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Moving Toward Freire: The Past and Future of Critical Pedagogy and Its Role in the United States Education System Chris Flowers University of Arkansas Little Rock

MOVING TOWARD FREIRE Moving Toward Freire: The Past and Future of Critical Pedagogy in the United States Educational System
“This is a great discovery, education is politics! When a teacher discovers that he or she is a politician, too, the teacher has to ask, What kind of politics am I doing in the classroom? That is, in favor of whom am I being a teacher? The teacher works in favor of something and against something. Because of that, he or she will have another great question, How to be consistent in my teaching practice with my political choice? I cannot proclaim my liberating dream and in the next day be authoritarian in my relationship with the students.” PAULO FREIRE A Pedagogy for Liberation (Shor, 1987)

The educational system in America has sold out. It has been sold for quite some time now and rather than head in the opposite direction, it moves perilously and closer to becoming an entity shaped, in the strictest discipline, by the global market place. With a demand for a more globally competitive America, the No Child Left Behind Act was implemented and has been reinforced for a decade of education that has dropped the ball in the most critical area of education; closing the achievement gap. The vague belief that setting high expectations and establishing measurable goals has fostered vague results that are easily skewed by interpretation and train students for little more than rote memorization and information regurgitation. The real solution for educational improvement came into existence in Latin America sometime in the early 1960’s. At that time Paulo Freire began leading literacy training programs in his native country of Brazil. The programs set up “culture circles” around the country with a basis on a dialogic form of education. This student centered training lead marginalized workers and peasants into reading, writing and social awareness (Shor, 1987). In 1964, the Brazilian military overthrew civilian rule and Freire’s powerful educational practices were deemed a threat to authority. He was soon jailed and eventually forced into exile with his wife and family. With the somber weight of longing for his homeland, Freire took his work to Bolivia, Chile and eventually to the United States, where his teaching was well received and highly regarded by educators throughout the western hemisphere. However, the critical pedagogy envisioned by Paulo Freire has not successfully been reinvented in the United States

MOVING TOWARD FREIRE education system. To its detriment, high stakes, punitive testing has occupied the system’s educational focus and transformative education has been ignored. If we have the best in mind for our future, administrative energy should be diverted away from standardized testing and towards activities that promote critical and student centered learning. Not doing so forces teachers to deny their obligation and their freedom to politics and traps them within the confines of a narrowly focused, capitalist marketplace that masquerades around as an educational training ground. Historical Background Freire’s work began in Brazil. He began teaching while still in high school and held many prominent education positions, but much of his most influential work was created during his time in Chile, exiled through military coup from his native country. Despite the lack of attention scholars have paid to this time period, Freire’s time in Chile was influential. “The year 2004 marked the fortieth anniversary of the military coup in Brazil, and therefore the fortieth anniversary of the beginning of Paulo Freire’s exile that took him briefly to Bolivia and then to Chile. Biographical references to Freire’s exile generally give a chronology similar to what I have provided above. What is sorely lacking, however is an analysis, or even recognition, of his four and a half years in Chile…It may be inferred that the minimal emphasis that Freirean scholarship typically places on his time in Chile corresponds to the minimal influence his years in Chile had on his development. Such a conclusion would however, directly contradict Freire’s own statements” (Holst, 2006). It makes sense that being exiled from one’s beloved homeland would bring about a time of great creation and inspiration. Often times, being explicitly out of our comfort zone can enhance our abilities as a form of survival and coping. This was the case for Freire as well. He writes about responding to fear in an open letter to ‘those who dare to teach’, “The issue here is not denying fear when the danger that generates it is fictitious. The fear itself is concrete. The issue is not allowing that fear to paralyze us, not allowing that fear to persuade us to quit, to face a challenging situation

MOVING TOWARD FREIRE without an effort, without a fight” (Freire, 2005). And his actions back his words. His time in Chile was the most significant in his educational training and study. During those sixteen years in exile he spent time developing educational practices that led to the creation of his adult literacy training material, he taught at the university level and wrote some of his cornerstone material such as, Education as the Practice of Freedom, Extension or Communication?, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Sobre la Accion Cultural (On Cultural Action), and the first eight chapters of The Politics of Education (Holst 2006). While Freire began teaching at a high school age and had a wealth of other educational experiences prior to his time in exile, it is this time in Chile that would produce the ‘golden era’ of his accomplishments in transformative education and would produce his greatest historical cultural impact. Historical Cultural Impact The form of education that Freire theorized and later applied was in direct contrast to the rote memorization and education banking method, a phrase coined by Freire, that has become traditional. He taught through the idea that education should be dialogic, that student’s inquiry should be the basis of curriculum instead of the top down alternatives. In the following passage, Freire discusses the fundamental flaws of the traditional teacher-student relationship. “The teacher talks about reality as if it were motionless, static, compartmentalized, and predictable. Or else he expounds on a topic completely alien to the existential experience of the students. His task is to “fill” the students with the contents of his narration—contents which are detached from reality, disconnected from the totality that engendered them and cold give them significance. Words are emptied of their concreteness and become a hollow, alienated, and alienating verbosity” (Freire, 1970). This mode of thinking inspired his teaching. His early work in Brazil produced an effective and transformative literacy program for adults. The programs were centered around using generative words and themes, as well as, codification. These two processes allowed students to utilize their own experiences to gain knowledge and increase understanding. His work began to increase in popularity and became comprehensive literacy campaigns. In 1963 Freire accepted an invitation from Brazil’s

MOVING TOWARD FREIRE President, Joao Goulart, to organize a national literacy campaign (Graceffo, 2001). The campaign would be cut short by the Brazilian military coup of 1964 and a 70 day jail sentence that labeled him as subversive to government authority. He would then be exiled, as mentioned previously, allowing his impact to expand. “During his 16 years in exile, Freire went on to develop his pedagogy further by working on literacy campaigns in various Latin American and African countries. Considered by many to be the founding father of what has come to be known as ‘popular education’, Freire linked issues of adult literacy with the raising of political and social consciousness in the poor and marginalized” (Graceffo 2001).

In 1980, it was safe for Freire to return to his home country of Brazil and while he did return he continued to travel and spread his influence internationally. “In 1980, with a new democratic opening in Brazil, Freire and his family were finally able to return. But he kept traveling through the 1980’s, revisiting the friends and colleagues he made during his long exile, and speaking to new groups interested in critical pedagogy. His ideas for problem posing education and critical consciousness have had an international impact. In September, 1986, in Paris France Freire received the UNESCO Prize for Education, one more testimonial to his global reputation” (Shor, 1987). The influence of Freire’s critical pedagogy would spread to North American teachers as well. Many American educators, writers and philosophers, (see Shor 1987 and Gracecoff 2001) were dismayed with the traditional texts that dominated classrooms and they were ready to escape from the boredom and ineffectiveness of rote memorization, compulsory test taking and basic skill approaches that was and is prevalent in the American school system. They have found escape in the form of critical pedagogy and while we can see many of these pedagogical strategies being utilized in classrooms in North America, the impact is not significant enough. Contemporary Significance In a conversation with an American colleague at the University of Massachusetts Freire said, “I don’t want to be imported or exported. It is impossible to export pedagogical practices without reinventing

MOVING TOWARD FREIRE them. Please tell your fellow American educators not to import me. Ask them to recreate and rewrite my ideas” (Ayers, 1998). And now, America, with its educational framework of standards based reform, high stakes testing and overall ineptitude to address the critical needs of its poor and marginalized, needs Freire’s ideas to be rewritten and executed. In his article published in the Journal of Educational Change, Henry Giroux states, “NCLB, in particular, rivets our attention to student achievement more than ever, as defined largely through standardized math and English competency tests. Claiming to be aimed at addressing the needs of disadvantaged children, closing the gap between the rich and poor, improving accountability, and offering schools more financial resources to improve their performance, the Act’s goals appear cursorily to promote equity justice and social citizenship among our disadvantaged youth. What become increasingly clear, however, is that schools are seen less as a public benefit than as a private, good, teachers are largely deskilled, knowledge is stripped of its critical functions and matters of equity and funding are given a low priority. Accordingly, they are concerned less with the demands of equity, justice and social citizenship than with the imperatives of the marketplace and the needs of the individual consumer” (Giroux, 2004).

In this Giroux describes an educational system with strong capitalist undertones. He describes the problem with capitalism as an educational framework. That problem is the valuation of profit over any other intrinsic or extrinsic product. When he talks of the imperatives of the marketplace he is referring to creating students able to fill out test bubbles more accurately than China and India, in order to gain recognition as the global dominant power. Academia in this manner does not determine a student’s knowledge nor does it promote any form of self-actualization, it produces merely, information regurgitation, rote memorization. He is also referring to the increased presence of private schools, stepping in for struggling public schools that are unable to meet state formulated standards. Further, those teachers and school systems that are able to meet standards are deskilled by their administration because they are doing little more than test preparation. The methods of preparing for the test are formulated, regulated and handed down to teachers with no room for their own creativity or personal expression in education; education is becoming heartless, faceless…robotic. This emphasis on scripted instruction leaves no room for critical thinking and application. It prevents teachers and students from

MOVING TOWARD FREIRE realizing that their place in society is fluid, that their mobility, their advancement is not dictated by a governmental system, but by their own actions. All of this is not to say that standardized testing is necessarily bad. Actually, at face value the standards based reform of No Child Left Behind would work and it has shown positive results in certain areas. However, the rewards based nature of the policy neglects schools with high populations of students coming from a lower socioeconomic status. Giroux continues, “In fact, the emphasis on accountability and testing has nothing to say about poor urban and rural students at all, who are taught by inexperienced teachers, attend overcrowded classrooms, lack adequate school supplies, inhabit decrepit buildings and live, in some cases, in districts that receive $39,000 less per pupil than children in the richest suburbs” (Giroux, 2004). This is especially important because the mentality of families of poverty is that of survival. Whereas, middle class families who often have at least one parent home during evening hours, have desires and capabilities to join extracurricular clubs, paid tutoring and other culturally enriching experiences. Middle and upper class families don’t have to worry about how food is getting on the table. Families of poverty do not have the resources to experience the benefits of the middle class, which are often integral to academic success. So, schools with high levels of students from poverty don’t receive the funding they need because they are unable to perform and the schools with high populations of middle and upper class students perform well and reap the benefits. This does not close the achievement gap it explodes it. This is what makes the need for critical pedagogy significant. It could address many of the societal issues that current academic policies do not. School does not happen in a vacuum. Every day students and teachers bring their personal experiences into the classroom with them. The experiences they bring either create an educationally conducive environment or ruin it. Education policy should not ignore the humanistic side of education any longer. Adopting programs from a critical pedagogical perspective is critical to true student success because it allows students the chance to take control of their education; it gives them a shot at empowerment.

MOVING TOWARD FREIRE Future Implications For the future, United States education reform should address more comprehensive and critical issues affecting today’s students. One way to do this, would be to increase funding and implementation for school programs that train students to think critically and engage in student centered learning. There are a lot of programs that schools could decide on my favorite is competitive debate. First, it gives students a sense of fulfillment and entitles them to educational empowerment, “Debate training offers empowerment—empowerment for women, empowerment for disadvantaged minorities, and empowerment for young people in general….Robert Reich, former secretary of labor and now professor of social and economic policy at Brandeis University, has described competitive debate as the “great leveler”: ‘Debate leagues can help reduce the educational-opportunity gap that separates rich and poor communities and thus they can help our children’s chances and our nation’s future.’” (Edwards ,2008). And it’s more than just talk, a Chicago based study proves that debaters were more likely to graduate, more likely to meet ACT college-readiness benchmarks, and had greater gains in cumulative grade point average (GPA) over the course of high school relative to comparable peers (Mezuk et al, 2011). Debate is the ultimate form of critical education. It allows students to analyze and evaluate the world around them. It teaches them advanced research skills, as well as, effective techniques in persuasion and argumentation. Debate can give students skills they would not otherwise obtain and it’s fairly easy to do so. Freire said that we must not import his ideas, but rather, rewrite them with our own pedagogical practices. Competitive, academic debate can be a means to do just that.


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