Assignment Paper - Review -Paulo Freire:

Pedagogy of the Oppressed

"I can’t respect the teacher who doesn’t dream of a certain kind of society that he would like to live in, and would like the new generation to live in," Freire said. Educators should pursue "a dream of society less ugly than those we have today," he urged -- a society that is "more open" and less marred by prejudice. (The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, May 1996, vol.38, no.5)

Ever since the 1940s, work by Paulo Freire has been a source of great debate for many educators. Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Freire, 1997) brought to light a radical solution to problems associated with oppressive governments or military collusion; his solution is what he called liberatory education. Not only did his theory work to educate the oppressed by increasing literacy, it also resulted in empowerment of these people. His work "enlightened our awareness of the causes and consequences of human suffering, and about the need to develop an ethical and utopian pedagogy for social change" (Gadotti & Torres, No date, paragraph 1). Freire believed that education could improve the human condition and counter the psychological effects of oppression; his goal in educating the oppressed was humanization (Gadotti & Torres, No date).

Paulo Reglus Neves Freire (1921 - 1997) was a Brazilian philosopher and educator who worked in adult education and workers’ training. Before 1964 he gained international recognition for his work in literacy training in the Brazilian Northeast. Unfortunately, after the military coup d’etat, he was jailed and then exiled for 15 years for being considered a dangerous pedagogue (Gadotti & Torres, No date). His exile was due to his teaching pedagogy, which not only taught peasants how to read but also, acted as a catalyst to promote revolutionary action (Gadotti & Torres, No date) . During his exile , he went to Chile and spent five years working with international organizations. He also taught at Harvard in 1969 but shortly moved to Geneva to be a special educational adviser to the World Congress of Churches. He was finally allowed by the Brazilian military to move back to Brazil in 1979.

Freire’s work has been considered quite controversial over the years. Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Freire, 1997), describes what he terms as liberatory education in which he focuses on the education of adults. His work is packed with new terminology and extensive causative relationships to express his theory. At times, his writing is so complex that the best way to understand what he is trying to communicate is to go to alternative sources, which tend to put his meanings into simpler phrases. Once one understands the new terminology that he coins in his book , one is better able to go back to the original source and read on from there (examples being: banking education, conscientization, problematization, etc).

According to Freire (1997), the world is broken into a dichotomy of two parts, the oppressed and the oppressors. He believes that the oppressed are kept in their oppressed condition primarily through the pedagogy of banking education (Freire, 1997). In the banking education method, the oppressed are seen a passive learners whose minds are empty slates which are to be filled with preselected, predetermined knowledge (Heaney, 1989). Oppressors treat the oppressed like objects and use banking to promote negative myths which are then internalized by the oppressed (Freire, 1997). The oppressed, believing that they are incapable objects, submit to the oppression placed on them by those in power. Freire (1997) believes that by altering this educational process, the road to revolution can be taken.

Liberatory education is Freire’s answer to oppression. Liberatory education is based on conscientization whereby the learner moves towards critical consciousness or the ability to interpret problems by keeping an open mind and analyze problems in depth through discussion with others (Heaney, 1989). Conscientization involves "becoming part of the process of changing the world" (Heaney, 1989, p. 8) by using dialogue with others who are oppressed. Freire (1997) terms this method of discussion as the dialogical method.

The dialogical method features cooperation and a sense of mutual learning between teacher and student. Contrary to banking education, where the teacher holds all knowledge and the student holds none, liberatory education emphasizes that in both sides of the relationship there is equality in teaching and learning (Heaney, 1989). There must be dialogue between the two parties because dialogue is the key to changing the oppressed from objects into subjects of their own learning (Freire, 1997). Freire (1997) stresses the importance of collegiality and cooperation so that both teacher and learner become co-investigators of knowledge. "In dialogical theory, at no stage can revolutionary action forgo communication with the people. Communication in turn elicits cooperative . . ." (Freire,1997, p. 152, italics his).

Freire (1997) uses culture circles to facilitate dialogue. Culture circles are groups of people who are working together towards literacy by using a process of codification and decodification (Freire, 1997). Freire (1997) takes real life or relevant human world relationships provided by the learners to create generative themes. These generative themes are "codifications of complex experiences which are charged with political significance and are likely to generate considerable discussion and analysis" (Heaney, 1989). The experiences are provided by the learners and are presented as problems to the culture circle. Freire (1997) uses this problematization or the technique of problem - posing or problem - solving to initiate dialogue.

In language learning, the themes are codified into generative words which are broken down into syllabic parts and are used to build or generate new words (Heaney, 1989). A codification is a representation of the learner’s relevant daily life ; a codification could include a photograph or a drawing, a single word or an entire story (Heaney, 1989). The benefit of a representation is that is allows the students to analyze the situation from a non-threatening theoretical viewpoint while still making connections with the situation to their own lives (Heaney, 1989). He states: "The task of the dialogical teacher in an interdisciplinary team working on the thematic universe revealed by their investigation is to ‘re-present’ that universe to the people from who she or he first received it - and ‘re-present’ it not as a lecture, but as a problem." (Freire, 1997, p. 90). Hence, problem-posing or problematization that is relative to the learners’ experience is the key to education

Teachers are also encouraged to be aware of teachable moments where learning can occur spontaneously. The "Freirean" curriculum (Heaney, 1989) is based in the experience and enacted elements of curriculum design (Marsh & Willis, 1999); very little of the teacher’s time is spent planning lessons because the curriculum of study comes directly from the learners who are subjects and participants in their own learning (Freire, 1997). Following Freire (1997), many literacy and basic education program incorporated "peer interaction and the use of ‘people’s knowledge’ as the basis for curriculum" (Heaney, 1989).

Another activity, which is central to liberatory education, is praxis. Praxis is a complex activity which involves a cycle of action - reflection - action and characteristically includes the four elements of self-determination, intentionality, creativity and rationality (Heaney, 1989). This is opposite to the elements of coercion, reaction, homogeneity, and chance which are commonly found in the pedagogues which lead to oppression rather than empowerment. Freire was know as a philosopher and theoretician of education, "never separating theory from praxis" (Gadotti & Torres, No date). Freire (1997) hoped that that the practice of reflection (on readings, current events, situation and questions) would lead students to take action: "Humankind can emerge from their submersion and acquire the ability to intervene in reality as it is unveiled" (Freire, 1997, p.90, italics his). Their intervention in many cases results in political action, revolution and freedom from oppressors.

Freire (1997) also describes cultural action and cultural synthesis as the act of learning about culture along with the people:

"In cultural synthesis, the actors who come from ‘another world’ to the world of the people do so not as invaders. They do not come to teach or to transmit or to give anything, but rather to learn, with the people, about the people’s world. . . In cultural synthesis, there are no spectators; the object of the actors’ action is the reality to be transformed for the liberation of men" (Freire, 1997, p. 161)

In this way, Freire (1997) completely links his pedagogy with political action.

The goal of liberatory education is to take oppressed, illiterate people and guide them into humanization, collective empowerment and literacy (Gadotti & Torres, No date). It is important to remember that no one is able to empower another; empowerment is something that is comes from within and Freire (1997) believes that his method of education can provide the appropriate learning environment and attitude to facilitate this transformation. Freire (1997) repeatedly cautions those who wish to be revolutionary leaders that they "must not use the same antidialogical procedures used by the oppressors: on the contrary, revolutionary leaders must follow the path of dialogue and of communication" (p. 143). In this way, Freire (1997) tries to make sure that the cycle of oppression is broken for future generations.

With respect to curriculum approach, the curriculum of Paulo Freire (1997) appears to fit into the category of experienced curriculum. The content of his curriculum is not something that is planned ahead of time. However, Freire (1997) somewhat contradicts himself by stating that the content of study must come from the experiences of the students but then it is appropriate to plan lessons if the material present is relevant to the learners. So in a way, the enacted curriculum comes into play because it become the role of the teacher is very important in promoting dialogue (Marsh & Willis, 1999). Also, Freire (1997) can also be viewed as a system - alternative proponent (Marsh &Willis, 1999) because his theory is opposed to the present structures or banking education practice. Freire (1997) provides alternative prescriptions to overcome the inequalities or oppressions in society.

The decisions that are made about curriculum come from the students according to Freire (Marsh & Willis, 1999) . With regard to curriculum definition, I believe that Freire would define curriculum as "all the experiences that learners have in the course of living" (Marsh & Willis, 1999, p.9). It is from these experiences that learning occurs and the experiences become the curriculum in the model of Freire. It is also the ‘lived’ curriculum (Marsh & Willis, 1999, p. 6 ) because the curriculum model focuses heavily on what each person individually experiences. The pathway of learning is not just one direction, according to Freire (1997), because both teacher and learner interact and work as co-investigators of the problems presented. Marsh & Willis, (1999) place Freire’s approach to curriculum in the critical category. Posner (Marsh & Willis, 1999) describes Freire (1997) as emancipatory because it results in freedom and empowerment and is intended to release people from the powers of oppression.

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed , Freire (1997) uses the nature of society as the focal point around which decisions about curricula are made (Marsh & Willis, 1999). In his book, Freire (1997) reflects the "broad range of cultural, political and economic characteristics of the social context in which it exists so that the student may both fit into the society in the future yet also be able to change that society" (Marsh & Willis, 1999, p. 48) Freire’s work stems from the social condition of an oppressed society and his hope was to engage students in action to liberate themselves from this oppression.

His curriculum reflects this broad range of the social context in Brazil at the time in 1970’s. Freire (1997) describes his work with Latin American peasants who were oppressed by a militant government and depressed economic situation. The students in his program fit into the society and yet there was evidence that the students were feeling empowered by the program to create revolutionary changes in society. Like the Progressive Education movement in twentieth century, the main thrust of work by Freire (1997) was to improve the life of the individuals and thus society as a whole for Latin Americans. The curriculum that Freire proposes has utilitarian value during this time period and in this situation (Marsh & Willis, 1999).

Latin America is not the only place that deals with the turmoil of cultural, political and economic problems. Freire (1997) explains that oppressors use banking education to perpetuate negative myths and to strengthen oppression. We find this same situation occurring in United States and Canada most prominently in the assimilation of Native people into mainstream Euro-centric society. When we turn our attention to home, we can see how the goal of residential schooling of Native students really worked to reinforce oppression. These people became objects on which education radically stripped away their cultural identity and self-esteem. The side effects of residential schooling still linger from a generation ago. It was not until just recently that Inuit communities were financed to create community high schools. Dropout rates still soar in these remote communities and illiteracy rates are high. All of these factors work to create what Freire (1997) would call an oppressed society needing liberatory education.

Today, there are many dropout prevention campaigns and advertisements in the media. Like Freire (1997) who links low literacy to social ills, the general public likes to believe that education is the first step to an improved society and nation. In order to do so, Freire (1997) states that we must not ignore the racism, sexism and exploitation in favour of the neutrality of technology (Heaney, 1984). Schools have slowly turned to focus on more multicultural issues and anti -racism programs to help with the turmoil found in society. Even so, Freire (1997) stresses that there is a need to change the traditional schooling system, which treats students as objects, into a pedagogy that uses the dialogical method to facilitate the growth of humanization and empowerment.


However, as Marsh & Willis (1999) state, "what is useful at one time and under one set of circumstances may not be as useful as time passes or circumstances change" (p. 50) And it is in this light that most of the criticisms of Freire appear. Facundo (1984) is one who believes that we must come to terms with the fact that "after a decade of trying to practice Freire’s education philosophy. . is not applicable to our work" (p.2).

Facundo (1984) states that interest in work by Freire (1997) has fluctuated between those who are inclined to his writing technique and those who are drawn by his educational philosophy and process. Facundo (1984) goes on to say that a key issue is a lack of understanding of Freire’s intellectual development and she calls his writing obscure. The problem is extenuated by the fact that "Paulo Freire is an eclectic who relies heavily in Catholic, existentialist, phenomenological and Marxist philosophy" (Facundo, 1984, p.1). In fact some have gone so far as to say that if you are not Latin American, Catholic, a Marxist and an educator, you will not understand his work.

Numerous Internet reviews devoted to Paulo Freire and Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Freire, 1997) are quite negative in nature. Although, for the most part, the criticisms focus on difficulty interpreting Freire’s writing style, those who are able to get through the text find it very hard to transfer his ideas into other situations. Gadotti & Torres (No date) question this transferability by stating: "As brilliant as they are, Freire’s theories were developed in a completely different social and political context"(p.1). Freire wrote in a time and place where the line between the oppressed and the oppressors was very clear; unfortunately, now in North American this line is not quite as clear so the dichotomy between good and evil is not definite. For Freire (1997), you must be either the oppressor or the oppressed and the oppressed must fight for liberation in order to become human (Heaney, 1984). He also dismisses any violence which occurs by the oppressor because he believes that the violence by oppressors is done out of love and thus is justified (Heaney, 1984). His dichotomy leaves no room for mediators or those neither oppressed nor oppressing others and I think that most people would consider themselves in this range.

For Freire (1997), education is political and there is no other way around it (McClafferty, No date). It is to create social change. He does not address what happens once change has occurred other than to say that new leaders must beware of falling into the patterns of an oppressor once again (Freire, 1997). Unfortunately, the pedagogy described in his book can be seen as having built-in limits for its usefulness if only used to political revolutionary change.

Oftentimes, his writing can be very contradictory because of its subjectivity and the focus on the human experience. For North American audiences who expect a manual of teacher proof ideas, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Freire, 1997) requires much more thinking. His attitude is basically that people must work out their own theory and develop their own solutions. This frustrates many readers. As Ohliger (1995) states: "adopting Freire’s positions without reflecting upon their contradictions only creates . . as it has created -- a great deal of confusion." (p. 8).

Smith (1997) cites four points of criticism. They being: 1) his language is and appeal is to mystical concerns; 2)that Freire argues in an either/or way; you’re with the oppressed or you are against them which can result in a too simplistic political analysis; 3) Freire tends to turn every little daily event into a ‘teachable moment’; and, 4) that his liberatory could easily become banking education when leaders try to sneak in ideas and values in the process. All of these criticisms may lead more conservative educators to forgo the volatile nature of the pedagogy of Freire (1997) out of misinterpretation and confusion.

Despite many criticisms, I believe that Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Freire,1997) has much to offer to educators. His ideas of dialogical method, problematization, praxis and decodification with generative themes aligns very well with many of today’s theorists. He was an adult educator who was very committed to progressive politics and tried to transform education to meet this revolution. His work follows the same exploratory path as John Dewey and others and also gave impetus to the popular education movement (Schugurensky, No date). Freire (1997) stresses the importance of making curriculum relevant. He encourages students to make connections and reflect on these connections on a personal and social level. To learn in this way is very respected in many of today’s current pedagogues. To dismiss Freire (1997) entirely would be a real waste of intellectual and educational thought. Many of the ideas in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Freire, 1997) are important but perhaps the political context of the pedagogy is not directly applicable to our world today.

Finally, the real value of Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Freire, 1997) and Freire himself may be found in a final reflection by J. Ohliger. Ohliger (1995) states: "The idea is not to judge Paulo Freire. He has been an inspiration to us in moments when we were about to give up in our quest for a more just and equitable society. If only for that reason - and there are more than one -- we owe him. We owe him justice and respect. For me, this means being as critical of his ideas and practices as he taught us to be critical of ours. It is time that we do both. That is what I have tried to do." In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire(1997) demonstrates his passion and brilliance as a theorist who forces his readers to critically reflect on their own teaching practices.



Marsh, C.J. & Willis, G. (1999). Curriculum: Alternative Approaches, Ongoing Issues 2 ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Freire, P. (1997). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Electronic references:

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (1996, May). Education Update: Paulo Freire Invokes "Dreams and Utopias." vol. 38, no. 5. [Online]. Available: [15/01/00].

Facundo, B.(1984). Freire Inspired Programs in the United States and Puerto Rico: A Critical Evaluation. [Online]. Available: [15/01/00].

Gadotti, M. & Torres, C.A.(No date). Paulo Freire: A Homage. [Online]. Available: [15/01/00].

Heaney, T.(1989). Issues in Freirean Pedagogy. [Online]. Available: [15/01/00].

McClafferty, K.(No date). Book Review of: Freire, Paulo (1993/1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum Publishing Co. [Online]. Available:

mcclafferty.html [15/01/00].

Ohliger, J. (1995). Critical Views of Paulo Freire’s Work. [Online]. Available: [15/01/00].

Schugurensky,D.(No date). 1968: Paulo Freire publishes

Pedagogy of the Oppressed. [Online]. Available: assignment1/1968pedofopp.html [15/01/00].

Smith, M.K. (1997). Paulo Freire. The Informal Education Homepage. [Online].Available: http//


Additional readings

Boucher, M. L. Jr. (1998). Paulo Freire. [Online]. Available: [15/01/00].

Collins, Denis.(No date). Paulo Freire. [Online]. Available: [15/01/00].