2001 NewFoundations

Paulo Freire's Educational Theory

Analyst: John Lyons


edited 9/20/18

1. Theory of Value: What knowledge and skills are worthwhile learning? What are the goals of education?

Education should raise the awareness of the students so that they become subjects, rather than objects, of the world. This is done by teaching students to think democratically and to continually question and make meaning from (critically view) everything they learn.
...our relationship with the learners demands that we respect them and demands equally that we be aware of the concrete conditions of their world, the conditions that shape them. To try to know the reality that our students live is a task that the educational practice imposes on us: Without this, we have no access ' to the way they think, so only with great difficulty can we perceive what and how they know.

... there are no themes or values of which one cannot speak, no areas in which one must be silent. We can talk about everything, and we can give testimony about everything.
(page 58)

2. Theory of Knowledge: What is knowledge? How is it different from belief? What is a mistake? What is a lie?

Knowledge is a social construct.

... knowing is a social process, whose individual dimension, however, cannot be forgotten or even devalued. The process of knowing, which involves the whole conscious self, feelings, emotions, memory, affects, an epistemologically curious mind, focused on the object, equally involves other thinking subjects, that is, others also capable of knowing and curious. This simply means that the relationship called "thinking" is not enclosed in a relationship "thinking subject - knowable object" because it extends to other thinking subjects. (page 92)

Freire discusses two types of knowledge, unconscious, sometimes practical knowledge and critical, reflective or theory knowledge. Beliefs are shaped into knowledge by discussion and critical reflection.

In the first moment, that of the experience of and in daily living, my conscious self is exposing itself to facts, to deeds, without, nevertheless, asking itself about them, without looking for their "reason for being." I repeat that the knowingbecause there also is knowingthat results from these involvements is that made from pure experience. In the second moment, in which our minds work epistemologically, the methodological rigor with which we come closer to the object, having "distanced ourselves" from it, that is, having objectified it, offers us another kind of knowing, a knowing whose exactitude gives to the investigator or the thinking subject a margin of security that does not exist in the first kind of knowing, that of common sense. (page 93)

While I didn't find discussion about the meaning of the word "mistake", Paulo does talk at length that it is wrong to accept one side of any dichotomy. Knowledge should not be limited to logic and content, or emotions and superstitions, but should seek the connections between understandings and feelings.

We must dare so as never to dichotomize cognition and emotion. (page 3)

... does not dichotomize between commonsense knowledge and other, more systematic, more precise knowledge, but rather, seeks a synthesis of opposites... (page 18)

One of the mistakes we often make is to dichotomize reading and writing and, even from children's earliest steps in the practice of reading and writing, to conceive of these processes as detached from the general process of knowing. This dichotomy between reading and writing follows us forever, as students and as teachers. (page 24)

3. Theory of Human Nature: What is a human being? How does it differ from other species? What are the limits of human potential?

The ability of humans to plan and shape the world for their future needs is what separates man from animals. The oppressed majority must be taught to imagine a better way so that they can shape their future and thereby become more human.

Growing to us is something more than growing to the trees or the animals that, unlike us, cannot take their own growth as an object of their preoccupation. For us, growing is a process in which we can intervene. The point of decision of human growth is not found in the species.
(page 94)

We are ... the only beings capable of being both the objects and the subjects of the relationships that we weave with others and with the history that we make and that makes and remakes us. Between us and the world, relationships can be critically, naively, or magically perceived, but we are aware of these relationships to an extent that does not exist between any other living being and the world. (page 75)

... because we are "programmed to learn," we live, or experience, or we find ourselves open to experience the relationship between what we inherit and what we acquire. We become genetic-cultural beings. We are not only nature, nor are we only culture, education, and thinking. (page 94-95)

One can really perceive the absurdity of the authoritarianism that claims that all these spaces belong to the educational authorities, to teachers. (This claim of ownership is not based on adulthood, since cooks, janitors, security guards, and cleaning staff are also adults but, because they are mere servers within school space, that space does not belong to them any more than it belongs to students.) It is as if learners were in the space but not with the space
. (page 52)

The elite naturally believe that they are better and anything else is naturally inferior.
We have a strong tendency to affirm that what is different from us is inferior. We start from the belief that our way of being is not only good but better than that of others who are different from us. This is intolerance. It is the irresistible preference to reject differences. The dominant class, then, because it has the power to distinguish itself from the dominated class, first, rejects the differences between them but, second, does not pretend to be equal to those who are different; third, it does not intend that those who are different shall be equal. What it wants is to maintain the differences and keep its distance and to recognize and emphasize in practice the inferiority of those who are dominated.

One of the challenges to progressive educators, in keeping with their choice, is not to feel or to proceed as if they were inferior to dominant-class learners in the private schools who arrogantly mistreat and belittle middleclass teachers. But on the other hand, nor should they feel superior, in the public school system, to the learners from the slums, to the lowerclass children, to the children with no comforts, who do not eat well, who do not "dress nicely," who do not "speak correctly," who speak with their own syntax, semantics, and accent.
Pages 71-72)

There are many things that limit the success of the oppressed majority. Non-critical thinking (naive consciousness) is a source of many limitations. Some poor people see no way out of their conditions.

4. Theory of Learning: What is learning? How are skills and knowledge acquired?

Freire talks about the fallacy of looking at the education system like a bank, a large repository where students come to withdraw the knowledge they need for life. Knowledge is not a set commodity that is passed from the teachers to the students. Students must construct knowledge from knowledge they already possess. Teachers must learn how the students understand the world so that the teacher understands how the student can learn.
...teaching cannot be a process of transference of knowledge from the one teaching to the learner. This is the mechanical transference from which results machinelike memorization, which I have already criticized. Critical study correlates with teaching that is equally critical, which necessarily demands a critical way of comprehending and of realizing the reading of the word and that of the world, the reading of text and of context. (page 22)

Learning is a process where knowledge is presented to us, then shaped through understanding, discussion and reflection.

When I understand an object, rather than memorizing the profile of the concept of the object, I know that object, I produce the knowledge of that object. When the reader critically achieves an understanding of the object that the author talks about, the reader knows the meaning of the text and becomes coauthor of that meaning. The reader then will not speak of the meaning of, the text merely as someone who has heard about it. The reader has worked and reworked the meaning of the text; thus, it was not there, immobilized, waiting. Here lies the difficulty and the fascination in the act of reading.
(page 31)

We must be forewarned that only rarely does a text easily lend itself to the reader's curiosity....the reading of a text is a transaction between the reader and the text, which mediates the encounter between the reader and writer. It is a composition between the reader and the writer in which the reader "rewrites" the text making a determined effort not to betray the author's spirit. (Pages 29-30)

Just as bricklayers require a collection of tools and instruments, without which they cannot build up a wall, studentreaders also require fundamental instruments, without which they cannot read or write effectively. They require dictionaries, including etymological dictionaries, dictionaries focusing on verbs and those looking at nouns and adjectives, philosophical dictionaries, thesauruses, and encyclopedias. They need comparative readings of texts, readings by different authors who deal with the same topics but with varying degrees of language complexity. (page 22)

A reader does not suddenly comprehend what is being read or studied, in a snap, miraculously. Comprehension needs to be worked forged, by those who read and study; as subjects of the action, they must seek to employ appropriate instruments in order to carry out the task. For this very reason, reading and studying form a challenging task, one requiring patience and perseverance. (page 23)

...studying is a preparation for knowing; it is a patient and impatient exercise on the part of someone whose intent is not to know it all at once but to struggle to meet the timing of knowledge. (Page 23)

5. Theory of Transmission: Who is to teach? By what methods? What will the curriculum be?

Teaching is a political process. It must be a democratic process to avoid teaching authority dependence. The teacher must learn about (and from) the student so that knowledge can be constructed in ways that are meaningful to the student. The teachers must become learners and the learners must become teachers.
Only insofar as learners become thinking subjects, and recognize that they are as much thinking subjects as are the teachers, is it possible for the learners to become productive subjects of the meaning or knowledge of the object. It is in this dialectic movement that teaching and learning become knowing and reknowing. The learners gradually know what they did not yet know, and the educators reknow what they knew before. (page 90)

To think that such work can be realized when the theoretical context is separated in such a way from the learners' concrete experiences is only possible for one who judges that the content is taught without reference to and independently from what the learners already know from their experiences prior to entering school.... Content cannot be taught, except in an authoritarian, vanguardist way, as if it was a set of things, pieces of knowledge, that can be superimposed on or juxtaposed to the conscious body of the learners. Teaching, learning, and knowing have nothing to do with this mechanistic practice.

Educators need to know what happens in the world of the children with whom they work. They need to know the universe of their dreams, the language with which they skillfully defend themselves from the aggressiveness of their world, what they know independently of the school, and how they know it.
(page 72)

The democratic school that we need is not one in which only the teacher teaches, in which only the student learns, and in which the principal is the allpowerful commander. (page 74)

Teachers must have humility, coupled with love and respect for their students.
Humility helps us to understand this obvious truth: No one knows it all; no one is ignorant of everything. We all know something; we are all ignorant of something. Without humility, one can hardly listen with respect to those one judges to be too far below one's own level of competence. But the humility that enables one to listen even to those considered less competent should not be an act of condescension or resemble the behavior of those fulfilling a vow... (page 39)

It is through hearing the learners, a task unacceptable to authoritarian educators, that democratic teachers increasingly prepare themselves to be heard by learners. But by listening to and so learning to talk with learners, democratic teachers teach the learners to listen to them as well. (page 65)

Another fundamental aspect related to the early experiences of novice teachers, one that teacher training programs should pay the closest attention to if they don't already, is teachers' preparation for "reading" a class of students as if it were a text to be decoded, comprehended.

The novice teacher must be attentive to everything, even to the most innocent movements on the part of the students: the restlessness of their bodies, a surprised gaze, or a more or less aggressive reaction on the part of this or that student.

... it is not possible to be a teacher without loving one's students, even realizing that love is not enough. It is not possible to be a teacher without loving teaching.
(page 15)

6. Theory of Society: What is society? What institutions are involved in the educational process?

Freire challenges the conventional assumption that there is equal opportunity in a democratic society. He asserts, often, that education is a political process. Schools become tools that are used by parents, business and the community to impose their values and beliefs. While no intentional harm is intended, this process often results in the oppression of less privileged persons.
It is truly difficult to make a democracy. Democracy, like arty dream, is not made with spiritual words but with reflection and practice. It is not what I say that says I am a democrat, that I am not racist or machista but what I do. What I say must not be contradicted by what I do. It is what I do that bespeaks my faithfulness or not to what I say. (page 67)

As one might expect, authoritarianism will at times cause children and students to adopt rebellious positions, defiant of any limit, discipline, or authority. But it will also lead to apathy, excessive obedience, uncritical conformity, lack of resistance against authoritarian discourse, self-abnegation, and fear of freedom. (page 40)

... there are moments in which the teacher, as the authority talks to the learners, says what must be done, establishes limits without which the very freedom of learners is lost in lawlessness, but these moments, in accordance with the political options of the educator, are alternated with others in which the educator speaks with the learner.

It doesnt hurt to repeat here the statement, still rejected by many people in spite of its obviousness, that education is a political act.
(page 63)

No one can learn tolerance in a climate of irresponsibility, which does not produce democracy. The act of tolerating requires a climate in which limits may be established, in which there are principles to be respected. That is why tolerance is not coexistence with the intolerable. Under an authoritarian regime, in which authority is abused, or a permissive one, in which freedom is not limited, one can hardly learn tolerance. Tolerance requires respect, discipline, and ethics. (page 42)

Being tolerant does not mean acquiescing to the intolerable; it does not mean covering up disrespect; it does not mean coddling the aggressor or disguising aggression. Tolerance is the virtue that teaches us to live with the different. It teaches us to learn from and respect the different. (page 42)

I have never said, as is sometimes believed, or even suggested that lower-class children should not learn the so-called educated norm of the Portuguese language of Brazil. What I have said is that the problems of language always involve ideological questions and, along with them, questions of power. (page 74)

Finally, it is important to make it clear that imagination is not an exercise for those detached from reality, those who live in the air. On the contrary, when we imagine something, we do it necessarily conditioned by a lack in our concrete reality. When children imagine free and happy schools, it is because their real schools deny them freedom and happiness.(page 51)

7. Theory of Opportunity: Who is to be educated? Who is to be schooled?

Freire's entire education career is based on his desire to provide greater opportunity for the poor and oppressed people of the world, but particularly in Brazil.
Knowing has everything to do with growing. But the knowing of dominant minorities absolutely must not prohibit, must not asphyxiate, must not castrate the growing of the immense dominated majorities. (page 95)

Citizenship implies freedom -- to work, to eat, to dress, to wear shoes, to sleep in a house, to support oneself and one's family, to love, to be angry, to cry, to protest, to support, to move, to participate in this or that religion, this or that party, to educate oneself and one's family, to swim regardless in what ocean of one's country. Citizenship is not obtained by chance: It is a construction that, never finished, demands we fight for it. It demands commitment, political clarity, coherence, decision. For this reason a democratic education cannot be realized apart from an education of and for citizenship. (page 90)

8. Theory of Consensus: Why do people disagree? How is consensus achieved? Whose opinion takes precedence?

Disagreement is normal and something to expect. Disagreement can be an impetus to reflection and a source of growth. The problem that Freire wants to address is when opinions and disagreements are suppressed in the name of control and authority.
There may not be life or human existence without struggle and conflict. Conflict shares in our conscience. Denying conflict, we ignore even the most mundane aspects of our vital and social experience. Trying to escape conflict, we preserve the status quo. (page 45)

None of this is easily accomplished, and I would not like to leave readers with the impression that wanting is enough to change the world. Desire is fundamental, but it is not enough. It is also necessary to know how to want, to learn how to want, which implies learning how to fight politically with tactics adequate to our strategic dreams. (pages 50-51)


Freire, Paulo; Teachers as Cultural Workers - Letters to Those Who Dare Teach, Translated by Donoldo Macedo, Dale Koike, and Alexandre Oliveira, Westview Press, Boulder, CO, 1998.

Other recommended readings:

Freire, Paulo; Pedagogy of the Opressed, Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos, The Continuum Publishing Corporation, New York, NY, 1987.

Freire, Paulo; The Politics of Education - Culture, Power, and Liberation, Translated by Donoldo Macedo, Bergin & Garvey, New York, NY, 1985.

Heaney, Tom; Issues in Freirean Pedagogy, http://nlu.nl.edu/ace/Resources/Documents/FreireIssues.html, June 20, 1995 (6/10/01)

Gadotti, Moacir and Torres, Carlos Alberto; Paulo Freire: A Homage, http://nlu.nl.edu/ace/Homage.html, (6/10/01)

Paulo Freire, http://nlu.nl.edu/ace/Homage.html, (6/10/01)

Facundo, Blanca; Freire Inspired Programs in the United States and Puerto Rico: A Critical Evaluation, http://nlu.nl.edu/ace/Resources/Documents/Facundo.html, 1998, (6/10/01)

Shor, Ira; Critical Teaching & Everyday Life, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1987.

FURTHER information relating to Paulo Freire can be found at
Democratic Classrooms: Incorporating Student Voice and Choice in Teacher Education Courses.