Freire, MOOCs and Pedagogy of the Oppressed


An email notification of a forthcoming conference at the University of Central Lancashire (uclan) – Paulo Freire and Transformative Education: changing lives and transforming communities (28th April -1st May 2014), prompted me to take my copy of ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ off the bookshelf and remind myself of its contents.  It is quite a while since I read the book and thumbing through it again, I am surprised to see how many pages, paragraphs, sentences and phrases I have marked – particularly since these marked sections seem to be even more relevant now than they were then.

The conference caught my eye for two reasons:

  1. In relation to our research on emergent learning, my colleagues Roy Williams, Jutta Pauschenwein and I have been thinking about and discussing threshold concepts and transformative learning – principally in relation to the work of Meyer and Land, Mezirow, Cousin and Brookfield amongst others, but also in relation to complex open learning environments.
  2. UCLAN is within easy daily travelling distance of my home which would make the cost of attending the conference as an independent consultant more feasible – although I will not decide until I have seen a programme of the papers to be presented.

Paulo Freire published his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1970. I was living in Brazil in the 70s. This, and my career in education, makes a lot of what he writes strongly resonate.

Freire’s concerns are with the education of the poor in Brazil. He argues that the political, social and economic climate of Brazil in 1970 kept the poor disadvantaged and uneducated through oppression. This is a quote from the back cover of the book.

‘By being kept in a situation in which it is practically impossible to achieve a critical awareness and response the disadvantaged are kept ‘submerged’. In some countries the oppressors use the system of education to maintain this ‘culture of silence’, while in others the advance of technology has condemned many people, particularly the less well off, to a rigid conformity.’

Freire identified the central problem/question on p.30 of his book as:

‘How can the oppressed, as divided, authentic beings, participate in developing the pedagogy of their liberation?’

Is this still a question for us today? It has occurred to me that MOOCs (massive open online courses) have something to say about this? I wonder what Freire would have made of MOOCs. Would he have regarded them as offering potential for breaking out from oppression and if so what oppression?

Freire writes on p.77 of his book:

‘It is not our role to speak to the people about our own view of the world, nor to attempt to impose that view on them, but rather to dialogue with the people about their view and ours.’

For him oppression means being subjected to the imposed views of others – what he called the ‘banking concept of education’, which transforms students into receiving objects. In his view, education was (in 1970 and is there evidence that it still is?) suffering from narration sickness. He writes, p.52

‘The teacher talks about reality as if it were motionless, static, compartmentalised, and predictable. Or else he expounds on a topic completely alien to the existential experience of the students. His task is to ‘fill’ the students with the content of his narration……’

As an educator it is easy to recognise this ‘sickness’, both in myself and in others. I think it relates to the published research that showed that commonly ‘teachers talk too much’.

Freire believed in autonomous decision making, problem-posing authentic inquiry, creative transformation, critical thinking and using people’s historicity as a starting point. He believed that teachers should be students among students  and so undermine the power of oppression and serve the cause of liberation (p.56)

For him (p.61)

‘The teacher is no longer merely the one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach.’

This last quote seems to relate, for me, very closely to the philosophy behind the original cMOOCs run by Stephen Downes and George Siemens and to the ideas behind rhizomatic learning which Dave Cormier will discuss in more depth in his open course – Rhizomatic Learning – The community is the curriculum – starting on Tues 14th January.

Freire believed that in a climate of ‘fear of freedom’ the oppressed becomes the oppressor. I think of this as ‘going over to the dark side’ – a trap so easy to fall into. In MOOC terms this can be equated to fear of uncertainty – which we can see in all those students who say ‘Please tell me what to do and I’ll do it’.

To overcome this, we need to be prepared to take risks and maybe the first risk is to engage in dialogue and communication with people we don’t know. Freire thought that dialogue and communication are essential to liberation and transformation. Also essential for him are reflection and action, love, humility, faith and trust.

I see a lot of these qualities in the best of MOOCs.  Would Freire have recognised a pedagogy of the oppressed in MOOCs as we currently know them?

16 thoughts on “Freire, MOOCs and Pedagogy of the Oppressed

  1. Fred Garnett January 12, 2014 / 8:22 pm

    Would Freire recognise a Pedagogy of the Oppressed in MOOCs as we now know them? Absolutely not xMOOCs represent the pedagogy of the oppressor!

  2. jennymackness January 13, 2014 / 8:56 am

    Hi Fred – thanks for your comments. Might it be an oversimplification to say that xMOOCs represent the pedagogy of the oppressor? In Freireian terms there are clearly elements of oppression in xMOOCs, but there are also elements of liberation (or so it seems to me). It’s also interesting to think about the source of oppression, in the chain of oppression from government to institution to tutor to student. What/how do we recognise as oppression? For Freire it was any situation in which the student was disempowered – or the student voice silenced. If I think about ModPo – a Coursera MOOC – the participants were neither disempowered nor silenced – although there were opportunities for increasing empowerment and the participant voice. So it seems to me a very complex concept.

    Similarly with transformation. I haven’t been thinking about it so much in terms of transforming ‘education’ and transforming the individual. How would this affect your slide.

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