In Theory: Paulo Freire

“No one is born fully-formed: it is through self-experience in the world that we become what we are.”

– Paulo Freire

Text/research by Róisín McVeigh and Youssra Manlaykhaf

This Education Day, we remember and celebrate the radical educator and theorist Paulo Freire, who has been a major influence on many of the Serpentine’s civic programmes.

Born in Brazil in 1921, Paulo Freire was an educator known for his radical ideas that sought to deconstruct the passive, often “oppressive” nature of schooling. Best known for his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire believed that education was a means to building a “critical consciousness” that would enable people to create change in their lives. His work has influenced many of our educational and civic programmes including Implicated Theatre, Youth Forum and ACT ESOL.

Literacy as Liberation

“There’s no such thing as neutral education. Education either functions as an instrument to bring about conformity or freedom.”

Growing up in Recife, an extremely poor region of Brazil, during the economic depression of the 1930s, Freire witnessed first-hand the struggle to pay attention in school with the ever-present rumble of hunger in his stomach as a distraction. “I didn’t understand anything because of my hunger. I wasn’t dumb. It wasn’t lack of interest,” he recalled. “My social condition didn’t allow me to have an education. Experience showed me once again the relationship between social class and knowledge”.

Freire observed what he called a “culture of silence” among the poor. He recognised their political ignorance that was a direct result of the socio-economic situation and saw the education system to be a political instrument in maintaining this class divide. Freire went on to win a scholarship and eventually began to work in the state education system himself. There, he developed adult literacy programs to help illiterate people to read and write, proving that those who learned to do so developed a new sense of selfhood that allowed them to look critically at the societal and political structures around them. Freire believed that language is never neutral. Literacy empowered the poor to participate in society, setting them free from the mindset that they could not alter their circumstances.

Founding the Critical Pedagogy Movement

”We want to create schools where questioning is not a sin. It’s no sin to make a critical study of Brazil’s reality. A small percentage own land. Most people don’t.”

Pedagogy of the Oppressed is considered one of the foundational texts of the critical pedagogy movement. Freire criticised what he called the “banking model” of education in which the teacher is the all-knowing sage who bestows their knowledge on the empty vessel student. Freire argued that this approach dehumanises and oppresses the student, hindering the development of critical awareness.

Critical Pedagogy, the educator Henry Giroux explains, sees “teaching as an inherently political act,” and “insist that issues of social justice and democracy itself are not distinct from acts of teaching and learning.” Thus, Critical Pedagogy is the belief that teaching should challenge learners to question and examine the dominant power structures and patterns of inequality that shape the world.

Freire proposed a dialogical approach in which students become “active agents” in their own education. When education is used as a form of self-development, rather than a memory test, students realise that knowledge is power.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed

‘Reading the word and learning how to write the word so one can later read it are preceded with learning how to write the world, that is, having the experience of changing the world and touching the world.’

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed Paulo Freire calls for a critical- or problem-based education, which enables students to critically engage with the world around them. In contrast to traditional hierarchical power structures between teacher and students, power dynamics are directly challenged and the teacher has as much to learn from the students about their worlds and experiences, as the students can learn from a curriculum that engages with their interests and needs.

It envisions learning as a transformative, emancipatory process through which the students and teachers explore how to impact the world around them to make it a fairer and socially just place. Students engage with the learning by developing a sense of wanting to take part in shaping the world around them. (ACT ESOL Language, Resistance, Theatre resource)

Paulo Freire’s Influence at the Serpentine

“The aim is to understand your oppressive situation and then act on it.” – Becky Winstanley, 2016, ACT ESOL: A Theatre of the Oppressed Language Project

The origins of the work in the Serpentine’s civic projects stems from study with communities of Pedagogy of the Oppressed led by art the collective Ultra-red and Janna Graham as part of a monthly reading group from 2009-2013 at the Centre for Possible Studies. The project examined social-justice-related cultural projects and created a space where people from the Edgware Road neighbourhood could take part in the dialogue around the change and gentrification that was happening in their area and engage in meaningful action.

ACT ESOL is an ongoing project where participatory ESOL teachers, English for Action (EFA) and Implicated Theatre work with language learners to develop a more political ESOL approach that combines language with a focus on resistance.

This project was developed in response to the devastating impact that cuts to social services and aggressive immigration policies have had on mainstream ESOL provision, with a reduction of 60% of funding since 2009. The situation in the UK today is similar to that which Paulo Freire battled against with his work in developing literacy in Brazil in the 1960s. Crucially, as Amal Khalaf, Civic Curator states in the ACT ESOL resource, “ESOL teachers and programmes are often a direct line to some of the people who are most in need of improving their English language.”

Using methodologies from Augusto Boal’s Freire-influenced Theatre of the Oppressed, ACT ESOL aims to use theatre as a tool for understanding and transformation. Becky Winstanley writes, “Like Freire, Boal believed in dialogue and exploration as a means to understand and subsequently resist and overcome oppression. He envisioned theatre therefore, not as a means to deliver a political message, but as a way to collectively create that message through a process of dialogue between the actors and the audience.”

Find out more about our civic programmes here.

“No one is born fully-formed: it is through self-experience in the world that we become what we are.”

– Paulo Freire


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