The key ideas of Paulo Freire (1921-1997) are mostly explained in his well-known book Pedagogy of the Oppressed. This was originally published in 1968 (in Portuguese, in 1970 first English translation) but has been reprinted and translated numerous times and has become a source of inspiration for social workers throughout the world. Freire was committed to giving a voice to the poor and his ideas on education were intended to make people politically aware. His methods, using critical dialogue and consciousness-raising are not only applicable in his country of origin (Brazil) but widely used by a whole generation of social and development workers working in deprived neighbourhoods across poor and rich countries alike.
Freire developed his thinking during a long career teaching Portuguese in secondary schools and literacy campaigns. Later he was appointed as the director of the Department of Education and Culture of the Social Service in the Brazilian state of Pernambuco. It was here that he started working with illiterate poor people. His results were so impressive that he was invited to become director of the national literacy programme. He set out to establish 20,000 cultural learning circles throughout Brazil, for which he planned to import 35,000 slide projectors from Poland. Unfortunately after a military coup in April 1964, Freire had to flee from Brazil, following a short period of imprisonment as a traitor. He moved to Bolivia and Chile, working for the United Nations before being offered a visiting professorship at Harvard University in 1969.
Paulo Freire was highly critical of traditional formal models of education which he argued made people dependant in much the same way as a commercial bank does. Students are treated as if they were empty bank accounts in which the teacher can make deposits. Under this `banking concept` of education, "knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing". This results in a dichotomy between teacher and students: the teacher talks and the students listen. As a consequence, both are dehumanized. Freire’s analysis of traditional education is similar to the critique developed by Ivan Illich in his book Deschooling Society (1971).
Freire asserted that education can never be neutral. Either it is an instrument for liberating people or it is used to dominate and disempower them. To avoid being a tool of oppression, education needs to involve a new relationship between teacher and students as well as with society. The difference is not to be found in the curriculum contents or the enthusiasm of the teacher, but in the pedagogical approach. He found that people were more motivated to learn how to read and write if the experience gave them insight into the power networks to which they are subjected. Freire urged teachers to identify and use key political words, which he labelled as `generative themes` because they generated discussion.
A key concept in Freire`s approach is conscientization, meaning the ways in which individuals and communities develop a critical understanding of their social reality through reflection and action. This involves examining and acting on the root causes of oppression as experienced in the here and now. This goes beyond simply acquiring the technical skills of reading and writing. It is a cornerstone to ending the culture of silence, in which oppression is not mentioned and thereby maintained.
In what he referred to as the `archaeology of consciousness`, Freire identified three different levels of political awareness: magical consciousness, naïve consciousness and critical consciousness. It was the role of the educator to foster a process of dialogue and liberation that would enable citizens to reach critical consciousness. It is here that we see a clear link between Freire`s work and the concept so central to social work: empowerment.
This text was written by Jan Steyaert, based on the Dutch version by Jos van der Lans
Date of first publication: 12-2010
Date of latest revision: 06-2019