Paulo Freire’s questions for educators.

Paulo Freire’ questions for educators.

In my last post in which I shared the notes I made on my reading of Freire’s book Pedagogy of Hope. Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I mentioned that at the end of Chapter 4, on p.124, Freire listed the problems and questions that educators and education must always continue to seriously consider, discuss and address. Here is the quote in full.

Source of image:

“What seems to me to be unconscionable, however, today as yesterday, would be to conceive—or even worse, to practice—a popular education in which a constant, serious approach were not maintained, antecedently and concomitantly, to problems like: what content to teach, in behalf of what this content is to be taught, in behalf of whom, against what, and against whom.

  • Who selects the content, and how is it taught?
  • What is teaching?
  • What is learning?
  • What manner of relationship obtains between teaching and learning?
  • What is popular knowledge, or knowledge gotten from living experience?
  • Can we discard it as imprecise and confused?
  • How may it be gotten beyond, transcended?
  • What is a teacher?
  • What is the role of a teacher?
  • And what is a student?
  • What is a student’s role?
  • If being a teacher means being superior to the student in some way, does this mean that the teacher must be authoritarian?
  • Is it possible to be democratic and dialogical without ceasing to be a teacher, which is different from being a student?
  • Does dialogue mean irrelevant chitchat whose ideal atmosphere would be to “leave it as it is to see if it’ll work”?
  • Can there be a serious attempt at the reading and writing of the word without a reading of the world?
  • Does the inescapable criticism of a “banking” education mean the educator has nothing to teach and ought not to teach?
  • Is a teacher who does not teach a self-contradiction?
  • What is codification, and what is its role in the framework of a theory of knowledge?
  • How is the “relation between practice and theory” to be understood—and especially, experienced—without the expression becoming trite, empty wordage?
  • How is the “basistic,” voluntaristic temptation to be resisted—and how is the intellectualistic, verbalistic temptation to engage in sheer empty chatter to be overcome?
  • How is one to “work on” the relationship between language and citizenship?”

It is almost 30 years since Freire wrote these words, and more than 50 years since Pedagogy of the Oppressed was first published. Despite this, Freire’s questions remain relevant and still have the power to challenge the current Brazilian government – see Why is the Brazilian Right Afraid of Paulo Freire?

Paulo Freire. Pedagogy of Hope. Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed. My Notes

In this book published in English in 1994 (originally in Portuguese in 1992), Freire revisits the ideas he first published in his radical text Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1968, which was translated from Spanish to English in 1970. At the time of writing Freire was living in exile in Chile, hence writing in Spanish. He was considered a subversive by the Brazilian government of the time, and his legacy remains a contentious issue in Brazil today (Why is the Brazilian Right Afraid of Paulo Freire?)

Pedagogy of Hope, offers little that is new, other than that hope is essential to a pedagogy of the oppressed. Rather, in this book Freire reflects on his original ideas, attempts to answer his critics, clarify his thinking, and share his experience of working with oppressed groups across the world in the intervening 25 years.

These are my notes, chapter by chapter.

Opening Words

In these opening words Freire introduces the idea of a pedagogy of hope and why it is important

  • Freire’s writing is an experiment in bringing out truth.
  • Hope, he says, is an ontological need, an existential concrete imperative, which demands an anchoring in practice.
  • Hope is necessary but not enough. Just to hope is to hope in vain.
  • We need critical hope the way a fish needs unpolluted water.
  • We need a kind of education in hope.
  • Hopelessness and despair are both the consequences and the cause of inaction or immobilism.

Chapter 1

In this first chapter, Freire gives us some background to the origin of his ideas on progressive education

  • Freire originally trained in law, but swopped to education, researching the relationship between schools, families and punishment.
  • He found a difference in the relationship between authority and freedom in cities and rural fishing villages. In the latter children had more freedom and were punished less.
  • Freire believed in the democratisation of the public school and noted that Piaget argued for a dialogical, loving relationship between parents and children in place of violent punishments.
  • Freire began to realise the importance of class, context, and knowledge of the living experience of the oppressed.
  • But he thought that a more critical understanding of the situation of oppression alone does not liberate the oppressed.
  • Freire lived in exile in Chile for four and a half years. Here he discovered the importance of enabling the popular classes to develop their own language for a pedagogy of hope, and a respect for cultural differences and context.

 Chapter 2

Here he reflects on the process of writing Pedagogy of the Oppressed and the criticisms levelled at his writing

  • For Freire, education needs to be radical, utopian and progressive.
  • In this chapter he describes his process of writing Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the importance of speaking his ideas out loud, his collaborative way of working whilst in exile in Chile, and how his friends helped him.
  • Friere writes at length about metaphor and beautiful writing saying ‘Language’s esthetic moment, it has always seemed to me, ought to be pursued by all of us, including rigorous scholars. There is not the least incompatibility between rigor in the quest for an understanding and knowledge of the world, and beauty of form in the expression of what is found in that world.’ p.61
  • He also discusses reading and how to read; reading requires time, patience, sensitivity, method, rigor, determination, and passion for knowledge.
  • Throughout the book he repeatedly draws our attention to the importance of beginning with the educands’ ‘here and now’ and ‘knowledge of living experience’.
  • An educator must be consistent, patient, tolerant and humble. Teaching is a creative and critical act, not a mechanical one.
  • There is always a risk in education. Education is always political and directive.
  • In this chapter, Freire also discusses, responds to, and defends himself against the criticisms  that have been made of his work, principally sexist language, arrogance and elitism.

Chapter 3

I found this chapter a bit of a political rant and a stream of consciousness. I focussed my attention on the following points

  • Freire tells us that teaching and learning should be a joy; the teacher should start from where the students are, and never under-estimate knowledge from living experience.
  • He does not mean that by starting from students’ positions that is where we should stay.
  • Starting from and respecting the local is not a rejection of the national.
  • It is more useful to talk of the oppressed and oppressor than social class.
  • There is no change without a dream, and no dream without a hope. We do not struggle without hope.
  • Capitalism is wicked. Human beings do not simply live, but socially exist.
  • We have to work with the relationship of the innate and the acquired.
  • The oppressor is dehumanised in dehumanising the oppressed. The oppressor can neither liberate nor be liberated.
  • ‘I am not, I do not be, unless you are, you be. Above all I am not if I forbid you to be.’ p.89

Chapter 4

The key points for me in this chapter were about the relationship between teaching and content. There is also a great section on p.124, which lists the problems that a popular education must address, but I have not included these here, but instead in my next post.

  • In this chapter Freire calls for the raising of consciousness, saying this is needed before change can occur.
  • It is important to engage in dialogue, to read the world and read the word, and to understand how others do this.
  • Brazil has a slavocratic past, where people learned to obey to survive, but also learned to resist and to dream.
  • Educational practice always implies a teacher, a learner, method, content, and the relationship between these.
  • There is no education without teaching of content, but who chooses the content, in favour of whom, against whom, in favour of what, against what?
  • It is impossible to democratise the choice of content (involve everyone) without democratising the teaching of content.
  • The role of educators is to bring out other readings of the world, not impose their own.
  • We need neither authoritarianism nor permissiveness, but democratic substance.
  • Dialogue between teachers and students does not place them on the same footing professionally, but does mark the democratic position between them. (see p.107)
  • It is impossible to transfer knowledge, but a teacher can make a presentation and then analyse that presentation with students. Freire questions what sort of educator he would be if he had no concern for being maximally convincing in the presentation of his dreams. But that does not mean that he can reduce everything to his truth, his correctness.
  • Students have the right to know the ‘why’ of the facts.
  • Freire puts Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) in the context of a troubled moment in history. It is important to understand the mechanisms of social conflict.
  • Education is more than the technical training of a labour force. It is an understanding of ourselves as historical, political, social and cultural beings with a comprehension of how society works.

Chapters 5 and 6

In these two chapters Freire describes his experience of meeting with oppressed groups across the world.

  • In Chapter 5 Freire tells us how, after the publication of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he was invited to talk to groups all over the world. In Geneva he spoke to Spanish workers who wanted to set up an alternative school (a complement to the Swiss school their children were attending), whose purpose would be to critique the Swiss education. He also met groups in South Africa, the US and Cuba. He personally experienced racism in Chicago. Throughout all this he stressed the need for unity in diversity, oneness in difference, and the need to concentrate on similarities not just differences.
  • In Chapter 6 Freire continues describing his experience of meetings across the world, again focussing on unity in diversity, but also on cultural pluralism and multiculturality. He stresses the need for a new ethics founded on a respect for differences and new human relations, and recommends a radical breach with colonialism, and a radical rejection of neo-colonialism.

Chapter 7

This is the final chapter of the book, although it is followed by an Afterword and Notes on each of the chapters written by his wife Ana Maria Araújo Freire. These seek further clarification of the points made by Freire in the book.

  • In Chapter 7 Freire turns his attention to universities saying that they should be critically engaged in the service of the popular classes, without loss of seriousness and rigor. The role of the university is to teach, to train, to research, and should seek an interdisciplinary understanding of teaching, not merely a disciplinary one.
  • He stresses again the ‘wickedness’ of race and class discrimination, and the importance of hope.
  • ‘The oppressed may learn that hope born in the creative unrest of the battle, will continue to have meaning when, and only when, it can in its own turn give birth to new struggles on other levels’. p.185
  • Finally this is a quote from this chapter that stands out for me as an educator:
  • ‘… first, the one who knows must know that he or she does not know all things; second, the one who knows not must know that he or she is not ignorant of everything. Without this dialectical understanding of knowledge and ignorance, it is impossible, in a progressive, democratic outlook, for the one who knows to teach the one who knows not.’ p.176

Testing Times in the Classroom: Re-imagining education for the 21st Century

The final task at the end of the fourth and last week of Exeter University’s FutureLearn course – Testing Times in the Classroom. Challenges of 21st Century Education was to re-imagine compulsory schooling. This seems like an enormous task to tag on to the end of the final week of a four week course, which is probably why, as far as I can see, only one person has made any attempt to complete it. Exeter University have tried to minimise this task by giving some advice:

We would encourage you to undertake this re-imagining exercise in any way that might make sense for you. It is entirely up to you how you choose to respond. For example, you might just want to add some notes to the discussion below on your re-imagined school system, or you might want to compose a short poem which captures some of your main thoughts. It might also be helpful for you to do this by creating a visual image.

As an example they provide a link to this blog post – The problem with that equity vs. equality graphic you’re using. I doubt that the complexity of re-imagining compulsory schooling can be reduced to one image, although it might be possible to represent aspects of it in this way and it probably could be represented by a map, particularly if using Matthias’ Melcher’s Thought Condensr Tool. (See the examples on this page –

At this stage I am at a loss as to how to complete this task. The FutureLearn site has told me that I have 11 days of access left to the site. After that I have to pay if I want continued access, which I don’t intend to do. But it will take me more than 11 days to think about this task in any depth. A whole book could be written on the topic, or a PhD or at a minimum a Masters thesis. Nevertheless I have decided to collect resources which might inform how I could respond to the task.

My starting point has been UNESCO’s Future’s of Education initiative, which I became aware of via Stephen Downes’ OLDaily newsletter . This is Stephen’s commentary:

UNESCO has launched an initiative called ‘Futures of Education’, “a global initiative to reimagine how knowledge and learning can shape the future of humanity and the planet.” …. The initiative is framed around the idea of ‘learning to become’, that is, “a philosophy of education and an approach to pedagogy that views learning as a process of continual unfolding that is ongoing and life-long. To think in terms of “becoming” is to invoke a line of thought that emphasizes potentials, rejects determinism and expresses a flexible openness to the new.” 

This approach suggests a real possibility of re-imagining education as something other than the essentialist approach to education currently taken by the UK government.

But what does ‘learning to become’ mean? Many educationalists have written about this. Ronald Barnett, with reference to students in Higher Education, devotes a whole chapter to the idea of ‘Becoming’ in his book ‘A Will to Learn. Being a student in an age of uncertainty’, referencing Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Deleuze, Nietzsche, Sartre and others, showing us that this is an age-old discussion. In concluding this chapter, Barnett writes:

In a genuine higher education, the student not merely undergoes a developmental process, but undergoes a continuing process of becoming. This becoming is marked by the student’s becoming authentic and coming into herself, which are two depictions of the same phenomenon. In this coming into herself, the student finds for herself a clearing that is hers. The staking out of the clearing brings with it freedoms, but also responsibilities; for the student can now be called to account on her own account, not that of others……. She discovers her own voice, is able to articulate it and deploy it to effect. She brings to bear not just her own intentionalities, but her own will…… However, this is a becoming that is never finished. The challenges keep coming; the student is called by her programme of study to displace herself into yet another place. Here, we see an ontology in-the-making, but it is continually in-the-making.

Barnett writes in the context of higher education, but his understanding of the meaning of becoming could equally be applied at all educational stages. This would require, as a starting point, a philosophical approach to re-imagining education as opposed to a political, economic, determinist, social equality approach. Perhaps this is what the UNESCO initiative hopes to do. Time will tell.

Challenges of 21st century education: Past and present reforms

The last two weeks of Exeter University’s FutureLearn open course: Testing Times in the Classroom: Challenges of 21st Century Education were devoted to key changes that have taken place in the field of education over the last 20 or so years. These changes were discussed mostly in the context of the UK and Europe, but participants were encouraged to add their knowledge and perspectives from their own cultures and countries.

The 20th century in the UK saw the creation of universal education, through the growth of state funded education and the raising of the school leaving age from 12 to 16. Following the Education Act in 1944 state-funded secondary education was organised into three type of schools; grammar, technical and secondary modern. Allocation to these schools depended on children’s performance in the 11+ exam. Between 1944 and 1965 this tripartite system came to be increasingly criticised for being divisive and leading to educational inequalities. In response to these concerns in 1965 the Labour Government introduced comprehensive schools for secondary aged children, with the aim of providing an entitlement curriculum for all, without selection through financial considerations or attainment. I was at University at this time and remember having long discussions with people of my parents’ generation who were appalled that good grammar schools were being replaced by comprehensive schools. I myself, in my youth, was ‘fired up’ by the thought that comprehensive schools would ensure that any and every child would have an equal opportunity for a good education. Ultimately comprehensive schools were also discredited with comparisons being made between comprehensive and independent schools.

In the FutureLearn course this was illustrated through two YouTube videos – one of Radley College – an independent boys school, and the other of Faraday High School, a state comprehensive.

Radley College

Faraday High School

Personally, I did not think this was a fair comparison to make. My first teaching experience was in an inner city comprehensive and it was nothing like Faraday High School. Faraday High School would be a ‘bad’ school in any circumstances. Evidence from the video suggests that it had incompetent teachers and poor leadership. Nevertheless comprehensives like Faraday High School did exist such that the system failed and led to increasing concern with educational inequalities related to social class and ethnicity, which still exists today, together with additional equality and diversity concerns, such as gender and disability.

Over the past 20 to 30 years, much educational reform in the UK has focussed on a response to these equality and diversity concerns, raising research questions such as:

  • Do schools favour girls?
  • Do schools make the rich richer?
  • Does social class still matter?
  • Is the school system failing black children?

Whilst there are many research articles that deal with these questions separately, there is now increasing recognition of the importance of intersectionality, i.e. that the wide range of different inequalities intersect. For example, a student’s educational experience will not be affected by gender alone, but also by social class, ethnicity, sexuality, disability and so on.

Another question that was asked in these last two weeks of the course was:

    • Is the purpose of school reform to improve international economic competitiveness?

Surprisingly, to me, when course participants were asked this question 54% answered ‘Yes’. I myself had no hesitation in answering ‘No’. For me the first concern of education should always be the learners/students. We should ask ‘how can the system support each individual in realising his/her full potential?’ If this could be achieved then perhaps international economic competitiveness would follow or, better still, lead to educated thinking adults who would question whether international economic competitiveness should be the purpose of education. Some in the course considered my view unrealistic and utopian, since they argued that education is simply a means to an end.

So it seems that my view is not the majority view and certainly the UK’s approach to educational reform in recent years has been based on a belief in the importance of education for international economic competitiveness. Thus some recent key reforms, which are easy to recognise, have focussed on:

  • Accountability and performance management. This has led to increased testing and school inspections, performance based pay and funding, and increasing focus on management. This system rewards success and punishes failure.
  • Competition and markets – league tables, choice for parents, and the marginalisation of collaboration and collective effort. This approach to reform can already be seen to be leading to hierarchies and differences between socially advantaged and disadvantaged students. For example, some middle class parents are prepared to move house to ensure that they are in the catchment area for schools high in the league tables.
  • Increased control over schools and universities – inspections, audits, reviews and evaluations to measure educational performance, all supported by increased capacity to collect and store data. This necessarily neglects aspects of education that cannot be measured.

Most of these educational reforms are being adopted worldwide, and led to Pasi Salhlberg coining the term Global Education Reform Movement (GERM). Of this acronym-as-analogy, Fuller and Stevenson (2018) write that it:

worked perfectly to describe a phenomenon that Sahlberg identified as both spreading and destructive, behaving “like an epidemic that spreads and infects education systems through a virus” (Sahlberg, 2012, no page).

and that:

Sahlberg has identified the principal features of the GERM as increased standardisation, a narrowing of the curriculum to focus on core subjects/knowledge, the growth of high stakes accountability and the use of corporate management practices as the key features of the new orthodoxy.

In writing about how Finland views educational reform differently, Pasi Sahlberg questions whether this global education reform movement (GERM) is counter-productive.

In the UK, 30 years of these reforms has led to layer upon layer of change and a degree of complexity that could conceivably take at least another 30 years to unravel, even assuming that the ‘powers that be’ think this necessary. We now have a UK education system which has shifted to decentralisation with over 70 different types of schools, whilst at the same time increasing centralisation through the introduction of the national curriculum and increased testing. Derek Gillard (2018) in the conclusion to his report writes:

This history has focused on the long struggle to create for England’s children an education system which values them all. It has, in many ways, been a sad story.

But he ends on a more optimistic note, writing:

Meanwhile, across the country, tens of thousands of teachers still care deeply about the well-being and prospects of their pupils, and go to work every morning determined, despite the often unhelpful interventions of politicians, to provide them with the best and most humane education they can.


Cohen, M. (2004) Knowledge and the gendered curriculum: the problematisation of girls’ achievement –

Courtney S. (2015) Mapping school types in England. Oxford Review of Education. 41(6):799-818.

Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), corp creator. (2009) Gender and education : mythbusters : addressing gender and achievement : myths and realities

Equality and Human Rights Commission – Is Britain Fairer? (2018)

Fuller, K. and Stevenson, H. (2019) Global education reform: understanding the movement, Educational Review, 71:1, 1-4, DOI: 10.1080/00131911.2019.1532718

Gillard, D. (2018) Education in England: the history of our schools

Gillborn, D. and Mirza, H. S. (2000) Educational inequality: mapping race, class and gender – A synthesis of research evidence. Office for Standards in Education.

Hall D. Grimaldi E, Gunter, H, Moller, J, Serpieri, R and Skedsmo G. (2016) Educational Reform and Modernisation in Europe: The Role of National Contexts in Mediating the New Public Management. European Educational Research Journal. 14(16):487-507.

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Schleicher, A. (2018) Equity in Education. Breaking down barriers to social mobility Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) website

The Fawcett Society

The Gender and Education Association –

Ward, H. (2018) More male role models are needed in early years, say heads. TES

Weale, S. (2017) Sexual harassment ‘rife’ in schools but largely unreported, study says. The Guardian –

Women in STEM: how gender inequality could damage Scotland’s economy –