An Enduring Legacy of the Work of Paulo Freire
International Consultant in Adult Education (Ret.)
From 1987 through 1995 I had the honor and privilege of working with Paulo Freire for one week each year when we both served as members of UNESCO’s International Jury that selects the literacy prize winners recognized by UNESCO yearly on International Literacy Day.
Already an international giant of adult literacy education when he joined the Jury in 1987, Paulo brought his philosophy of literacy for liberation and freedom to the evaluation of candidatures for literacy prizes from countries where millions of adults were oppressed. He brought a passion to the evaluation of candidatures often expressed by clenching both his hands into fists, clutching his chest and saying, "I love this program!" He was also quick to provide a critical commentary when he thought that a program had mistakenly claimed that it followed "the Freirean method", and he admonished the Jury that there was no such method.
During the Jury’s deliberations regarding candidatures, and on our breaks when we would take tea or coffee at the café on the 7th floor of UNESCO House in Paris, I had occasions to talk with him about his philosophy of education and literacy, and how he had worked early on in his career with the poor and oppressed peasants of Brazil.
In his work, Freire developed an approach to education aimed at helping adults liberate themselves from the oppression of others. To do this he first concentrated on teaching adults to "read the world" so they could then "read the word." By "reading the world" he meant helping adults understand the differences between the world of nature and the world of culture. Nature is made by natural forces and is not subject to change by humans. Culture on the other hand is made by humans and can be changed by humans. We "read the world" to know what is nature and what is culture. Oppressive conditions are cultural and hence capable of being changed by humans.
Freire saw literacy as a technology for helping humans change the cultural contexts in which they live so that they can achieve social justice and is hence worthwhile learning. This line of reasoning was to motivate adults to learn to read and write. To start the process, Freire used pictures that adult literacy students "read" to distinguish what in the picture was due to nature and what was due to culture, i.e., human actions. In discussing the pictures, the adults demonstrated that they possessed a lot of knowledge about the world, including both nature and culture. This knowledge was drawn on in teaching reading.
Freire listened to the adult learners discuss pictures depicting various situations and then chose words that the students used to start the process of teaching literacy. Words with a lot of emotional meaning, such as "favela" (slum) were selected to teach decoding of the written language. The word was first discussed, along with a picture of a situation denoted by the word. Then the word was broken into syllables: FA-VE-LA. This was continued until the word could be read (decoded) fluently. This method of "reading the world" and then "reading the word" was used extensively to build on the knowledge that adults possessed and to teach them to read the language that they used to express their knowledge. Then new knowledge was introduced to stimulate adults to take actions to change their oppressive situations.
Freire contrasted this learner-centered, participatory approach in which the adults helped determine the content and direction of their own education with the more traditional, school-centered education in which policymakers, administrators or teachers determine the content and direction of education and attempt to deposit and "bank" knowledge in learner’s minds even if they do not understand the value of the new knowledge.
In 1975, Paulo Freire was awarded a UNESCO Literacy Prize for his work on the pedagogy of the oppressed. Through the work of numerous groups around the world, his learner-centered, participatory approach to adult literacy education continues to help marginalized, socially excluded adults develop the confidence and abilities they need to not just "read the world," but to change it. This is an enduring legacy of the work of Paulo Freire.