Pedagogy of the Oppressed

I get really curious about something when to turns up in two different parts of my life in quick succession. Recently this happened with Paulo Freire’s book,The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It was highlighted in a chapter of University Teaching in Focus (a book which forms part of the course work for the University’s ‘Teaching and Learning within the Disciplines’ course) and in Alastair McIntosh’s  book ‘Spiritual Activism’. Having never heard of Freire before, I borrowed one of the ten copies held by the Uni library, and read it on holiday. What a book! Written for a certain time and place (the mid-late 20th century in central and south America) it still contains – for me anyway – insight and challenge. At the time I rattled out a long blog piece, which I posted, and then took down a few days later! This is a second attempt

Chapter 1.

In the first chapter the book sets out the cultural and social framework of oppressive systems, describing the ‘dehumanization’ of oppression and the negative effects it has on the lives and thoughts of all the people who live withn an oppressive society at whatever level.

At the bottom of the societal pile, the oppressed lose their rights, their land and their health. They know this, but may go on to rationalize and accept the system they live is as ‘the way it is’. The oppressed survive by ‘knuckling under’: for them to look around, think about and reflect upon a system that oppresses them, but one that they can’t change, is too painful.

The overseers (the promoted oppressed) are one rung up on the ladder. They have more access to resources and status: they have (as we might say) “bettered themselves”. But in doing so they have embraced the oppressive system, accepting it fully, perhaps knowing that their promoted status could be quickly removed, so they often become more brutal that the oppressors at the top.

The oppressors engineer the system. They rationalize away their creation by arguing that the division of society (‘us and them’) is the ‘established order’ and the ‘only way’ their society can ever properly function. In doing so they, consciously or subconsciously, harvest for themselves the best of everything, drawing it into a bubbled world, disconnected from the rest of society. Furthermore, Freire points out that those who live and work in an oppressive system can’t always recognize that their ‘normality’ is oppressive. It’s like those zero gravity plane trips: the passengers are floating free, while ignoring the fact they’re accelerating towards the ground at 10 m/s2! Science has a constant theme of observation made against fixed external references, so I think Freire’s ideas on ‘internal observation’ ring true.

I don’t think our modern western democracy has the same challenges as the South American countries Friere lived and worked in. But I don’t feel I can just ignore the book and it’s conclusions. I’m troubled by my lack of external perspective to the way my society works. Food banks, homelessness, student and household debt, hospital waiting lists, diverging wealth inequality (and its impact on health), inner city violence and the ways that bureaucracy squeezes out trust and innovation point to a system where the ideals of liberation and freedom, of both action and thought, for all, are not realities. If that only applies to ‘some’ in society, then there must be a level of ‘stratification’ somewhere, and if there are ‘social strata’, there is probably a mechanism for maintaining the divisions. Even if those dividing walls are not deliberately built or reinforced by an oppressive, upper class, some ‘force’ in our social mechanism must keep them there. I don’t think an oppressive social system requires a despotic ruling elite; a capitalist system that prioritises finance and ‘share value’ above the wider community and ‘shared values’ I think will eventually lead to the sort of outcomes where Freire’s ideas needs to be considered. I have another voice in my thoughts that tells me ‘But, Steve, that’s the way it is! It can’t be any other way.’…and I’m floating weightless in the plane again.

The book also talks about the ‘generous oppressors’ who ‘give’ to the oppressed community, but do so from their own place of wealth, safety and security. Freire points out that this is not joining a real, sharing community, and may foster a ‘dependence culture’ where the oppressed are contained and sustained by the elite class, who now use both carrot and stick in maintaining the structure of an oppressed state. Freire highlights the importance of living alongside the oppressed while suffering, and understanding, the same pains and frustration. This idea links into the concept of a learning community which Freire develops later on in the book.

For me, I need to accept that, at least in part, I’m part of, and moving at the same velocity, as my surrounding, and because of that, I won’t always have a ‘true’ perspective. As this is true in science, so in thinking about Friere’s ideas I now see it in my ‘thinking’. Perhaps, one of the more philosophical ideas in the book is the link between objectivity and subjectivity. Being a scientist by training and thinking, I would always prioritise objectivity, and have said that I was objective in my thinking. Freire suggests that: objectivity relates to those observations that can be measured, defined, classified and transmitted in such a way that it can be universally shared, understood and agreed upon; and that subjectivity is flexible, dependent on the observer (or the thinker) and is altered by their experiences. These *jectivities are linked, like the poles of a magnet: different forces (north/south, objectivity/subjectivity), but ones that cannot exist without each other. We always use our subjectivity when we try and understand events objectively. To ignore objectivity is to live in subjectivity: isolated and disengaged from our surroundings and the concrete ideas and concepts that our world has to offer. To ignore subjectivity is to live in objectivity: only accepting concrete ideas, missing the subtle flavours offered by the different experiences of other people. Freire expresses it as – to be wholely objective is to have a world without people, to be wholely subjective is to have a people without a world. The importance of realising that what I understand ‘objectively’ must also have my subjectivity wrapped up with it, has an impact on the way I devise and develop my ideas. I’m reminded that even scientific objectivity is not what we would like to think it is: the poor reproducibility (could I substitute ‘poor reproducibility’ for ‘high subjectivity’?) of published scientific papers is a hot topic just now. It seems that to reach an iron-clad ‘objective’ statement we need dialogue to refine what we dig out the ground as ‘rough ores’. The heat of dialogue burns off the impurities and the reduces the subjective oxides that are chemically bound to the solid, objective concepts.

Chapter 2.

In chapter 2 Freire describes two different models of education: ‘banking education’ (what we’d call the ‘filling empty vessels’ model) and ‘problem-posing education’. He argues that ‘banking education’ – where a student is asked to place facts in a secure memory vault, withdrawing the deposits during exams – works against creativity and imagination. ‘Problem-posing education’ occurs where teachers and students work together on real-world issues or problems that are relevant to their joint learning community. Freire argues against the division between teachers (who organize and arrange the curriculum based on their personal intellectual perspective) and students (who memorise and repeat the information as it is owned by the teachers). He proposes instead a community of ‘humanised’, critical thinkers, who learn together as they investigate the challenges the community has identified. As they do so, they own the new perspective, or information, that they, the community, discovers and develops. In the problem-posing educational model, both parties are equal members of the learning community, there are no teachers or students, only (and I’ve made up this word!) ‘tea-dents’. Tea-dents teach and learn together, in partnership. It’s ‘tea-rning’ (and I made up that word too!). Tea-rning takes place because of ‘authentic thinking’, which in turn takes place because of real ‘inter-personal dialogue’, and that dialogue comes from peer-to-peer communication between tea-dents. I liked Freire’s idea that problem-posing education is about communication within a community of equals, whereas banking education is about ‘communiques’ as disseminated from the TEACHER to the students.

Chapter 3.

Chapter 3 is long and develops many of the ideas covered in chapters 1 and 2, and was the part of the book that really got me thinking. The second half of chapter 3 is anecdotal evidence of successful interventions using the proposed models. However, overall the book has no actual evidence to show that Freire’s model works, even within it’s original context. There is some evidence that the models (called Freirian praxis, or empowerment education) have worked in healthcare settings. (See Wallerstein et al 1988 and other references by Wallerstein).

From my Western middle class perspective, Chapter 3 has some interesting challenges. Freire frequently quotes Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. I found it interesting reflecting on the careers and thoughts of these men as political thinkers as they tried changing dehumanizing cultures using educational means. However, I thought that Freire’s book ignored the human cost of Mao’s cultural revolution, and was written too early to anticipate Cambodia’s Killing Fields, or the fall of the communist model in the former USSR. The book didn’t offer any resolution between the dichotomy of Che Guevara’s quote “a true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love” and Guevara’s brutal treatment of the men he commanded or the role he played in the overseeing the execution squads in post-revolutionary Cuba.

Friere takes the ideas of men who tried (and in Guevara’s case, died) changing dehumanizing and oppressive regimes, and applies them to education. Friere considers education as an agent for cultural and intellectual reformation, but points to the failure of most forms of ‘revolutionary teaching’. The main problem – from Friere’s perspective – is that education in the newly liberated state is devised by revolutionary teachers who are focused on their own, or the revolution’s, perspective. Revolutionary teaching fails when it adopts the new top-down syllabus, delivered in the banking education format, and hopes that it produces different results from in the old top-down syllabus, delivered in the same way. Friere argues that true liberation comes from a community of learners focused on their real issues, and in examining those problems the community ‘grows’ towards social and intellectual freedoms; and that only this way can political and societal revolutions deliver on their promises of liberating the population. The banking ‘revolutionary’ syllabus lacks critical and reflective thinking, and so doesn’t foster the desire among the ‘students’ to continually enquire, question, learn and move towards improving the lives of themselves and their communities. As I read chapter 3, I wondered if it could be argued that over the years we have move further away from Friere’s model of learning communities. The subject and style of learning is no longer devised by on the teachers, who were at least one small part of the immediate, local learning group, but by a syllabus set by governments, or professional and learned societies who have no connection to the learning community, only a desire to see certain (usually measureable and quantifiable) outcomes reached. In chapter 3 Freire also discusses the emotional and inward attitudes to authentic ‘tea-rning’ dialogue. Dialogue, not monologue, is the means of transformation: talking and listening needs to be a reciprocal and two-way process. Less a driven chemical reaction and more a balanced equilibrium! Without dialogue there is no communication and without communication there is no true education. This dialogue needs humility, (so that all tea-dents are open to the contribution of others); faith (that a situation, a community or a group of tea-dents can change); love (a focus on the welfare and advancement of others in the community even to personal detriment); and hope (that even in the face of adversity and setbacks, the community remains optimistic that change will eventually occur).

Chapter 4.

I really couldn’t get into the final chapter, but I was struck by Freire’s argument that a rigid schooling produces internalised authority structures within students personalities, who, when they graduate as teachers, deliver the same pattern of education they received as they learned their skills.

And me…?

So where does this book leave my thinking? Humanisation is a theme that I’ve been thinking about for some time, but my thinking has been more focussed on student ‘skill sets’. A few years ago I came to the understanding that transferable skills were just as important as technical skills: I’ve written about this before and been working with the Uni’s Health and Wellbeing team to deliver taught material to students that focuses on developing mental health and robustness. Is Freire’s ‘humanization’ the same as the ‘human skills’ employers are talk about? I’m not sure, but the themes of innovation and creativity are common to these concepts.

So, how do I plan my teaching to ‘humanize’ and/or teach human skills? As I think about this I discover, frustratingly, the whole thing goes full circle: as soon as Friere reminds me of the literature that says that ‘human skills’ are a key attribute, I realize that I’m devising a curriculum based in the ‘external’ forces of literature, or what employers want, or some other influence form outside the ‘learning community’! Freire argues for the opposite and asks ‘Why human/transferable skills?’ Is that the problem the tea-dent wants to learn about?

A real challenge for me is that Freire points out that I’m a successful product and part of a system that I accept as ‘the-way-it-is’. Setting aside oppressive and dysfunctional social systems, would I really be able to see a ‘banking’ education system for what it was if it was a familiar, friendly face that I known since I started primary school, and had given me three degrees and a comfortable job!

While I was thinking about this I started thinking about what would I do with a class of students who said that they would do one of my Uni classes to learn, be creative and innovative, but didn’t want to sit any exams? Would that class be a dream or a nightmare? How would I teach such a class? How would the statistics look? Would next year’s students sign up to class if nobody in this year’s cohort passed? What would funders say about a 100% failure rate? And what do these questions (to which I have no answers!) tell me about whether I’m partnering with human learners, or manufacturing ‘exam-passers’?

If the learning problems being examined under Freire’s method are formulated as a result of dialogue between tea-dents (with their view of the world and the issues they think are relevant, at the heart of the learning) how do we deal with that in a modern University setting. We only have one syllabus, one line of organised, structured and booked teaching slots, and one exam paper. Sometimes we don’t know the individuals within the ‘community’ until after the classes have started (for example, if students join after the beginning of semester). Even if we did develop as a group of tea-dents and discovered a problem which would act as the focus of our learning, we could only deal with problems that fell inside the course syllabus.

What does a modern learning community look like? The thought struck me while reading the book that I’d hadn’t been a student in the sort of classes I teach for over 20 years. What would it be like to sit in a modern classroom, or lecture theatre, learn and sit exams as a full time student? Should I do another class at some point? Should I do it while holding down my part-time job or while looking after my family? Many of our students do both?

I wonder what this concept of community does to student numbers and class sizes. There’s nothing in the book about how big (or small) the ‘dialogue learning community’ could be, but it seems that ‘bigger would be better’! Imagine, rather than maximum student numbers held down by government funding, there was a minimum student numbers held up by enhanced dialogue based learning!

The idea of tea-dents make we wonder about how I supervise my summer projects? During the summer projects I’m looking for the sort of change in student thinking Freire writes about: a ‘karios moment’ where the student’s thinking moves from taught modules to a research project and become critical and reflective about the scientific literature and lab experiments. Perhaps I should move, from being a supervisor, to being a ‘guide’: a student is not doing ‘my project’, we are tea-dent partners exploring a particular idea, open about our thoughts, time, finance and expectations; we own our work, and the academic outcomes are only part of what we’re trying to do.

The idea of developing critical thinking remains a challenge. How does my teaching (and the activities I plan) change a student’s critical thinking? Come to think of it, how does my teaching change my critical thinking? I have no answers to those questions. But, perhaps there’s a bigger personal challenge. Where are my ‘kairos moments’ and what would they look like?

If I and my fellow tea-dents work on a problem and by doing so we transform our thinking, then in that process the group of young students we be able to see my failings, misunderstandings and miscomprehensions. It’s a lovely idea to think that – because of my teaching (of course!) –  the ‘switch flips on’ in student understanding and the technical concepts finally become illuminated and clear to them. But it’s a scary idea to think that if I’m going to share with that student my ‘light bulb moment’, and the transformation in my thinking, it’ll become obvious to them that I’ve been sitting in the dark all this time!



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