Raúl Leis

Reflections on Popular Education

1. The Main Contributions of Popular Education over the Years

EP fights to link democracy with development, with a very full concept of citizenship

Latin America and the Caribbean became the most unequal area in the world between 1990 and 2002, with a 10% rise in poverty: 200 million people were living in poverty in 1990, and the figure is now 220 million. That is not all, since there is also a steady deterioration in natural resources, reflected in an increase in air and water pollution and the loss of biological diversity, deforestation and soil erosion.

Despite its great advances in formal democracy, Latin America is a region where large sections of the population do not know what is meant by democracy, what its features are, its potential and its limitations. There is still little support for the values needed for democracy to flourish, and against this background, little or no attention is given in the public debate to discussion of democratic values (tolerance, multiculturalism, respect for minorities, the individual and the person, the rule of law, civil, political, socio-economic and cultural rights, guarantees of these and ways of spreading them). Most democracies are inadequate, and suffer from authoritarian exercise of power, corruption, protection for some from prosecution and restricted access to justice and political participation for wide sectors of the population, growing concern over the distribution of wealth, and inequality of opportunity to exercise economic, social and cultural rights.

The focus of PE is necessarily on democracy, but this cannot disguise the fact that in Latin American societies, the role of the citizen is restricted to that of consumer, either enjoying limited participation or simply being excluded from social and economic development, and frequently merely surviving on the fringes of economic growth, which appears to be exclusive to one wing of society. Development is associated with democracy through significant activities such as:

  • Promoting and supporting national schemes for fairer economic growth, more active participation in democracy, and environmentally sustainable development

  • Collaborating in encouraging citizens to organize, participate and manage their affairs, especially in marginalized and excluded sectors, in order to enhance the quality of their lives, working together to ensure that members of society are able to play a part in shaping their future

  • Taking account of the interaction between gender, age, ethnicity, the environment and local development to enrich development as a whole

  • Supporting the creation of a modern citizenry with a democratic political culture, civic responsibility and the ability to act to transform their situation positively


One key element is acceptance of the need not only to remedy deficits but also to realise the potential of individuals and groups, thereby transforming the perception of development into a process that has to focus on people and how to relate their needs to social practices, methods of organization, values and global alternatives. If needs are seen solely in terms of deficits, there is the risk of adopting a potentially paralysing aid approach which ignores the focus on synergy and systems1 required to replace the vicious circle of poverty by the virtuous circle of integrated development.

Social and economic development means working in harmony with participatory democratization and designing methods that include political action to counteract socio-economic exclusion. Meaningful citizenship presupposes the ability to combine political citizenship with socio-economic citizenship, and this requires PE to develop more integrated concepts, methodologies and practices.

PE constructs pedagogical models and provides innovative, participatory and effective methods of education, organization, mobilization and communication for the purpose of awarenessraising

We need an education that strengthens people’s ability to play a part in managing their own development. The approach has to be based on innovative thinking, innovation being understood in practice to mean

“behaviours or objects which are new because they are qualitatively different from existing types, have been planned deliberately as components of the formal education system or as non-formal educational activities, raise the educational level of the population, and can be applied within a timescale that allows their effectiveness to be measured and their relative stability and sustainability to be assessed.”2

This means that the model of education has to be redesigned, placing the emphasis on methods which take account of such vital elements as recognising the knowledge of the learner and its relation with its context. This will give it a transformative quality, given that it is crucial for the educational process to reflect our culture, capacity for interculturalism, idiosyncrasies, history, outlook and identity.

More integrated PE means including a variety of themes reflecting universal values, which are seldom taken into account in educational programmes. One example is women’s participation, to which the approach needs to respond in terms of practical gender needs (daily and everyday life, sex education) and strategic needs (equality of opportunities at various levels), while placing a non-sexist, productive- reproductive emphasis on values. Another example is respect for cultural diversity and the environment, where the perspective of sustainability should be added, on both a local and a more general scale. Or again, there is ethno-education, where the first task is to rediscover the methods implicit in autochthonous cultures and to link these with valid universal principles, thus developing a specific educational approach that satisfies indigenous needs, contexts and cultures. Research needs to focus on the whole question of conducting participatory action research, especially in micro, local and regional activities.

The PE approach calls for a combination of formal and non-formal methods and provision that is closely related to the situations, aspirations and needs of the sectors of society with which it is working. Quality and equality are twin indispensable principles in a process that needs to embrace all aspects and to cover the full range of gender, culture, age, socio-economic circumstances, physical and mental ability, and types of education, and to offer the highest possible quality across the board.

Encouragement must be given to the creation of educational environments in everyday surroundings, stimulating a dialogue of knowledge, and redefining educational processes in accordance with a different perception of knowledge and the part played by people in expanding, producing, applying and appropriating it.

This means exploiting managed processes of socialization and increasing and consolidating the individual, group and collective abilities of the various sectors (especially the excluded, exploited and marginalized) by rediscovering and re-creating values, re-evaluating historical memory and producing, appropriating and applying knowledge which permits active participation in national development at the local, regional and national level.

This is part of the active social process of generating or reconstructing interests, aspirations, cultures and identities in order to foster human development. It contributes to the growth and consolidation of both awareness and practice of the values of solidarity, participation, industriousness, honesty, creativity, critical ability and commitment to action for change.

PE enhances the capacity to introduce participatory methods of teaching and learning, planning, evaluation, decision-making and management, and the understanding, identification and resolution of problems; the task of education must be to expand these abilities in the context of both social participation, sciences, arts and technology, and the development of skills, competences, creativity and discernment.

Education must therefore be intrinsic to the organization of social and community life. There can be no divorce between everyday life, people’s needs and potential, and the educational promotion of democratic living.

Educational activity cannot be evaluated by measuring the appropriation of concepts, but by quantifying the ability to bring about improvements in practice, or enhanced ability to make changes in the right direction.

All of this process presupposes that account is taken of the tensions between the micro and the macro level, between starting and finishing points, between old and new knowledge, between the personal and the collective, project and process, efficiency and effectiveness, science and conscience, knowing and showing, quality and clarity.

Popular education must succeed in linking its objectives with participatory, critical pedagogy and appropriate teaching methods. This requires keys and effective tools (techniques) to carry out the entire process. But techniques, methods, objectives and design need to hang together coherently within the framework of an integrated methodology and pedagogical model.

Education will not take place unless there is a close relationship between it and the intended life of the people, not only as beneficiaries but also as major players in the process. The methodology must ensure integration, so that people’s different situations are linked in one articulated unit. It is not enough to be solely “technical” and to ignore human or ethical considerations, or solely scientific, or solely humanist, solely formal or solely non-formal. Rather, different dimensions need to be identified and linked complementarily.

It is vital to develop the collective production and appropriation of knowledge. This means giving people the ability to construct knowledge and to appropriate universal accumulated knowledge critically, rather than transmitting it in one direction. In this process, the starting and finishing point is the accumulation and deepening of practice, which enables existing practice to take a leap of quality towards enhanced practice through a process of steady improvement. The emphasis on participation, and coherence between methods and techniques, among other matters, must therefore run through the educational approach.

The question arises of how to work with concrete situations, and with new ways of thinking about and delivering education for democracy; new ways of measuring the role of society, the state, schools, teachers, citizens, militants, individuals and support agencies; new ways of forging and combining social alliances; new ways of coordinating and strengthening the educational and cultural infrastructure; new ways of creating and combining different types and methods of education to accommodate all age groups; and new ways of capturing resources and facilities.

One key theme for critical pedagogy

“rests on the recognition that only those who are educated as subjects can offer principled resistance to domination and authoritarianism. From this angle, civic education should be seen as a process of forming individual and collective identities which recognise rights and combat all forms of discrimination, in the context of a system of networking that sustains the powers in society… [education which]:

a) values pluralism and respects the rights of minorities and different cultural groups 
b) fosters the construction of identity based on the particular context of each individual 
c) takes account of the particular conditions of each community in order to increase the rate at which rights are established to respond to the requirements of ‘difference’ (gender, language, ethnicity, age, etc.) 
d) develops a discourse that is not merely critical but also enabling, thereby fostering collective dynamics intended to create a new order 
e) encourages schools and communities to spell out their educational aims, generating communicative processes intended to demonstrate the values on which education is based.”3

PE must therefore see itself as a set of actions that are linked in terms of system and process, in the aim of collectively understanding life in democracy in order to change it in an organized fashion. The key word is coherence, between theory and practice, between words and deeds, and between different aspects of life.

PE argues for the need to strengthen the democratic political culture

In present circumstances it is necessary to strengthen the ability to realise the potential of the democratic political culture through PE, in a situation in which worsening exclusion and poverty, and environmental degradation, coincide simultaneously and contradictorily with the potential for economic growth and better opportunities for democratic participation.

Almond and Verba4 describe political culture as “attitudes to the political system and its various parts, and attitudes to the role of the individual within that system,” with reference to the individual’s knowledge of the system, feelings about it and assessment of it. They define political culture in four ways:

1. The set of subjective political orientations within a national population group, or a sub-group thereof
2. Its components are essentially psychological and individualized (cognitive, affective, evaluative) and affect political orientation and commitment to political values
3. The content of political culture is the result of socialization, education and exposure to the media since childhood, and of experience in adulthood of the way in which government, society and the economy operate
4. Political culture takes on the manner of operation and the structure of government (which it can influence but not determine)

Political culture entwines the micro-political with the macro-political, thereby building a bridge between the behaviour of individuals and that of systems. The relevant attitudes of individuals may not be explicitly political, but may be found among the non-political attitudes and affiliations of the civil society. Politics is understood in turn as the organizational environment of power – the environment of the decisions linking a society or group – from which it can be assumed that the political culture is comprised of meanings, values, concepts and attitudes towards the specifically political environment.

The democratic political culture, being a varying set of values, attitudes and preferences influenced by substantive changes in society, plays a crucial role in democracy, comprising a set of values, attitudes and beliefs which establish guidelines and limits for the behaviour of citizens and political leaders, legitimize political institutions and provide a context for the thoughts and feelings of the majority of the population.

PE realises the potential capacity of the democratic political culture, fostering consensus-forming, values, participation and voluntary collaboration among the population, while at the same time permitting mobilization, struggle and resistance.

PE helps to promote participation as a key element of its activities

Alain Touraine5 suggests three elements as the epicentre of democratic education: the first is resistance to domination; the second, love of oneself; and the third, recognition of others as “subjects” who have control over their lives, and of respect for the political and legal rules which allow people to live truly in this way. These elements sum up the formidable challenges facing the individual which are taken up by popular education in a continent of shattered lives and shining hopes.

Participation is a cornerstone. It is intimately linked to access to decision- making which takes into account the wishes of those affected. It is the desire to be less of an object and more of a subject, and is driven by the following motives:

“to gain control of one’s own situation and one’s own aims in life by playing a part in decisions that affect the living conditions under which that situation and those aims evolve. To gain access to more and better goods and/or services which society could offer, but are not available through any institutional or structural mechanism. To raise the level of self-esteem through greater recognition of one’s own rights, needs and abilities.”6

To increase the empowerment of citizens through democratic participation. To increase participation in all spheres of life in a democracy.

Participation is the antithesis of authoritarianism, which proclaims one pre-established populist message and presses for the consent of the people on the basis of paternalism and the narrow neoliberal vision that preaches individualist participation in a market, concentrating income and excluding many groups of people. Participation is the pivot of integrated life. Participation is also critical, accumulative and seminal.

PE and those behind it face the urgent task of rebuilding politics by redrawing all possible boundaries to create a design for living, as part of a PE that focuses on change, and of helping to develop different, better, new ways of doing things politically. This means responding to the huge challenge of encouraging thinking, methodologies, methods and techniques right across the field of social action, and supporting the democratic development of “subjects”, paradigms and societies.

2. What Arguments Put Forward by Popular Education are Still Relevant and What Changes Have Been (or Should Be) Made

In the 18th century, Zama was exiled to Paraguay, cut off from his family, his wife Marta and his children, who were living far away. For many years Zama put up with their absence, and during the last days of his life he suffered persecution at the hands of bandits. At the point of death, he took a pen dipped in the blood of an ostrich captured for food and wrote a note that he placed in an empty rum bottle, which he then threw into a river and which would reach the sea weeks later. He wrote just four words; “Marta, I wasn’t shipwrecked.” 

Zama is a short story by the Argentinian writer Antonio di Benedetto, who was then tortured in prison for eighteen months by the Argentine dictatorship, without anyone knowing why.

PE has not been shipwrecked either, and its key arguments are still being made, but it needs to be strengthened by input from the practice and theory of social change and educational experience. Dialectical dynamics and the methodology of transformation are key features. That means that PE is being relaunched by voices pressing for and creating the need to renew both social reality and PE itself.

3. Main Considerations in Strengthening a Popular Education Movement in Latin America that Can Contribute to Social Change

  • Constant analysis is needed of social, economic, political and cultural circumstances, and of the key social players in the processes of transformation so that PE contributes to viable and humanitarian proposals for change, with emancipatory viewpoints and paradigms.

  • There is a need to invest in more democratic, clearer and more effective pedagogical approaches, and in active, dialogical, critical and participatory methods centred essentially on raising the awareness of citizens.

  • There is an urgent need to increase international cooperation directed at strengthening popular education in the countries of Latin America, not by turning ourselves into a theatre of war and disaster, but by adopting a scenario of encouragement and bringing about changes in the arena of socio-economic development – which is demanded by people as part of their aspiration for a better standard of living – and consolidating democracy by means of the changes needed and strategic PE processes.

  • PE should make greater efforts to coordinate the various related bodies so as to facilitate the achievement of an intensive process of generating a citizenship that is democratic, participatory and critical, and displays solidarity, tolerance and awareness. To this end there is a need to establish alliances between civil, private and public bodies, and agencies and institutions concerned with influencing PE, and with strengthening and creating networks to work with differing population groups in the aim of influencing the creation and further development of a democratic culture.

  • Mechanisms for exchanging information about local, national and international PE experiences and materials should be promoted. In this, CEAAL will play a fundamental role.

  • The gender perspective should become an integral part of education, organization, communication and research.

  • PE faces the challenge of becoming a space for a dialogue of knowledge, thus promoting thinking and strengthening practice, and delineating identities that are increasingly dialogically multicultural. PE must incorporate the interests and multicultural aspirations of ethnic groups, especially indigenous, Afro and rural populations.

  • It must respond to the challenge of interdisciplinary studies. Many questions that have arisen in the increasingly complex process of PE need increasingly advanced answers, which are not available within a single academic subject or discipline.

  • It must respond to the challenge of introducing the new technologies in PE training and skills development. This means harmonizing the content and methods of PE with the new technologies in order to modernize the participatory teaching-learning process and the empowering appropriation of these tools by a portion of the population.

  • One crucial task is to systematize PE experiences as the basis for improving and consolidating pedagogical concepts and methodologies so that they are better suited to those involved in the process. This will also help to clarify the emphases that need to be adopted by the various agencies and players in order to achieve citizenship in the fullest sense.



1 See various authors, Development on the Human Scale, CEPAUR, Uppsala, Sweden, 1986.
2 Restrepo, Bernardo et al. 1985. La innovación en educación. Identificación, documentación y caracterización de seis casos en Antioquia. Medellín: UNESCO.
3 Osorio Vargas, Jorge. Pedagogías ciudadanas: mapas actuales de sus Propios e Hibridos Aprendizajes de la Com(per)plejidad. Una Contribución al debate sobre Liderazgo y Educación. (Paper presented at the 3rd International Multidisciplinary Meeting organized by the Centro de Desarrollo Humano y Creatividad, Lima, 28-30 June 2002).
4 Echegollen Guzmán, Alfredo, “Cultura e imaginarios políticos en América Latina,” in Revista Metapolítica, 1997, Mexico City.
5 Touraine, Alain. ¿Qué es la democracia? FCE, 1995. Mexico.
6 Hopenhayn, Martín. “La participación y sus motivos”, Acción Critica No. 24, 1998. Lima, Peru.

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