The false choice at the heart of Freire

Whenever I write about Freire’s book, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, I tend to provoke one of three reactions:

1. That I am reading the wrong Freire book and I should read other ones instead

2. That I don’t really understand what Freire means (this usually comes after I have quoted him)

3. That nobody is really influenced by Freire anyway

I have to admit that it is a very odd book. It is mainly about revolution and is written almost entirely in the abstract about the ‘oppressed’ and the ‘oppressors’. It is hard to even imagine what this means. However, I think that this acts as something of a blank canvas onto which we may can project our own preoccupations. I might imagine peasants versus dictators; you might imagine students versus teachers. If I ask a student to remove his coat in class then perhaps I am the oppressor and he is the oppressed? What would Freire say?

Indeed, something has to account for the book’s extraordinary influence. According to the Pedagogy of the Oppressed website,

“Over one million copies of Pedagogy of the Oppressed have been sold worldwide since the first English translation in 1970. It has been used on courses as varied as Philosophy of Education, Liberation Theology, Introduction to Marxism, Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, Communication Ethics and Education Policy.”

“Pedagogy of the Oppressed is one of the foundational texts in the field of critical pedagogy, which attempts to help students question and challenge domination, and the beliefs and practices that dominate.”

And so it sits at the base of a whole field; critical pedagogy.

At a more trivial level, Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a source of internet memes and it was a recent encounter with a tweeter of such memes that started me thinking again about Freire. The source of these memes is generally chapter 2 where Freire has a go at what he calls the ‘banking concept’ of education where teachers ‘deposit’ knowledge in students and which sounds to me a lot like explicit teaching. I think this is one of the reasons for the book’s huge popularity. People can use it as a source of authority from which to criticise explicit forms of instruction.

The book is laced with ironies. For instance, Freire criticises traditional teaching for setting up dichotomies, as encapsulated by this (misspelt) meme:

banking concept II

There’s a lot of wild assertions there (necrophily? seriously? that’s just weird…) and the book itself does little to substantiate them. However, let’s stick with this idea of dichotomies.

A false dichotomy is when a someone presents us with two options when, in reality, there are more. For example, if I said, “You either oppose standardised testing or you are a neoliberal,” then that would be a false choice. Standardised NAPLAN testing was introduced to Australia by a left-of-centre government. Indeed, the sort of system where the state sets targets and then measures progress against them is perfectly consistent with state socialism. The point is that the choice presented in the statement does not cover all of the options. You can see why this is a bad thing*. Going around dichotomising everything would be problematic because it would risk creating false choices and so risk grossly oversimplifying the world.

Yet here is another Freire meme.

banking concept

Hmmm…

So, what is the alternative to the banking model? According to Freire, it is ‘problem-posing’ education. If this sounds familiar, it is because there is a problem-based theme running from at least William Kilpatrick in 1918, through Freire and right up to today’s proponents of inquiry learning, the maker movement and project/problem based learning. Freire’s problem-posing education seemed to consist of showing images to peasants and trying to initiate a dialogue around those images. Yet even then, it’s not supposed to be the teacher who selects these images in isolation – they should draw upon what the peasants wanted to investigate.

So, a teacher must either continue using the banking model where, “by considering [students’] ignorance absolute, he justifies his own existence,” or he can engage in some sort of problem-posing education. But this doesn’t cover all of the available options, does it?

When I teach Year 12 physics, I am well aware that my students already know quite a lot of physics. In fact, I hope they do and my starting point is always to find out exactly what. I assume that they know a lot of other things too. Analogies would hold no explanatory value if my students didn’t know about the thing that I was using as an analogy. Yet, I don’t do anything like problem-posing teaching. I stand, usually at the front, explaining things to the students and asking them questions before setting them tasks to complete. This is Freire’s banking concept.

So Freire himself has set up a false choice.

Now, it is possible that we’ve over-extended Freire here. He was writing about a particular form of education – the education of illiterate adult peasants – at a particular time. I happen to think that these peasants might have been better served by being taught to read in a systematic way but let’s set that aside for now.

I would be happy enough to agree that Freire has little of value to say about educating students in the today’s schools. If so, we would probably have to conclude that Critical Pedagogy, at least in its application to schools, is built on a false premise.

*Unfortunately, people tend to be a little too eager and look for false choices in a way that sometimes limits debate. For instance, at the moment that a teacher first teaches a new concept to her students then she can either fully explain that concept or rely on some degree of discovery on the part of the students. There are no other options available and so discussing the relative merits of these approaches is not setting up a false choice.

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5 Comments on “The false choice at the heart of Freire”

  1. teachwell says:

    I think that the whole concept of left and right in education right now is skewed. Gove based his ideas on Hirsch’s book which quotes liberally from Gramsci (whose idea of cultural capital is still relevant). On the other hand, there are those similarities between the extremes of left and right on the thinking behind discovery/problem based learning which spans from Freire to Il Duce – both of whom thought it was worthwhile to teach based on the progressive approaches. The left wing of education see progressivism as a united faction in all spheres without accepting the reality that there has been no increase in social mobility now in over 40 years. Not even when the economy was good.

    The issue is also one of society – those that seek progressive education for ideological means do so in order to create a society that they think is acceptable. To some extent the progressives in education are not far sighted enough in this respect and see the impact of what they do in their classroom but refuse to take responsibility for how this plays out later on in a child’s life. The commitment to making children happy in the short term in the classroom is evident in primary schools all over the country, there just seems to a be a state of collective amnesia when it comes to the reality that children do indeed grow up to become adults. Adults who will know very little and who, to quote Gramsci’s prophetic words, ‘remain ignorant and a slave to their emotions’.

    I’m with Gramsci – the banking of knowledge and cultural capital, despite coming from a poor immigrant family, helped me to navigate not only the education system but later on the job market and education as an adult. I would never have done this with ‘soft skills’ alone or indeed a load of ‘skills’ but no context.

  2. An interesting critique and I fully agree that Friere is misappropriated. UK secondary schools are not rural South American adult education groups and there’s a huge difference. In the interests of balance (and the hope for more debate and understanding) I think that a lot of what you and Teachwell are saying also reflects and unhelpful dichotomising that characterises the whole traditional vs progressive dialogue. I’d love to see it move on and some recognition that there is a lot of sense being spoken from both sides (as well as a lot of guff from both sides). This would make the whole debate of some practical use.

  3. […] Greg Ashman unpacks a bit of Freire quite nicely here – much better than I […]

  4. […] as ‘critical pedagogy’ or ‘critical literacy’, deploying high rhetoric. Paolo Freire, the founder of critical pedagogy, argued in his 1968 book, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, that traditional education – which […]


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