Born shortly after the First World War, into a world in which not only nations but also values and ideologies were completely shattered, Paulo Freire’s childhood and adolescence in Brazil were marked by poverty and political instability. His own experiences influenced his later dedication to working with the poor as well as his philosophical and pedagogical approaches, which were strongly based on Marxist ideas of the time. However, his scientific and political work was abruptly interrupted by his imprisonment as a traitor, after the 1964 coup d’état, when the military junta took over the Brazilian government.
After his release, he went into exile and eventually published his first book Education as the Practice of Freedom, and, shortly afterwards, his seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire later continued his scientific and educational work at Harvard University in the USA, and in Geneva, among other places, before moving back to Brazil in 1980. There, he continued his work in literacy projects for adults. After a career in academia, pedagogics and andragogy, and politics, he died in Sao Paulo on 2 May 1997.
At the centre of Freire’s pedagogical work, he embraces the self-liberation of the oppressed. In this, education must always take circumstances into account to be emancipative and not reproduce power relations in society. The act of teaching and learning is, therefore, never neutral, but a political act. Learners are, in Freire’s view, the most important agents in education. They bring a wealth of experience, knowledge and prior learning that can and should be built upon, rather than assuming a tabula rasa and pouring new knowledge and skills into the learners.
Paulo Freire’s legacy is reflected in modern approaches to transformative (or change-oriented) adult learning and education (ALE), namely positioning the learner at the centre of the process and using the dialogue as a key principle in education. The personal environment as well as the learning environment of adults play an essential role in learning. This is especially true when it comes to outreach and the development of low-threshold educational opportunities. ALE is also increasingly taking into account skills and knowledge from prior informal and non-formal learning and has developed procedures for their validation. Citizenship education – as part of non-formal adult learning and education – aims to help learners to emancipate themselves and actively participate in and shape political and social life.
Freire’s thinking has been an inspiration for many EAEA members and has directly influenced EAEA’s work. The most visible legacy of Freire’s philosophy can be found in some EAEA projects, namely OED and ImplOED. More recently, the Life Skills for Europe project embraced the concept of putting learners’ needs and personal environment at the centre of course design, and the FuturelabAE project promoted emancipatory learning and change-oriented education.
Text: Raffaela Kihrer
EAEA’s partner NORRAG has published an archival video on Paulo Freire, taking part in panel discussion at the University of Zurich in 1988
To learn more about Freire’s work, see Freire Institute website