2.2 Introduction to Freire
The Brazilian educator Paulo Freire radicalised a whole generation of literacy workers in the 1960s and 1970s, linking literacy to social change. Freire criticised existing literacy teaching which was based on primers:
"There is an implicit concept of man in the primer's method and content, whether it is recognised by the authors or not... It is the teacher who chooses the words and proposes them to the learners...the students are to be "filled" with the words the teachers have chosen. It is the profile of a man whose consciousness... must be filled or fed in order to know". (Freire 1985)
Freire condemned this "banking" concept of education:
"As understood in this concept, man is a passive being, the object of the process of learning to read and write, and not its subject". (Freire 1972)
Freire recognised that the people who were normally the passive objects of literacy classes should be seen differently:
"Agronomists, agriculturalists, public health officials, cooperative administrators, literacy educators - we all have a lot to learn from peasants, and if we refuse to do so, we can't teach them anything." (Freire 1985)
However, for Freire most non-literate people were unable to assert themselves. As a result of oppression they were immersed in a "culture of silence":
"In the culture of silence, to exist is only to live. The body carries out orders from above. Thinking is difficult. Speaking is forbidden." (Freire 1972)
In this context there could be no such thing as neutral education:
"Illiteracy is one of the concrete expressions of an unjust social reality. It is political... it is a process of search and creation... [which must] develop students consciousness of their rights". (Freire 1985)
Through what Freire called "the pedagogy of the oppressed'' the students would "perceive the reality of oppression, not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation which they can transform". (Freire 1972)
Freire called this "conscientization": the process of learning to perceive social, political and economic contradictions and taking action against the oppressive elements of reality.
But how could adult literacy work be linked to conscientization? Freire recognised that learners needed to "gain a distance from" their everyday lives so that they could see their situation in a new way. The means for doing this was called a "codification".
"Codifications" are pictures or photographs produced after extensive research in a local area, which in their images capture essential problems or contradictions in the lives of the learners. The learners reflect upon these images, first of all describing them and then through "problematising", analyse their deep structure, until they come face to face with their own lives. The codification is thus an "instrument for this abstraction"- being able to see reality clearer by taking one step away from it. The process of analysing a codification is called "decodification" and involves "dialogue".
Freire saw dialogue as fundamental. He construed this as a coming together of the teacher and learners/students:
"We are advocating a synthesis between the educator's maximally systematised knowing and the learner's minimally systematised knowing - a synthesis achieved in dialogue." (Freire 1985)
"Dialogue" is sometimes mystified by Freire. Effectively it is a discussion, but not just any discussion: rather it is a discussion where people reach below everyday life, open up, and come face to face with new understanding and awareness.
But why link literacy to all of this? Freire was adamant about the need to learn to read and write the world at the same time as learning to read and write the word:
"Learners must see the need for writing one's life and reading one's reality." (Freire 1985)
Freire believed that literacy alone is of no use if there is no other process of change which can help to lift the culture of silence.
Having engaged in dialogue over a codification the next step for the literacy class is the introduction of the word. Not just any word is chosen, but a carefully selected "generative word" which is arrived at after "investigating the vocabulary universe" (or "minimal linguistic universe") of the learners. The word itself is the focus of further dialogue.
Once a generative word has been introduced, Freire advocated breaking the generative word into component syllables and syllabic families - but always asking questions of the learners, not doing it for them (only "having prepared the learners critically for the information" so it "is not a mere gift"). Having done this the educator should ask the learners something like: "do you think we can create something with these pieces?" For Freire (1985), "this is the decisive moment for learning" as the learners "discover the words of their language by putting them together in a variety of combinations". This ends the mystique of written language.
For Freire, the process outlined above would lead to conscientization, giving students a sense of purpose so that they would really be able to "know" the world:
"The act of knowing involves a dialectical movement that goes from action to reflection and from reflection upon action to a new action." (Freire 1972)
This was the struggle which could result in political change. The process is called "praxis" and Freire stressed that:
"Action of men without objectives is not praxis - it is action ignorant of its own process and of its aim" (Freire 1972)
In summary for Freire:
"If learning to read and write is to constitute an act of knowing the learners must assume from the beginning the role of creative subjects. It is not a matter of memorising and repeating given syllables, words and phrases but rather, reflecting critically on the process of reading and writing itself and on the profound significance of language." (Freire 1985)
[Ukrainian] [English] [Russian]