Monday, November 29, 2010

Pedagogy of the Oppressed

I'm reading Paulo Freire's book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and I am struck by how accurately he describes the oppressive nature of what he labels the banking concept of education which the rest of us know simply as school:

Worse yet, it turns them into "containers", into "receptacles" to be "filled" by the teacher. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teacher she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.
Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the "banking" concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits. They do, it is true, have the opportunity to become collectors or cataloguers of the things they store. But in the last analysis, it is the people themselves who are filed away throughout the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system.
Such a banking system that treats children as empty vessels to be filled requires a certain kind of teacher-student relationship. Because the student is considered to have an absolute ignorance, the teacher must define their existence as the opposite. Freire describes this relationship as a narrative where:
The teacher talks about reality as if it were motionless, static, compartmentalized, and predictable. Or else he expounds on a topic completely alien to the existential experience of the students. His task is to "fill" the students with the contents which are detached from reality, disconnected from the totality that engendered them and could give them significance. Words are emptied of their concreteness and become a hollow, alienated, and alienating verbosity.
In this model, learning is passive and only the teaching requires action. Like the carpenter preparing to hammer the nail, the teacher would prefer it if the student would just sit still.

What does this look like? Friere shows us:
The outstanding characteristic of this narrative education, then, is the sonority of words, not their transforming power. "Four times four is sixteen; the capital of Para is Belem." The student records, memorizes, and repeats these phrases without perceiving what four times four really means, or realizing the true significance of "capital" in the affirmation " the capital of Para is Belem," that is, what Belem means for Para and what Para means for Brazil.
So what's wrong with this model of education? Again, Freire explains:
Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the worlds, with the world, and with each other.
In other words, children must be afforded the opportunity to openly and actively construct their own meaning while interacting with others. 

So how do we fix this factory-model of education? How do we unschool school? Before we can do so, we must first acknowledge the practices that perpetuate oppression. Freire offers a powerful indictment:

Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students.
This solution is not (nor can it be) found in the banking concept. On the contrary, banking education maintains and even stimulates the contradiction through the following attitudes and practices, which mirror oppressive society as a whole: 
  1. the teacher teaches and the students are taught;
  2. the teacher knows everything and the students know nothing;
  3. the teacher thinks and the students are thought about;
  4. the teacher talks and the students listen - meekly;
  5. the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined;
  6. the teacher chooses and enforces his choice, and the students comply;
  7. the teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher;
  8. the teacher chooses the program content, and the students (who were not consulted) adapt to it;
  9. the teacher confuses the authority of knowledge with his or own professional authority, which she and he sets in opposition to the freedom of the students;
  10. the teacher is the Subject of the learning process, while the pupils are mere objects.
If your schooling was anything like most people who inhabit this planet, this list is likely to be a familiar one. While there is nothing we can do to change the past, we had better be able to learn from it and aspire to something far better.

School simply has not changed very much since the turn of the century - and I'm not referring to 1999-2000. I would wager Paulo Freire's description of school would ring just as true for my grandfather who was born in 1916 and my father who was born in 1953, as I who was born in 1978.

My fear is that my daughter, who was born in 2008, will grow up and be all too familiar with Freire's list. If our children grow up and react to this list with anything less than shock and unfamiliarity, we will know that we failed them.


  1. Thought provoking as usual, Joe, thanks! I'm on board with the notion that we need change but I'm a little stuck on how to change the teacher prep side of things (which is where I work). The license tests all seem to be about content understanding and our society seems to think that if the teachers aren't acting as suppliers of content, what are they good for. I like how my own state, MN, is now requiring prospective students to videotape their work in a classroom for the license but I fear that most will simply videotape a standard lecture instead of showing how they can interact with students.

  2. I agree and worry about my own three children's experience with Friere's list, but how do we shift the paradigm of thinking in our schools? I get it, but I'm not sure how to help my administrators and fellow colleagues. We need to teach toward inquiry by asking questions that no longer have pre-determined answers. Those are the skills that will be sought after in the future. Until we change, we will continue to fail our students. I wouldn't worry about being video taped, educators are needed now more than ever to help students learn how to filter the mass amounts of misinformation that come to them on a daily basis. We are needed more than ever to transform the current paradigm and continue to challenge our students to think for themselves.

  3. I love Friere's notion of "restlessness" and "impatience" in the inquiry process. So often we view these as negative traits, but I think today's children are demanding an education that, as you say, affords them "the opportunity to openly and actively construct their own meaning while interacting with others." Inquiry-based learning experiences will probably generate more impatience, but that impatience is the impetus to some really powerful self-directed learning!

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. Oh yeah, some Friere in the morning!

    The idea I tend to grab onto most when trying to change teaching/learning is to work on positioning students as Subjects, rather than Objects to control, to mold, to bank. If we as teachers want out students to become fully engaged citizens, armed with passion for their vocations in life and intent to contribute to the community as a whole, Freire is a great start to begin that process. He is not the end, for me, as his philosophies have a specific historical context of complete revolution, but his writings certainly illuminate the problem of the student as Object and the potential of the student as a fully humanizing Subject in K-12 pedagogy.

    He offers strategies such as problem posing education (generating themes that students can learn from), seeing student and teacher as co-learners/teachers, dialogue (which so many say we do....) and inquiry, as Meg5han stated above. These types of learning position students as these Subjects rather than little molded widgets that are much EASIER to churn out---but at what cost?!?!

    I struggle with "implementing" Freire and since this word itself seems to contradict his teachings, the best way I can think to embrace him is to model him.

    I like to couple Dewey with Freire personally, as I do see the value of connection to experience and the positioning of the teacher as an informed guide in this process but who knows? There are many successful unschoolers who continue to intrigue me and give hope for the future.

    Long post I know...but he just makes me you do.

    Thanks for this great food for thought Joe!

  5. Great post, Joe. I almost feel like we have to be in "parallel universes" in education with the knowing-doing gap somewhere in between what Freire has as an ideal and where we are right now. I too have a daughter born in 2008, and another born three months ago, and I want to see the changes for them.

    In the meantime, what are the actual steps that we need to get there? An perhaps more importantly, if we know (and don't LIKE, trust me) that change seems to be a slow process, how do we work within these two parallel universes and continue to push for the ideal while managing that which is less than ideal?

    Musings on a Monday.

  6. Its amazing how long good ideas/concepts stay relevant, the same can be true for bad ones as well. As we all (meaning change agents) know moving up/down/sideways/forward in education seems a struggle. When did we forfeit the position of being the knowledge makers/explorers/discovers? Starting down the path for inquiry, questioning and discovery really starts with acknowledging the real world that we are living in everyday. Are any of our students really going to fill out paper applications? The change really starts with getting into the stream of good people, thoughts and conversations like this that exist on the web. BE PART OF SOMETHING! Our students are begging for that everyday in schools! I have been working alot lately with admin/teachers/students and this has me thinking alot about system change. There is no longer a viable answer to the question "Should we change?" It is about how we change and how we as change agents make that happen, both on Mondays and also planning for somedays. Recommend a blog, respond to a post, join twitter, tap into the vast array of new intellectual knowledge that is available on the amazing portal we have with the internet. The basics of education, of human education, as both Dewey and Freire defend truly will not fade, we are explorers, we are knowledge makers, we are a communicative species, that is our strength and we now have platforms that allow us (our students especially) to access, contribute and expand the human experience. Be part of a vision, and take small steps everyday towards it. Thanks for the post and comments everyone.
    Dale Holt

  7. The first step in making change is that we have to admit that we need to change. I know too many teachers that think the system is just fine the way it is.

    Second, we need to stop trying to improve school by not changing a damn thing. Too many "reformers" are just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

  8. Joe,
    My comment on your previous post suggests how we can change things.

    Traditional Jewish Learning of the Talmud is all about learning in pairs , asking questions and discussing the text and its wider implications

    A student is assessed by the questions he asks and creative answers.

    A Talmudic sage - Rabbi Hannina said the following

    I have learned a lot from my teachers, more from my friends and the most from my pupils

    here is a short - 1:44 you tube parody on the last part of Rabbi Hannina's saying - and the most from my pupils

    The video starts with students learning in pairs or groups in order to prepare for the lesson . The Rabbi - teacher arrives to give the lesson ....

  9. I've only recently come across your blog, there's some good stuff here. I've been wanting to read Freire recently but just haven't had time, so thanks for this great summary of some of his ideas. I think the famous TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson addresses the same sort of idea, but instead of banking he associates the education system with industrialisation and factory production lines. I don't work in state education but if more teachers out there are challenging the system like you are, then there is hope for present and future generations of children!

  10. Being a student, I really can relate to all of this. I go to class everyday listening to the majority of my professors read through powerpoints and lecture us for hours. So basically all we do as students is memorize what facts they have given us the night before the test and then forget it the next day.
    On the other hand, a few professors I have had really get involved with their student and create relationships. This makes it enjoyable for the whole class and also helps us learn a lot more.
    This was a very well written post and I really enjoyed reading it!

  11. Joe, I am a student from Dr. Strange's EDM 310 class in Mobile, Alabama. I have not read Friere before but I think I need to. I am a parent as you are and worry about the future of the public education system. Change is very slow and I am hesitant to believe that the methodology of teaching will change enough in the next few years to have a serious impact on learning for my children. I certainly am inspired by those of you (us) that pursue this change by starting in our own classrooms. I think that is the only way to gain any type of momentum. It is easy to just throw your hands up and say "thats just how it is", but I see that real reform can happen because of teachers like you. Thanks!

  12. These are some intriguing points. But I don't buy the idea that the teacher should never be the one to impart knowledge. Constructivism is a theory perpetuated in part by people who were/are motivated learners and who assume all students are motivated, too.

    Many students are not. Many students are not self-starters, or kids who will intuitively rise to the constructivist ideals of self-generated inquiry, independence, or reflective learning. (Be careful not to project your own idealized educational experience onto your students.) Why students lack motivation is up for plenty of debate, and I know some teachers on this blog will argue that the school system has pummeled the initiative out of them. That is perhaps so. But I can't help thinking I've done my kids a disservice if I haven't directly taught them how to write a complete sentence or punctuate it correctly. It is not wrong, or bad, to do so.

    And yet I also see the need to make projects and content relevant to kids' own lives. The class is a dry husk of a place if there isn't emotional or content-driven connection.


  13. Joanne, many students SEEM not to be curious or reflective, but it can be cultivated. I've seen it happen with students who are not just young children. It is born in us and can be resurrected even after kindergarten, first grade, and second grade...
    The time for direct teaching of any matter is when students have come to see that they need and want to know it.
    The artful part of teaching is in recognizing that place, of bringing students to it in whatever manner one can figure out, by knowing students, by listening carefully, and being a learner among them.
    Thanks for sharing that short video, Allan. Very funny. The contrast with the animated conversations among the pairs of students is marked.

  14. Sorry...don't have the time to read all the comments but thought i should add one of my own.

    Edward De Bono.

    A very interesting read of anything he has written. He designed the word 'lateral thinking' he discusses creative thinking and its importance in todays world.

    If you are interested in having an effect on the way people teach and learn, these thoughts and exercises are well worth investing in. He claims (and it has been backed by research at Harvard, oxford and others) that he can improve students results, interest and engagement by as much as 100%.



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