“Sometimes educators forget to recognize that no one gets from one side of the road to the other without crossing it. One can only reach the other side by starting from the opposite side. The level of my knowledge is the other side to my students. I have to begin from the opposite side, that of the students. My knowledge is my reality, not theirs. So I have to begin from their reality to bring them into my reality.” (Freire, 1985)
These are the words of a philosopher, a sociologist, and an education activist, Paulo Freire. Many have called him, ‘the most important educator / most original thinker of second half of 20th century’, ‘the most heralded educator of 20th century’, ‘Rousseau of 20th century’, ‘John Dewey of present era’, etc. (Schugurensky & Bailey, 2014). Freire was a teacher and social theorist, who later rose to become a staunch critic of the pedagogical practices prevalent at the Brazilian educational institutes of 1960s and 1970s. His practical work and academic background allowed him to reflect on the prevalent and proposed alternatives that still seem to be very relevant for teachers, educators and school leaders.
Year 1970 marks the launch of his famous book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which Freire coined his famous term Banking model of education, criticising at length the authoritarian nature of teacher-student relationship in classroom. He challenged the power structure of the classroom where teacher is considered as an unchallenged authority, ‘the only one who could know’ everything and students, on the other hand, are treated as ‘blank slates’, completely empty of any sort of real-life context or knowledge. He aptly terms such a pedagogical method as Banking method, where teachers are ‘depositors’ of information and students are passively engaged in taking in ‘deposits’ of information.
“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 communiqués and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat.” (Freire & Ramos, 2014)
Freire argues that at the very base of such practice is a belief structure – a belief that students are ‘incapable’; incapable to learn, incapable to create, and incapable to know since they are born as such. Therefore, at the very beginning, they are ‘fixated’ and stereotyped by the teacher.
As an alternative to ‘banking pedagogy’, he proposed problem-posing pedagogy, a method which conceives students not as ‘deposit accounts’ but as individual inquirers engaged in active creation of knowledge; here they are not treated as ‘objects’ but as agents who can know, act, and think and reflect. Freire uses the term ‘humanisation’ and ‘dehmanisation’ in his text. For him, it is dehumanising to treat a person as ‘incapable of knowledge’. To him, knowledge is not merely some ‘words’ or ‘set of statements’ coming from an authoritarian source (teacher), but it always has context-relevance; it cannot stay in isolation, but rather the students must own and take part in its creation, bringing in their own prior knowledge or experience. When a teacher narrates knowledge of external world, be it subjects of natural sciences or social sciences, students must find their problem context in it to own it. (Freire & Ramos, 2014)
In Banking education, there is a prescriptive relationship between teacher and students, creating a sense in students that ‘things are the way they are’, as facts or unquestioned ‘truths’, immutable, undeniable, entrapped in the ‘circle of certainty’, seriously lacking any place of ‘doubt and change’. Correspondingly, teachers believe that it is they only who ‘know’ (or could know) the world and therefore they would instruct and narrate their set of truths only.
Problem-posing education is ‘dialogical’ or ‘communicative’ in its character. It requires a belief that students are capable to grow, to transform, and to know. Freire’s method of education requires to problematize the context first, before reflection and prior to co-creation of knowledge by teachers and students. Problem-posing education is grounded on the relationship of ‘love’ between teacher and students. One cannot simply communicate to get down to the level of students unless there is ‘love’ present in between.
If ‘traditional lecture style’ is generally an instrument of banking education method, ‘dialogue’ is what problem-posing method would resort to. But, not to misconstrue, Freire is not at all against the lecture method itself. He opposes it only when it is the ‘only method’ used by the teacher to narrate the given supposed facts of the world, without adequate communication, and consequently runs high risk of manipulation or indoctrination. On the other hand, dialogical method could be oppressive too, for Freire, if teachers do not give due regard to the students’ context. (Schugurensky & Bailey, 2014)
So, what do we, as teachers, should do? Shall we come in class with absolutely no knowledge of our subject to avert the risk of indoctrination?
Freire would never endorse such a practice. A teacher must come prepared and well-researched knowledge of the subject matter; what Freire would hate to see is when that pre-knowledge becomes a barrier to communication, or becomes a reason why students would be seen as irrelevant to the process of inquiry or knowledge creation. In Freirian problem-posing method, both teacher and students begin to cognize the world, as opposed to the cognition by teacher only in the banking method wherein what the teacher believes to be true is merely narrated to the students. The experience, the context, and the problematisation of the content of knowledge is a key feature of the Freirian pedagogical method. (Shor & Freire, 1987)
“The problem-posing method does not dichotomize the activity of the teacher-student: he (the teacher) is not “cognitive” at one point and “narrative” at another. He (the teacher) is always “cognitive,” whether preparing a project or engaging in dialogue with the students. He (the teacher) does not regard cognizable objects as his private property, but as the object of reflection by himself and the students.” (Freire & Ramos, 2014)
Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed was an international best seller with more than 1 million copies sold. One may not completely agree with his work, his ideas, his method, but it certainly deserves our attention. Reflecting upon how some of his incisive observations and analyses apply to our prevalent local classroom practices can serve as a useful reference point from where the path can be paved to bring in further openness, authentic participation and critical thought in our teaching practices.
Freire, P. (1985). The Politics of Education: Culture, Power, and Liberation: Bergin & Garvey.
Freire, P., & Ramos, M. B. (2014). Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Schugurensky, D., & Bailey, R. (2014). Paulo Freire: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Shor, I., & Freire, P. (1987). A Pedagogy for Liberation: Dialogues on Transforming Education: Bergin & Garvey Publishers.
Hasnain Badami is a Karachi-based teacher trainer.