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Freire, Paulo

Abstract and Keywords

Paulo Freire (1921–1997), a Brazilian educator and author, is known for his theoretical contributions to education. His text Pedagogy of the Oppressed is considered one of the foundational texts of the critical pedagogy movement.

Keywords: Paulo Freire, poverty and education, critical pedagogy, theories of education

Paulo Freire was born to a middle-class family in Recife, Brazil. The Great Depression and the death of his father diminished the socio-economic status of the family, introducing him to hunger and poverty and hindering his chances for an education. Living among poor and rural families and laborers, he gained an understanding of the effects of poverty on education. Early life experiences helped to shape Freire’s curiosity about the interplay between poverty and education.

He recognized that the social conditions of the poor greatly decreased their opportunities for education, yet education plays a key role in changing their lives. He became committed to developing an educational philosophy concerning how the poor and illiterate could escape their oppression. Although he enrolled in law school at the University of Recife in 1943, joined its faculty, and was admitted to the bar, he never practiced law. Instead, he taught Portuguese in secondary schools and remained interested in a system of education that would allow the illiterate to participate and to do so in a manner congruent with their language and traditions. An influence on his thinking and work was his wife, Eliza Maia Costa de Oliveria, a fellow teacher whom he married in 1944.

In 1946, Freire was appointed director of the Department of Education and Culture of the Social Service in the state of Pernambuco, affording him an opportunity to work primarily with poor families. He studied the language of the people, participated in the Movement for Popular Culture, and worked on his PhD thesis, “Present-day Education in Brazil,” written in 1959. In 1961, he was appointed director of the Department of Cultural Extension of Recife University. These events allowed him to lecture about his pedagogy of literacy-education theory. This theory posits that the development of critical consciousness, which permits people to question the nature of their historical and social situations, and to interpret their world situations, will allow them to act in the creation of democratic societies. It begins with the teacher associating with the community, learning about the people, and gathering a list of words used in their daily lives. As the teacher begins to understand the social reality of the people, he or she develops a list of generative words and themes that would lead to classroom discussions, or what is referred to as cultural circles. There is a dialogic exchange between the teachers and students, in which both learn, inquire, reflect, and participate in creating something meaningful. These methods were first tested with 300 farm workers, who were taught to read and write in 45 days. Afterward, thousands of cultural circles were set up all over Brazil.

During a military coup in 1964 Freire was labeled a traitor and imprisoned for 70 days. After his release, he was exiled, and he lived briefly in Bolivia and in Chile for five years, working for the Christian Democratic Agrarian Reform Movement. In 1967, he published his first book, Education as the Practice of Freedom. In 1968, he was a visiting professor at Harvard University. In 1970, the book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, for which he is most famous was published in Spanish and English, but it was not published in Brazil until 1974. This book sets forth his major theoretical contributions, including the rationale for pedagogy of the oppressed, the banking model of education, dialogic, and the culture of silence. From 1970–1980, Freire was a special-educational advisor to the World Congress of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland. During that time, he advised national literacy efforts, including work in Guinea-Bissau, a West African country, and published Pedagogy in Process: the Letters to Guinea-Bissau. He returned to Brazil in 1980 after 15 years in exile; he joined the Worker’s Party in São Paulo and supervised its adult-literacy project from 1980 to 1986. In 1988, Freire was appointed minister of education for the city of São Paulo.

Freire is best known for being an educator and author. His work is formative for many social work educators and practitioners interested in the democratic process of building power from the bottom up and with deep roots in people’s lived experience. The concept of cultural circles is comparable to the notion of empowerment that is central to social work, that is, to help people interact with their social environment, expand available resources, and actively engage in making decisions about their well-being in order to realize the possibilities for gaining greater control of their lives. From the perspective of social work education, Freire’s contributions to how one might approach the adult learners are to integrate their life experiences into the learning process.

Freire received numerous awards, including several honorary doctorates. In 1991, the Paulo Freire Institute, centered in São Paulo, was created; as of 2013, it is located in 18 countries. At the time of his death, in 1997, Freire was working on a book of ecopedagogy, work that is being carried out by many of the Freire Institutes.