Nydia González

Pedagogy as the well-deliberated, historical, social, and political science of education has evolved over the course of centuries. After briefly outlining the development of this discipline since the Renaissance, the article focuses on Popular Education, a model of pedagogy for the oppressed proposed by Paulo Freire to help disadvantaged subjects liberate themselves from their oppressors by analyzing the conditions of their oppression, and by developing their own initiative to take transformatory action. Although Freire’s fundamental ideas retain their validity, changing conditions make it necessary for educators to adapt the methods according to well-founded theoretical considerations.

Popular Education and Pedagogy

A Brief Introduction

Pursuing this subject implies recognizing that the phenomenon of education is as old as the human race. From the dawn of humanity there has been a need to learn and teach, in other words a need for education. Over the ages great teachers and important teachings have appeared around the world, but it took thousands of years before people began reflecting on the practice of education for the sake of guiding and clarifying the process and filling in the gaps. The discipline of pedagogy – the general theory of the art of education – was developed in the course of this process.1

As a social phenomenon, these processes of action and reflection in education are conditioned by other historical, sociological, and political components. Every era has left its mark on pedagogy. Dogmatic theology had a decisive impact on scholasticism. Modernity gave rise to rationality and the so-called New School Movement. And the process of domesticating capitalism leveraged the development of educational technology and programmed learning. School is clearly not a static entity. The art of teaching has changed as a consequence of scientific findings and the interests that have defined school as an ideological apparatus of the State.

At the same time, every era produces ideas that question or dispute existing theories. For every school there is a counter school. However, it is important to remember that educational trends do not materialize as a finished product. They are shaped and modified in the course of educational practice. Neither do they reject or exclude every idea developed in earlier approaches. On the contrary, elements perceived as positive are maintained, and other elements are adapted to fit alternative concepts. New ideas are introduced and connections between new concepts and earlier approaches are identified. As a result, no pedagogical trend exists in a pure or classic form.

Scholars therefore acknowledge the existence of diverse influences and common traits in different approaches, as demonstrated in the following comments of Paulo Freire:Popular Education and Pedagogy2

“Let us consider for a moment the question of influences, which at times are misinterpreted in a very mechanistic manner. The belief is that the influence which one individual exerts over another implies that the person who is influenced copies the influencer. This is not the case. Influence only exists if the one who is influenced is capable per se of being influenced, and if the one who is influenced reshapes the one who influenced. Otherwise it is not influence but mediocrity. Therefore, I believe that to accept influences and to live them, to adopt them, is one of the tasks of a good intellectual.”

A brief survey of the trends that have emerged over the history of pedagogy serves to demonstrate the complex nature of the history of pedagogy and the implicit need that exists to establish where these trends are related and what they have contributed. This process is particularly important today considering the explosive developments taking place in the new sciences. The field of pedagogy is experiencing the effects of new concepts, reasoning, and technologies. It faces a wide range of alternatives as a result of the growing number of critical perspectives.

The Renaissance, an era of rapid scientific development, enabled pedagogy to create the body of theory necessary for the area to be regarded as a separate academic discipline. It evolved into a pedagogical tradition that still bears influence today (in terms of education principles, structure of the teaching process, discipline; the role of the teacher as an active expositor, and the student as a receptive repeater; and the formal nature of teaching, focusing mainly on grammar and literature). The concepts set forth by John Amos Comenius in his work Didactica Magna still hold true. The model of education which developed during the Renaissance has been replicated for more than five centuries. A vision of school has been created that has become a state institution, a status which has permitted the underlying ideology to be reproduced and prevailing interests to be realized. It is no wonder, therefore, how difficult it is for teachers to erase or unlearn elements that are recognized as constitutive components of school and teaching. Although the concepts can be refuted and challenged as practices that hinder the freedom and creativity of the education process, they are still frequently reproduced in our practice, and, as such, are evidence of our own inconsistency.

The late nineteenth century witnessed the emergence of the New School Movement. In their critique of traditional pedagogy, proponents of the New School argued that the education system should be more flexible, that students should be able to pursue their own interests and thus play a more active role in the education process, and that the contents of education should be organized in a more global manner. Education, as they envisioned it, needed to be contextualized. The approach taken by John Dewey is genetic and functional. His theory of pedagogy is considered to be a valuable contribution to society. It is from important representatives of this school of thought – eminent educators such as Maria Montessori, Ovide Decroly, and Roger Cousinet – that we have inherited a new paradigm for the relationship between theory and practice based on the principle of learning by doing.

In the early twentieth century, during the height of the Social Revolution, a young Russian educator by the name of Lev Vygotsky developed a cultural-historical approach to education. This approach takes a critical look at the transmission of knowledge, biological determinism, and the rigidity of programmes. As a methodology for research in psychology, Vygotsky introduced the concept of the “zone of proximal development” as the starting point for educational work: the distance between the actual development level (an individual’s capacity to solve problems independently) and the level of potential development (the individual’s capacity to solve a problem with the help of others).

Around the middle of the twentieth century, with the development of the technological sciences, there was a trend toward consolidating the educational technology movement with the support of Information and Communication Technology (ICT), and programmed learning in a trial and error approach with behavioral objectives and content logically organized into sequences of units. The teacher’s role was reduced to developing programmes. Students were to set their own pace and work according to individualized learning plans based on their personal learning rhythm.

In the second half of the twentieth century, as theories accumulated and revolutionary movements in America flourished, traditional and technological trends understandably encountered a wave of critique, and new paths opened up for educational concepts based on strong arguments derived from the sometimes overlapping areas of psychology, epistemology, philosophy, and sociology.

A number of the more prominent examples of these new directions include: selfdirected pedagogy, non-directive pedagogy, cognitive pedagogy,3 constructivism,4 significant learning theory,5 problem-based learning, the pedagogy of action research, critical pedagogy and the pedagogy of liberation.6

Against this background, during the rebellious 1960s, the creative revolutionary educator Paulo Freire developed a pedagogy that sees the oppressed as its starting point. This pedagogy, which represents an educational alternative for liberation and which opposes both arrogant authoritarianism as well as irresponsible spontaneity, is located within the movement of Critical Pedagogy and is called Popular Education.

Popular Education: Its Nature and Purpose

Popular Education continues to grow and evolve through practice, although not without difficulty. More and more it is proving to be:

  • a pedagogy of the oppressed that aims to create awareness not only of the world we live in, but also of the one we want it to be;
  • a methodological counter-proposal to the banking concept of education and an approach which promotes student involvement in the construction of knowledge through practice;
  • an alternative communicative approach to inclusion and dialogue; and a viable proposal to nurture the hope and the ethical commitment that imbues liberating action with life.

In the following paragraphs, I shall summarize the traits that characterize three of the many dimensions of Popular Education.

The Political Dimension

The essence of Popular Education is political, considering that it is conceived as a pedagogy created with the oppressed as a means for them to develop critical consciousness, because “Who are better prepared than the oppressed to understand the terrible significance of an oppressive society?” 7

It surpasses contemplative criticism and poses the need for the oppressed to design the revolutionary transformation of their reality, because “Who better than they can understand the necessity of liberation?”

But not only is Popular Education political in its liberating goals and protagonism on the part of the oppressed, but also in the object of study, and in its dialectic and creative methodology:

“This pedagogy makes oppression and its causes objects of reflection by the oppressed, and from that reflection will come their necessary engagement in the struggle for liberation. And in the struggle this pedagogy will be made and remade.”

In his approach Freire calls attention to the phenomenon he describes as “adhesion to the oppressor”.8 He defines the “new man” as arising out of the contradiction between oppressors and oppressed, stating: “the contradiction will be resolved by the appearance of the new man: neither oppressor nor oppressed, but man in the process of liberation.” This extraordinarily dialectic idea of ethical humanism considers struggle to be indispensable to win critical consciousness of oppression.

When he reflects on praxis in the search for critical awareness, he outlines his critique of activism and verbalism and enlarges on his Marxist orientation in defining praxis as “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it.”

He expands his critique to include political and ethical issues such as violence, the culture of domination, dehumanization and fear, the role of structures and bureaucracy, and liberating propaganda, and he defines the final aim of the struggle when he writes: “They must realize that they are fighting not merely for freedom from hunger, but for freedom to create and to construct, to wonder and to venture.”

The Pedagogical Dimension

Popular Education rejects the traditional model of education which Freire calls the banking approach because it views knowledge as a gift bestowed by the teacher upon the student. With this apparent act of detachment, the banking approach masks its intention of controlling the thoughts and actions of men. This makes it a practice of domination with the result that individuals passively adapt to the world.

Freire denounces traditional education as an instrument of oppression. He explains the relationship of power that is hidden in the determining, disciplined, and distant relationship between teacher and student. The function of the teacher is a narrative and discursive one, while the student is receptive and silent. Freire explains the relationship as a contradiction of unfinished beings. Once they become aware of their incompleteness, they will fight “to become more” in a struggle that will end in either domestication or in liberation.

As a counter proposal to domesticating education, Popular Education introduces the problem-posing concept of education as an instrument for liberation that involves a new relationship between teacher and student. The new relationship is one in which both teacher and student learn and teach simultaneously, mediated by a world in which reality is neither fixed nor comprised of separate pieces. Reality as comprehended in Popular Education requires learners to identify ‘generative themes’.

The interests of the learner are the point of departure for determining such themes. Reflecting on these themes generates a process of searching and unmasking which does not evade the complexity of the practice itself and which places science at the service of the practice. In his proposal, Freire sees the need to discover hidden issues in “limit situations” and brings the concept of “untested feasibility”. He explains:

“[L]imit situations imply the existence of the persons who are directly or indirectly served by these situations, and of those who are negated and curbed by them. Once the latter come to perceive these situations as the frontier between being and being more human, rather than the frontier between being and nothingness, they begin to direct their increasingly critical actions towards achieving the untested feasibility implicit in that perception.” 9

Popular Education envisions a close connection between theory and student practice with the latter serving as the starting point. Knowledge is built in a participatory manner from context, criteria, and feelings of learners. Learning takes place in a pleasant atmosphere, and in a back and forth between the processes of action and reflection. Participatory techniques serve as tools to support this process.

The Communicative Dimension

In contrast to education based on narrative that is manipulative or imposed on the student, Popular Education adopts a problem-posing dialogue as the concept for communication.

Dialogue, to quote Freire, is “born from a critical matrix and generates criticality. When the two ‘poles’ of the dialogue are thus linked by love, hope and mutual trust, they can join in critical search for something. Only dialogue truly communicates.” 10

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire explains antidialogics and dialogics as matrices of opposing theories of cultural action: the former as an instrument of oppression and the latter as an instrument of liberation.

This theory, which predates the communicative action theory of Habermas, contrasts antidialogic action with dialogic action, and, with perfectly logical arguments, characterises the action of oppressors as: “conquest, divide and rule, manipulation, and cultural invasion”. The theory of dialogical action is presented as an alternative that is impossible for dominators to adhere to and indispensible for those whose revolutionary intention is liberation.

Its main characteristics include: cooperation, unity, organization, and cultural synthesis.

The intention of the communication dimension of this essentially political concept is summarized by Freire as follows:

“Forms of cultural action . . . have the same objective: to clarify to the oppressed the objective situation which binds them to the oppressors, visible or not. Only forms of action which avoid mere speech-making and ineffective ‘blah’ on the one hand, and mechanistic activism on the other, can also oppose the divisive action of the dominant elites and move towards the unity of the oppressed.” 11

What Praxis Tells Us

Popular Education is being continually defined through practice. It is created and recreated from day to day by the popular educators of Latin America in their struggle toward coherence.

The space it has won in Latin America exists essentially outside of school walls and lies for the most part in the sphere of adults. Experience in problem-posing education is very scarce, and even less at any level in school curricula where it is virtually non-existent in combination with a commitment to the idea of liberation. It would be naive for us to hope that the dominant classes, for whom school is perceived as an institution that serves to perpetuate their system and secure their power, would adopt a critical, consciousness-raising methodology that unmasks their limits. For them to do so would be the same as digging their own graves. For many years this pedagogical movement has been reduced to processes of community education, courses in leadership development, and education processes in which the oppressed create spaces combining action and reflection.

We cannot deny the possibility that the oppressed will triumph even beyond the boundaries of Popular Education because the more acute the situation becomes, the more they will grow conscious of it, and the greater their motivation will be to organize revolutionary activities. This potential can empower the oppressed to take control and achieve revolutionary triumph. But even after they assume power, they cannot be expected to automatically dismantle machinery established across centuries, as in the case of the traditional school system. When the oppressed assume power, there will be many gaps for them to fill. They must universalize education and bring it within reach of all: from the acquisition of literacy skills through the diversification of university spaces; from the very young to the very old. Contents must be changed, the “hidden” must be “unmasked”, the learner must develop a critical perspective. But to support this process it will be essential to harness the forces of scientific thought.

On the other hand, it will be essential to make teaching methods democratic, to create participatory spaces to train the mind and conduct of the student to exercise power but liberated from the shadow of the oppressor.

Material conditions must be ensured, but above all it will be necessary to revolutionize concepts and transform educators. There is a need to know how to teach and learn differently, a need to strive for coherence and consistency, and not to betray the inheritance or image of power. Contrary to established practice, it will be necessary to learn to read the context before the text, and not to let impatience for results become a motivation to transmit knowledge which ought to be constructed. Special efforts will be needed to replace the backward culture of explaining and orienting with a new culture of listening and dialogue. We must cultivate the tolerance that permits us to understand what is different without abandoning the struggle for our dream, to appreciate its alternative nature without losing sight of the fact that unity, in its broadest sense, is the premise for our survival as a social proposal that provides an alternative to capitalism.

In an interview in the 1980s, Paulo Freire observed:

“[W]hat can happen it is that even though Cuba conducts a revolution, education retains its traditional character. And this is perfectly understandable. Nicaragua is showing us how difficult it is to recreate education. It is not possible to comprehend revolution mechanically. It must be viewed historically. Transforming history is not just a matter of headwork, no matter how bright the people doing that work are. History is made and transformed dialectically, in a process of contradiction. Accordingly, it takes a long time for revolution to tear down ‘the old’, and build up ‘the new’. If this relation were mechanical, the day after the triumph of revolution we would already have the ‘new man’, the ‘new woman’, and the ‘new education’. But it does not happen this way. It is not mechanical, but historical. That is why it takes time.

At the same time, it is clear to me, that the preservation of traditional methods of education in a revolutionary context signifies the distance between dream and practice. One of the most difficult struggles for revolutionaries within the revolution – never outside of it – is the struggle for the renovation of the methods and procedures at the same time as the content of education is renewed.”

The difficulty in departing from “the old” to create “the new” is complicated by the fact that “the new” has to be created alongside or in juxtaposition to “the old”. This is because we live in a capitalist world of exploitation, and when the status quo is faced with the prospect of change, aggressiveness tends to increase. From every front, either consciously or unconsciously there will always be some oppressors, or members of the oppressed classes who have adapted to their situation, who strive to defend their educational paradigm and attack any alternative paradigm that stands in opposition to theirs.

Popular Education has been the target of every manner of critique. It has been labelled a reductionist vision of education that was developed merely to teach literacy skills or to educate adults. It has faced the astonishing claim that as a theory it has not been fully developed because it lacks theoretical rigor. Some critics have even mistaken the concept for a participatory technique limited only to making instruction more enjoyable. Others argue that Popular Education is more of a political agenda than a pedagogical concept, which makes it better suited to party politics than to school instruction. Still others have argued that the concept is a product of subjective idealism on the part of its founder, and as such tends to perpetuate a naïve error of youth, an idea which Freire himself has refuted. There are even some who entertain the strange idea that although Popular Education was good as a theory for the 1960s, it has meanwhile become outmoded because the world we live in has become a better one.

It is not the intention here to examine the reasoning behind such opinions, or simply to dismiss them as the product of ignorance about the work of Paulo Freire or as an expression of natural resistance to change. Neither is it my aim to try and convince the oppressors that we need to equip the younger generation with powers of critical, ethical, and flexible thinking, to build their creative capacity, and to provide them with revolutionary goals. I only desire here to appeal to the conscience of teachers who can contribute through their teaching practice to forge the kind of spirit that can open up space for revolution and the future – space in their classrooms, or perhaps in their schools, and in this way, inch by inch, fight at the side of the oppressed with the weapons of Popular Education for the kind of world we are entitled to live in.

As José Martí once said:

“Today, with the colossal affluence of intelligent and eager men in all walks of life, whoever wants to live cannot sit down to rest and let the pilgrim’s staff of his voyage remain idle for a single hour: for when he wants to get up and set out again, the staff will have become a rock. Never, ever was the world greater or more picturesque. It is merely difficult to understand and put at one’s own level. As a consequence, many would rather speak ill of it and vanish into resentment. It is better to work and try to understand the marvel, and aid in perfecting it.” 12

I see him envisioning the nascent democracy that we are experiencing in our America today, the progress toward empowerment that the oppressed are achieving, the urgent need for us to become better prepared for embarking on the voyage in defence of our dreams and aspirations.

Translating Challenges into Commitments

Modern critical theory tells us that as teachers we are cultural workers, and in that capacity we have the potential to become part of the system and its vast machinery either as simple cogs or as intellectual transformers. Those who select the first alternative will be destined to disillusion and monotony; those who choose the second will lend professional and personal dignity to our work.

The guiding thread of Ariadne that can lead teachers through this maze starts with their own transformation through the process of their teaching practice. The need to fight for ethical coherence between their lives and their dream is the only compass they can count on to guide them.

Leadership-building experiences in the projects or movements emerging in our countries are an excellent place for learning and sharing what we learn. The need to share knowledge and commitments can be an excellent school for popular educators, without forgetting that “It is true that education is not the ultimate lever for social transformation, but without it transformation cannot occur.” 13

The misconception that Popular Education is exclusively reserved for Adult Education has become less prevalent among the greater majority of teachers at all levels. More and more teachers are interested in learning about the methods and experimenting with them. It is essential for Popular Education to win every inch of scholastic space possible. Teachers all over the world must view the practice of teaching through the eyes of the poor and with commitment to the poor. And this includes our children and young people, who the foundation of the future.

We must exert our influence to promote the study of Critical Pedagogy in teacher training programmes and in postgraduate studies in education. We must discover new and viable education alternatives for our peoples. We must find practicable solutions that have not yet been found.

At the same time, we must work to enrich the sector’s theoretical underpinnings. The educator, Carlos Núñez, has said that teachers must permanently create, invent, and reinvent ways and means to facilitate the process of exploration, critical questioning, and discovery that leads learners to comprehension. It is absolutely essential, starting with this process of re-creation, for us to make progress in systematizing the concepts that will help us to better socialize our students.

Besides working to improve the theoretical underpinnings in our field, we popular educators must make every effort to reflect on the criticism that has been brought against Popular Education so as to refute the attempts to detract from its status. It is not necessary to evade confrontation. As José Martí said in Our America: “The greatest war we wage is waged by thinking. Let’s win it by thinking.”

There are many ways in which we can make these commitments of ours. Every

nation knows what has to be done, and we trust in their wisdom. But America’s

great educator, Paulo Freire, has left us with a challenge we cannot ignore:

“What matters is not whether we make mistakes and inconsistencies, but our disposition to overcome them. By living we can contribute to creating a happy, joyful school. We forge a school-adventure, a school that marches on, that is not afraid of the risks, and that rejects immobility. It is a school that thinks, that participates, that creates, that speaks, that loves, that guesses, that passionately embraces and says yes to life. It is not a school that keeps silent and silences me.” 14


Acosta Navarro, María Elena, Tendencias pedagógicas contemporáneas. La pedagogía tradicional y el enfoque histórico-cultural. Análisis comparativo [Contemporary trends in pedagogy. Traditional pedagogy and the historical-cultural focus. A comparative analysis] http://www.bvs.sld.cu/revistas/est/vol42_1_05/est09105.htm

CEPES. Tendencias pedagógicas en la realidad educativa actual. [Pedagogical tendencies in the current educational reality] Havana: University of Havana. 2002.

Citas de presencia y vigencia de Paolo Freire. [Quotations establishing the presence and validity of Paolo Freire] http://www.scribd.com/doc/3934603/Citas-de-Paolo-Freire

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th anniversary ed. New York: Continuum, 2000.

Freire, Paulo. Teachers as Cultural Workers: Letters to Those Who Dare Teach. Expanded ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2005.

Kaplún, Mario. El Comunicador Popular [The Popular Communicator]. Quito: CIESPAL, 1985.

Martí, José. Ideario Pedagógico. Havana: Impr. Nacional de Cuba, 1961.

Núnez Hurtado, Carlos. Retos De La Renovación Educativa. Conference. Mexico, 2002.

Rodríguez Alarcón, Jose Guillermo. Tendencias pedagógicas [Pedagogical Trends]. Conference. 2008, http://www.scribd.com/doc/16257742/Tendencias-pedagogicas

Tendencias pedagógicas contemporaneas [Contemporary trends in pedagogy] http://www.monografias.com/trabajos6/tenpe/tenpe.shtml

Torres, Rosa María. Entrevista con Paulo Freire [Interview with Paulo Freire]. Havana, Association of Cuban Pedagogues (APC).


1 The Dominican educator, Eugenio Maria de Hostos, defines pedagogy as a science and an art. As a science, it is the application of the natural laws of human understanding and reasoning; in other words, it is the study of the order in which knowledge is communicated, based on the laws of reason. As an art, it is the body of resources and procedures used by educators to transmit knowledge. http://monografías.com/trabajos10/

2 In this connection Freire himself commented: “I never claimed to be a constructivist in my work or my most recent studies. Nevertheless, it is impossible for me to study constructivism without seeing myself, because for the past 30 years I have been doing and saying things that laid the foundation for constructivism. Accordingly together with Piaget and others like him, I am a sort of precursor for constructivism.”“Emilia Ferreiro takes the question of language acquisition that I proposed in my early works further than I did, precisely in terms of a more scientific understanding of the process. Nevertheless, Emilia does not go further than I do in terms of the political and ideological perspective of education.” http://www.scribd.com/doc/3934603/Citas-de-Paolo-Freire

3 Representatives of the Cognitive School include the Swiss psychologist, Jan Piaget (1896 – 1980), and the US American psychologist, Jerome Bruner, who contributed to the development of genetic epistemology, and created a model of intellectual development in childhood. They viewed knowledge as a construction that individuals build through interaction with their environment and by fitting information into pre-existing cognitive schemas.

4 Social constructivism argues that the environment for optimal learning is one where there is dynamic interaction between instructors and students, and activities that provide opportunities for students to create their own truth, based on the interaction with others. Knowledge is not received, but actively constructed. Vygotsky is considered a precursor of this theory. Representatives include Piaget, Ausubel, and Chomsky.

5 Significative learning is a theory proposed by the US American, David Ausubel (1918-2008). His concept is a mixture of behaviourism and cognitivism. It brings into play the idea that learning is mainly influenced by activating pre-existing knowledge and connecting what the learner already knows with new knowledge. It further considers the role of expectations as a factor in orienting the learner and maintaining his or her attention.

6 Pedagogy for liberation is a teaching concept that intends to help students question and challenge domination and the beliefs and practices that create it. In other words, it is a theory and practice (praxis) in which students develop critical awareness. The main representatives of pedagogy for liberation are Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, and Peter McLaren. McLaren maintains that although not physically located in any school or university department, critical pedagogy constitutes a homogenous set of ideas catalyzed by the interest of critical theorists to empower the weak and to transform social inequality and injustice. One of the fundamental components of critical pedagogy is the conviction that education for personal and social empowerment is a greater ethical priority than epistemological questions or the mastering of technical or social skills that are seen as priorities by the market.

7 All quotations in the section The political dimension are taken from Chapter I of Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire.

8 As Freire writes, “during the initial stage of the struggle, the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors, or ‘sub-oppressors’.”

9 Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Chapter II.

10 Mario Kaplún, Comunicador Popular, p. 63.

11 Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Chapter IV.

12 José Martí, La América, New York, 1884.

13 Paulo Freire, Teachers as Cultural Workers: Letters to those who dare to teach, Boulder, CO., 1998.

14 Ibid.

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