Pedagogy of the Oppressed — What is it and why it is still relevant

January 20, 2017

Originally published on, By levana / November 19, 2011.  Written for the book Beautiful Trouble.

Not just the title of a book by Paulo Freire, a Pedagogy of the Oppressed is an approach to education and organizing to transform oppressive structures and create a more equitable, caring and beautiful world through action and reflection that is co-created with those who have been marginalized and dehumanized.

In 1962, Paulo Freire created culture circles in Northeastern Brazil to support 300 suger-cane workers to teach each other how to read the word and their world in 45 days, which enabled them to register to vote. These Culture Circles that began with Sugar Cane workers, catalyzed thousands more, each with the purpose of not just literacy, but conscientization, or which involves people joining with their peers to name their world by:

  • reflecting on their conditions
  • imagining a better world, and then
  • taking action to create it.

This approach, developed as much by Freire as the workers he educated, was so galvanizing that he was jailed and exiled by the Military Government within two years.

Over a lifetime of working with revolutionary organizers and educators both in exile and back in Brazil, Freire offers a compass to direct us towards liberation from structures of oppression. This compass is both an approach to education and organizing and a lens through which to understand systems of oppression in order to transform them. It flips mainstream ideas of education and organizing on their heads by insisting that true knowledge and expertise already exists with people – they need no deposits of information (what Freire calls Banking Education) or propaganda to convince them of their problems.

What is required is dialogue, respect, love for humanity, and praxis or action and reflection to transform the world.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed is an education as a practice of freedom, which Freire contrasts with education as a practice of domination:

Problem-posing Education; Education as a practice of freedom Banking Education; Education as the practice of domination
  • Primary goal is conscientization
  • Primary goal is to adapt people to their oppressive conditions
  • Both educator and educand (Freire’s word for student in an attempt to convey a more equitable relationship) teach and learn from each other as partners
  • Teacher attempts to control thinking and action of the students who are ignorant objects
  • Assumes the world, everything and everyone is interrelated
  • Assumes that people are merely in the world, not connected to it or each other
  • Begins with context; the educands’ “historicity” , “dynamic present” and incomplete future
  • Removes students from their historical, current and future context. Teaches reality as complete and unchangeable
  • Dialogue about topics that the educand has some prior experience of
  • Lectures about topics the students have no connection to
  • Words are thick with meaning and have transforming power
  • Words are empty and alienating
  • Educands are posed with problems that relate to their lives and respond by creatively posing new challenges and new understandings
  • Students are meekly filled as empty containers (and tested to see how much leaked out)
  • Seeks to transform society to rehumanize both the oppressed and oppressor
  • Treats oppressed people as on the margins of a healthy society who need to be incorporated into it
  • Integral to the revolutionary process – not something to get to after the revolution.
  • Integral to maintaining systems of oppression as they are






















How do you take the ideas above and translate them into a classroom or community setting? While methods have been documented, Freire wanted them to be constantly recreated and adapted to fit different realities, struggles, and generations. Saying that, here are some common practices guided by a Pedagogy of the Oppressed and used in the associated fields of Popular Education, Critical Pedagogy, Theater of the Oppressed, and Ecopedagogy.

  • Dialogue: Freire explains that what most people think of as dialogue is really a debate, where people compete to deposit ideas into the other or name the world on behalf of the other as an end in itself. However “true dialogue” is means for deeper understanding, in which the world is named through both lived experience and theory and explores common patterns among the participants as an act of creation and re-creation of knowledge in order to generate action.
  • Participatory Action Research: In this thorough process of reflection and action, people explore the problems they face in their community, and then find solutions through gathering data from their peers, analyzing the data and then taking informed action. It’s a model of community organizing that builds the capacity and expertise of people on the front-line of a problem.
  • Coding: Freire’s literacy method begins with generating “codes” or images that speak a thousand words about the world of the participants. These codes become the subject of subsequent dialogues and through a “decoding” of the group’s life circumstances, the student-teachers recognize their right to a worldview — one in which they’ve been screwed. This new confidence and clarity of vision leads directly to praxis.

Many of our movements today are fueled by non-profit organizations that strategize behind closed doors and advance their campaigns through “organizing” people to support their agendas. Imagine movements led by people on the frontlines of the crisis’s we face. Imagine popular education, creative dialogue and participatory action research generating the solutions that the people are supported and funded to implement themselves. This, according to the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, can transform our world.