Learning theory and practice is rooted in northern hemisphere culture, with little attention paid to South America and Africa. Freire attempts to correct that limited perspective. Paulo Freire is more than an educational theorist. Arrested and exiled from Brazil by the Military Dictatorship in 1964 he continued to work as an activist and educator in South America, Central America and Africa, teaching literacy and defining education for the poor and oppressed. After being appointed at Harvard he went back to Brazil to implement the ideas he had developed over his lifetime.
Education is a social act
Education, for Freire, is not separate from politics and like many social educational theorists he takes the Marxist position that there is no neutral position on either knowledge or education, everything has a social context. You are either in the business of social improvement or perpetuating inequalities and injustice. Freire thought that most current education simply perpetuates the oppressive values of capitalism through a culture of silence and compliance and one must side with the poor if one is to educate for real social improvement. This means emancipation through understanding, not the simple gathering or ‘banking’ of knowledge. Teachers and learners shape culture but students lie at the centre of his concerns. Teachers and schools must be wary of seeing learners in as inferiors or their beliefs as primitive and uninformed. Learners must be encouraged by teachers to build from their existing beliefs and knowledge.
He was best known for his work on literacy, but developed general methods for learning. His starting point is to identify generative ‘Themes’ drawn from the context and communities where learners live. These are then discussed in ‘Culture Circles’ which produce a ‘Thematic Universe’ and ‘Vocabulary Universe’. This basic vocabulary of 17 or 18 words is ordered phonetically and reading proceeds, with awareness of real social situations relevant to the learner.
Traditional education is based on ‘banking’ knowledge, he claims, but the ‘banking’ theory is certainly not original, as many had described and rejected the knowledge-based model in the past, including most Enlightenment theorists, Pragmatists and others. What was different was the alternative critical pedagogy, where the student was encouraged to recognise their own position in these power relationships and free themselves through critical reflection.
Freire follows the dialectical thinking of Marxist theorists in education by pitting oppressors against the oppressed. This for and against position is a restatement of Marxist dialectics and a serious flaw in his thinking as it reduces analysis to a set of simple oppositions. This refuted Marxist view of history may be relevant in some political contexts but not all. For example, many find it difficult to apply his work to developed countries or in other contexts. Marxist theorists who claim to teach to counter ‘ideology’ can in themselves be ideological. One should always be wary of the word 'ideology' as it is often used by the deeply ideological who are blind to their own ideology.
Freire is seen by many as one of the key 20th century figures in learning theory and practice, with his focus on context and community. Yet his influence on schools and schooling has not led to a significant shift in this direction. Despite the crude dialectics, Friere was a champion for literacy and education among the poor, especially in the developing world. He has been partly responsible for a global push on education and literacy among the disenfranchised, although little in the way of clear methods seem to have lasted. There has been a long list of initiatives that have pushed forward the idea that education matters in solving the problem of global poverty, yet we are still far from realising these goals.