. 
According to Nina Wallerstein (1978), there are 5 stages of problem-posing education that can be remembered by the acronym SHOWeD: See, Happening, Our (lives), Why, and Do (Schaffer, 1983).
1. See: have students describe what they see; observation
2. Happening: Define the problem(s)
3. Our lives - share similar experiences
4. Why? - Question why there´s a problem
5. Do - Strategize what they can do about the problem


These stages are not fixed, but can rather be used as a practical guide for teachers to engage their students on a path of critical inquiry and action.



 Praxis is defined by Freire as "reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it" (1972, p. 51). Neither reflection nor action can stand alone in order to be truly transformative; both are necessary elements in the process of liberation. The quest for liberation "cannot be purely intellectual but must involve action; nor can it be limited to mere activism, but must include serious reflection: only then will it be a praxis" (1972, p. 65). Theory alone does not translate to action, and uninformed activism is ineffective. Thus praxis is the constant engagement in reflection and action with the goal of transformation and liberation.



Conscientization is a term coined by Freire (in Portuguese, conscientização) is roughly translated into English as critical consciousness. Freire wrote extensively on this topic, including the book Education for Critical Consciousness (1973). Critical consciousness, which is achieved through dialogue and praxis, is a heightened level of awareness that results in a greater ability to take action in the changing world.

Freire in the classroom
How can Freireian ideas be applied to teacher education, and how can they be applied in the classroom? The following list is from "Educating the Educators: A Freireian Approach to the Crisis in Teacher Education":
1. Dialogue teaching: teachers engage students in dialogue to increase student engagement and to prevent the banking method of 'teacher talk'.
2. Critical literacy: going beyond the basic reading, writing, thinking, speaking, and listening habits, to engage learners into conceptual inquiry into self and society and into the discipline under study.
3. Situated Pedagogy:  Teachers situate the learning within the students´ cultures, environment, and real-life context. The goal is to integrate experiential materials with conceptual methods and academic subjects. This increases learners` interest in the subject, while also allowing them to engage with their reality and to critically analyze their own cultural context.
4. Ethnography and Cross-cultural communications: Teachers need to study the population that they are teaching for. Particularly in diverse populations, teachers need an understanding of language and cultures, and how to address communications in teaching in a multicultural society.
5. Change-agency: Teachers need to study community analysis and models of community change in order to serve as egalitarian change agents. They need to understand the institutions in which they are working, from the school organization, the school board or other governing body, community-school linkages, and other areas. This can also be understood as learning about the overarching structures in which they are teaching.
6. Inequality in School and Society: Teachers need to understand the inequalities both within the school and within the larger societal context.
7. Performing skills: Teachers can benefit from voice and drama training to enhance their ability to engage students through presentation and discussion-leading.
(Shor, 1987, p. 23-26).
Freire in Action: Theatre of the Oppressed

Theatre of the Oppressed, founded by Brazilian Augusto Boal, is a movement based on applying the principles in Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed to the realm of theatre. Boal's theory was that traditional theater was oppressive, as the spectators were passive participants. In Theatre of the Oppressed, spectators are turned into "spect-actors" and are encouraged to actively participate in the theatrical event. The goal of Theatre of the Oppressed is the transformation of the actors, spect-actors, and ultimately, society.


According to the International Theatre of the Oppressed Organization,

"The Theatre of the Oppressed is based upon the principle that all human relationships should be of a dialogic nature: among men and women, races, families, groups and nations, dialogue should prevail. In reality, all dialogues have the tendency to become monologues, which creates the relationship oppressors - oppressed. Acknowledging this reality, the main principle of Theatre of the Oppressed is to help restore dialogue among human beings" (Declaration of Principles, n.d.)


Theatre of the Oppressed can take on many different forms. The most commonly method of Boal's work is called Forum Theatre, in which performers act out a short scene of interaction between victim and oppressor. After the scene is acted out, the spect-actors are invited to take turns on the stage, assuming the role of one of the performers, until someone finds a way to end the oppression (Hewitt, 2009).


Theatre of the Oppressed thus uses techniques to actively engage participants in dialogue to liberate humanity. Please see the Arts section for another example of Theatre of Oppressed in the classroom.



Paolo Freire had a significant impact on peace education pedagogy and peace education as a transformative practice. Freire's ideas contribute greatly to improving the student-teacher relationship, and to using peace education as a tool for social change.


Questions for Comprehension and Reflection
  • What are the key principles of Freire's educational philosophy?
  • How did Freire contribute to the field of peace education?
  • How do Freire's ideas compare with the ideas of Montessori and Dewey? What are the similarities and differences?
  •  What does a classroom look like when Freirian principles are being applied? 
  •  How can I establish a more horizontal relationship with my students? How can I balance the need for a more equitable relationship with the need for discipline and authority in the classroom?
  •  Are there ways in which I am using the banking system of education? If so, how can I transform banking methods to problem-posing education? 
  •  What other pedagogies not mentioned here have the potential to be used for transformative, liberating education?



Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Harmondsworth: Penguin. Available in part at:



Freire, P. (1973) Education for Critical Consciousness. Available at:  http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=UKKFfiGCc5kC&oi=fnd&pg=PR7&dq=education+for+critical+consciousness+summary&ots=vNu_hLJXLI&sig=2ir6fJCcn4K0ghtwLgTo_2F73_Q#v=of=false


International Theatre of the Oppressed Organization. (n.d.) Declaration of Principles. Retrieved from http://www.theatreoftheoppressed.org/en/index.php?nodeID=23


Shor, I. ed. (1987). Freire for the Classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.


Stevens, C. (2002). Critical Pedagogy On the Web. Retrieved from: http://mingo.info-science.uiowa.edu/~stevens/critped/definitions.htm 

 Hewitt, S. (2009). Flipping the Script on Bias and Bullies. Teaching Tolerance, No. 35, Spring. Retrieved from http://www.tolerance.org/magazine/number-35-spring-2009/flipping-script-bias-and-bullies

Additional Resources

For more on conscientization, please see http://islandsinstitute.pbworks.com/Conscientization

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