Paulo Freire

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Paulo Freire

Paulo Freire (1921 – 1997) was a Brazilian educator, philosopher, and activist whose writings and life’s work was centered on the concept of education as a tool for empowerment and self-liberation for the oppressed. Freire was born in Recife, Brazil to middle class parents in 1921. Though initially as a youngster he did not experience the extreme levels of poverty present in Recife, this changed after the reverberations from the 1929 U.S. Stock Market Crash hit Brazil. With his family’s economic status drastically altered, Freire soon felt the sting of hunger and its effect on his schooling. He also saw what he considered a “culture of silence” among the “dispossessed” as a result of complete political, economic, and social domination (Freire, 2000, p. 30). This greatly impacted Freire and his ideas. He soon began to challenge the Brazilian educational system—a system that he believed was designed to keep the masses oppressed. Freire received his doctorate degree from the University of Recife in 1959; he eventually worked there as a professor of educational philosophy and history. As Freire’s ideas spread across Brazil and Latin America, he soon was labeled as a threat by controlling powers. After being jailed for 70 days following the Brazilian military coup in 1964, Freire was pressured to leave the country. He relocated to Chile and began working with UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) and the Chilean Institute for Agrarian Reform. He also served as a consultant at Harvard University's School of Education and acted as the Special Consultant to the Office of Education of the World Council of Churches in Geneva. Freire’s most notable work and legacy to the world came in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Considered one of the most influential educational philosophers of the late 20th century, Freire eventually moved back to his beloved Brazil where he continued in his work and lived until his death in 1997.

Paulo Freire



Major Contributions

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Theoretical Foundations

Paulo Freire’s philosophy of education is best articulated in the pages of his most notable work and greatest contribution to the field of education Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Originally published in 1968 in Portuguese (1970 in English), Pedagogy of the Oppressed is considered by many to be a foundational text in critical pedagogy (rooted in reconceptualism), or education for democratic and social transformation that produces students who are critically-aware change agents. In his complex text, Freire compares what he terms the banking concept of education with the problem-posing or revolutionary concept of education. The banking concept of education according to Freire perpetuates established hierarchies of class and power and is oppressive in nature. Students in this system are objectified and assumed to be ignorant; thus, as depositories, they are dependent upon a master-teacher or depositor to grant them the gift of knowledge. Learning then consists of the ability to mechanically regurgitate pre-selected content deemed significant by the oppressors and narrated by teachers. In the banking system of education, docility is bred in the oppressed to ensure limited consciousness and the acceptance of oppression as a fixed condition. Therefore, to prevent a cognitive revolution leading to intellectual, social, or circumstantial liberation, critical analysis and adult-student meaningful dialogue is limited. In stark contrast, Freire’s problem-posing or revolutionary education describes the oppressed as conscious liberated persons and not passive objects in a fixed world. In problem-posing education, students free themselves through the understanding that they can be dynamic “re-creators” of their world leading to democratic, economic, and social change (Freire, 1994, p. 381). Thus, by recognizing that the world is changeable, the oppressed become empowered to transform the world in which they live and share with others through their action as critically conscious persons.

Paulo Freire is considered a reconceptualist. Reconceptualists fall under the umbrella of reconstructionism, which is rooted in pragmatism. Pragmatists advocate learning through individual engagement in problem-solving. According to this philosophy, the world is ever-changing and therefore so is knowledge and truth. Thus, in order to learn, people must interact with and explore their world. Pragmatists then reject the idea that certain knowledge/truths are fixed and the world should be explained. Reconstructionism expands upon pragmatist philosophy by applying the ideas of individualism, education as problem-solving, relative open curriculum, and social interaction to the notion of education as a catalyst for democratic and social change. This influence is evident in Paulo Freire’s problem-posing or revolutionary education model in which he argued for an education system that liberated its oppressed to change the political, social, and economic condition of the world for themselves and others. Moreover, as in pragmatism and reconstructionism, reconceptualists like Freire advocated for a change in the student-teacher relationship from the historical model (Freire’s banking concept) of depositor-vessel to a spark-flame model where teachers challenged and stirred students to act with critical purpose. Thus, reconceptualist students, as in Freire’s model, are active participants capable of using their education as a tool to topple systems of oppression that perpetuate social, political, and economic inequity.

Freire, P. (1994). Pedagogy of the oppressed. In S. Cahn (Ed.), Classic and contemporary readings in the philosophy of education (pp. 379-386). New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. Retrieved from: http://, A. & Hunkins, F. (2012). Curriculum: Foundations, principles, and issues. (6th Ed.) Boston: Pearson Publishing.


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