Freirean Detours

by Alex Villar

The first thing to be said about the Paulo Freire method is that there is not such a thing. Freire himself said as much on many occasions. Despite his admonition, the Paulo Freire ‘method’ has been used widely, primarily but not exclusively in the teaching of the illiterate. There are reasons for this fixation on the method, one of them is of the set of procedures Freire designed and employed in Brazil in the 1960s. It took only 45 days to teach someone how to read. The new procedure would have completely eradicated illiteracy in Brazil were it not for the direct intervention of the military coup of 1964. The reasons for the suppression of the implementation of his pedagogy and Freire’s consequent exile first in Chile, then in the U.S. might have had something to do with his personal commitment to progressive causes. They have had certainly a lot to do with the political implications of his pedagogy. Freire’s most well known book is called nothing less than ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed.’1 Obviously, the notion of a single category of oppressed people under which complex subjectivities would be lumped together would be seem as essentializing today. So, his book needs to be read with the awareness of its conception during the polarizing sixties. Nevertheless, what is articulated there is rather valuable.

Freire developed his pedagogical principles against what he termed ‘banking’ education; i.e. teaching that functions as deposits of information into an empty container–the empty space being the head of the student. According with the goal promoted by the banking educators, the student would, at the end of his or her education be filled with all the information necessary to be fully functional in society. Freire scrutinized this approach and described all its inherent problems and the consequences of its use. First of all, the mind of the student is not a blank slab on which knowledge can be written. The students already come to school with a baggage of life experiences. They already bring with them values they have absorbed from their particular backgrounds. The banking approach ignores the specificities of these different backgrounds. Or rather, it validates some values in detriment of others. Freire correlates the high number of drop out rates among impoverished and ethnic communities with the alienation they undergo when faced with a curriculum that does not validate their life experiences. In place of the most complete negligence for the student’s prior to school knowledge, Freire proposed the most complete, in fact minute, attention to the specificities of the student’s experience as a social being. The curriculum itself was going to be assembled from the collection of ‘codifications,’ i.e. images and/or words that could represent the universe of experience of the student. This collected vocabulary constitutes the student’s contribution to the educational experience. In contrast to the ‘banking’ approach, which perceives the student as the mere receiver of a message entirely formulated by the teacher–its passive target, Freire’s approach conceives of the whole process as starting with the student and remaining dialogical throughout.

Freire also contested the purported neutrality of education, its self proclaimed universality, which in actuality conceals the discussion of the social grounding of knowledge. Neutrality operates as a filter that blocks out discourses that appear to ‘take sides,’ leaving one of the sides free to appear as if it were the natural way of being. Freire attacks this equation and does so simply by taking a position. His position is indeed a radical one. He notes that education is used as a tool to assure the perpetuation of a hegemonic power. His practice here takes two paths. On one hand he worked with post-colonial governments in Africa to build their new educational programs. On the other hand, he worked under capitalist governments to develop an essentially subversive project. The content of his education was not in itself always used to promote revolution. But insofar as his pedagogy fostered the discussion of the conditions of living and labor of the subjects involved in the learning, it could be seen as playing a role in a broader program of social reform. This second way, the one that operates from within an antagonist system to generate a subversive practice is precisely where the interest lies while coming to Freire’s pedagogy from a contemporary vantage point. When we consider the argument that there is no longer an outside to power, the immediate quest arises about the need to think of critical ways of operating from within. This thought is of course not new. The line from Foucault to Negri via Deleuze is just one of the most clear examples of it. Freire can provide a way of thinking in similar terms in the educational context. Granted we don’t treat his thinking as that which it is not, i.e. a method. The reasons for Freire’s reluctance in accepting the reduction of his ideas to a fixed methodology have to do with a sharp understanding that the crystallization into a method of a dialogical pedagogy would render a contradiction. More importantly, the literal application of his method would lay a grid upon a variety of situations, contributing to their homogenization and possible consolidation. Instead of the Paulo Freire method that can teach someone how to read in less than two months, what is more important is his conception of an entirely different approach to education, a process which allows the subject to contribute to the educational process, to learn words while discussing the world as well as reflecting upon their role in it.

In order to fully depart from the method it might be instructive to look at it a bit more closely. The process starts with the research of the student’s universe, in search of its codifications. A group comprised of educators and students take charge of the field research. Collected examples might include photos or drawings of people engaged in a variety of every day situations like work, craft, play, etc. The action in the classroom takes the form of conversations about such codifications. Freire calls this phase ‘decodification,’ which means the unfolding of the coded or symbolic meaning represented in the visual props. For example, a work situation would be discussed not abstractly as if it existed in the natural world, but rather as a socially constructed activity that has cultural, economic and political determinants. One reason for starting with the discussion of codified situations is so that the more abstract concepts to come can be foregrounded by the affirmation of the student’s experience. Codifications pave the way to their synthesizing into a selection of generative words, i.e. a core group of words from which other words can be generated. These words come from the pool of words that represent the universe of the students, i.e. words found during the discussion of the codifications. The selected words should also possess a good potential for recombination. The Portuguese word ‘tijolo,’ which means brick, is an example used during the teaching of urban illiterates in the late 50’s in Brazil who worked primarily in construction jobs. The word was segmented in its three syllables: ti-jo-lo. This syllables function as modular blocks that can form other words. A different vowel is added to each syllable to form other morphemes: ta, te, ti, to, tu; ja, je, ji, jo, ju; la, le, li, lo, lu. The word ‘lote,’ which refers to a basic unit of land can be formed with the syllables ‘lo’ and ‘te,’ and so on, leading to the discussion of their meaning and relationship to one another. It is not a matter of finding a fixed structure for language, if anything it becomes clear throughout this process that the signifier-signified relationship is contingent upon each particular context. The decomposition of words into smaller units does not tie them up to meaning; Freire is not talking about prefixes or any such basic units of meaning. The syllabic segmentation provides a game-like procedure that sets in motion creative juxtapositions. It is the subject her/himself that does the semantic work. These procedures were specifically designed to teach someone how to read and write, more particularly while learning the Portuguese language.2

Let us attempt to translate Frere’s thinking to a different set of circumstances, say for example to art education, without simply adapting his methodology. It becomes clear from looking at the details of the ‘method’ that its importation into a radically different situation would not produce equivalent results. Say for example that in order to teach students about contemporary artistic practices one would simply segment the field’s various strategies into modular groups that when combined would provide the subject with the ability to read and engage with art and culture. The seductive trap set up by this procedure resides in its promise to encapsulate a moving target within a fixed vocabulary. In spite of the apparent similarity of this approach with Freire’s, what would be implemented is simply a more flexible banking approach. We could call this approach ‘interactive,’ which in popular computer usage is little more than the possibility of user input within a limited range of possibilities. We should look instead toward the translation of Freire’s general pedagogical principles.

Perhaps the single most important notion in his pedagogy is the concentration on concrete situations. Instead of abstract concepts that would eventually materialize in reality, the group should start from the situation itself and only then investigate the concepts that sustain it. Also, there is not a single situation that is paradigmatic of a whole variety of problems. So, one should start from very particular events that arise during the dialogue with the students and relate them to broader phenomena. Examples of current situations could be extracted from a variety of sources: the student’s own everyday social and educational experiences, news reportage on TV and newspapers, arguments in theoretical journals, among other sources. Obviously the subject matter needs to be narrowed down to prevent complete disintegration of content. For example, in a class designed to teach critical spatial practices in contemporary art the theme ‘space’ would provide a relatively well defined, while still flexible, frame to aid the selection process. Instead of words, one can imagine questions that would trigger both the collecting of ‘codifications’ and the selection of possible artistic strategies conceived to tackle particular problems. While a final list of questions can only come from the actual discussion, one can imagine a few possibilities coming directly from the immediate surroundings of the students: How are the public and private areas physically represented in campus? Who is allowed to go where? Is there a gender qualifier attached to such locations? How are these spaces represented visually and verbally, are there signs or other means of spelling out the rules? Are there ways of circumventing the rules? Following these questions, the geographical spectrum could be enlarged to include the city itself: How does the university stand in relation to the city? How does it represent itself to the public through the usage of fliers, maps, bulletins, advertising? Who goes there? Where do they come from? What about those that don’t go there, why don’t they? At this point one could move on to the whole city and its relationship to the country: How does this city come across to the rest of the country? What is its self-image like? Do cities promote themselves? How do they do it, by what means? Who does it? Are artists used for that purpose? Can art engage critically in this process? Who has done so? Although it is not necessary to follow such a linear sequence from the particular context of the university to the general and multiple context of the country, its pursuit can be helpful to broaden and complexify the discussion gradually. A similar set of questions could be asked about the relationship between countries: How is one represented to the other? How one comes to appear as a center while others are classified as periphery? Who has the power to articulate such representations? How can such hegemonic representations be rearticulated? The point of the questions is to allow the presentation and discussion of various artistic approaches to tackle each particular problem while departing from the problems themselves.3

The other significant element of Freire’s pedagogy lies in fostering the students’ ability to grow beyond the provided knowledge, which he accomplishes by employing generative words. Such words are more than simple building blocks since the possibilities they allow cannot be traced back to the words themselves but only to their common particles. In our example of translation to art education, we have proposed to trigger the research of codifications by asking a series of questions pertinent to the subject matter of the chosen course. In continuing with our speculative example, we can imagine a selection of generative ‘clusters of problems/tactics’ to come out of the discussion about the codifications. Our final selection would contain a fixed, although not limited, number of space related problems accompanied by examples of artistic approaches employed in relation to similar problems. It is important to present a variety of approaches to avoid a mechanical linkage between problem and solution. What is to be emphasized is the problem/criticality nexus, not the subscription to any dogmatic paradigm. These clusters could be introduced against a background of the theoretical discourses that have informed current artistic practices, particularly ideas and debates in architecture, media and film studies. Simply put, the goal is to allow the student to understand the larger historical context and to learn to think from within, that is to think from within the problem s/he confronts and to develop creative responses, initially by ‘playing’ with the examples given and finally by developing their own responses. The goal is after all not just the learning of a few bags of tricks, but to engage the subjects who participate in the educational experience in a more integral act of cognition.

No approach to education informed by Freire’s thinking would be worth its claim without a practical intervention. Any validity these remarks might have will not be confirmed without their being put to test, which would essentially transform them. This is not to say that speculative thinking is a futile exercise, only that these ideas should be used as a sketch, an initial outline to be subjected to further critical scrutiny. Also, the brief introduction of Freire’s thinking in this essay is not intended as a summing up of his ideas. More than 30 years have passed since the publication of Freire’s first works. There is now a large secondary literature on him added to Freire’s own prolific output; there is much to be read in terms of current revisions and critical views of his approach, especially by those who were involved with his pedagogy. A real dialogue with his thinking would also not be complete without a critical engagement with his ideas. Let us end this brief introduction with the suggestion that we begin a dialogue with and, when necessary, beyond Freire.


  1. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Mira Bergman Ramos, trans. (New York: Continuum, 1992).

  2. Thanks to Marta Fronc for her comments and suggestion to substantiate this essay with more examples, which derive from: Ana Maria Araujo Freire and Donaldo Macedo, eds., The Paulo Freire Reader (New york: Continuum, 1998).

  3. These thoughts about class design are informed by frequent discussions with François Bucher, Katya Sander and Valerie Tevere.

This text provides a brief overview of the Freirean methodology and considers the value of its application in the teaching of contemporary art. It was published in Homework (New York: Artwurl, 2007) and in Valdez: An Anthology of Revolutions: (New York: Valdez, 2002).r

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