Problem-Posing Dialogues

Excerpted from Part Six of

Super-Smart Democracies: Dissolving Neoliberalism, Elitism and Managerialism’.

In the 1950s, the young Paulo Freire was Director of the Department of Education and Culture of the Social Service in the state of Pernambuco, in the north of Brazil.  Working with some of the poorest people in some of Brazil’s most deprived communities, Freire learnt that


reinforces oppression, silence, resignation, ignorance, fear, mistrust


nurtures liberation, hope, energy, competence, trust.

In other words, a system of education based on the passive reception of an endless stream of monologues, demanding silence, punctuated by competitive tests, and a steady drizzle of discouraging criticism, reinforced the sense of inadequacy, ignorance, and failure that their life-situation had already required his students to accept.

Freire designed his adult literacy programmes, so that illiterate men and women, peasants, day-labourers, street-traders, could learn to read and write by using their own ways of speaking, their own ideas, experience and knowledge. Instead of being lectured at, they would participate in what he called problem-posing dialogues in Culture Circles.

Unlike most literacy programmes, very few students dropped out. Almost all came back week after week to share in the learning they gained and their increasing verbal and written confidence and competence. Before long the students were manipulating word order, and sentence structures so as to create new meanings, and playful linguistic variations. Within a couple of months most of the students would be reading newspapers and books, and writing simple letters.

Freire’s Purposes and Principles.

 Freire’s problem-posing dialogues and culture circles aimed to,

  • free the oppressed from twin thraldom of silence and monologue
  • prepare the ground for democracy and radical social transformation
  • recover people’s stolen humanity
  • increase men’s (sic) ability to perceive the challenges of their time
  • predispose men (sic) to re-evaluate constantly, to analyse “findings”, to adopt scientific methods and processes
  • help men (sic) to assume an increasingly critical attitude towards the world and so to transform it
  • enable men (sic) to discuss courageously the problems of their context – and to intervene in that context (by) offering them the confidence and strength to confront those dangers instead of surrendering to the decisions of others.

Freire insisted that:

  • We have to democratise education by respecting the knowledge the learners bring to them from their living experience
  • We need to trust in the capacity of the oppressed to reason
  • Arguments based on “authority” are no longer valid.
  • The correct method for leaders to employ in the task of liberation… lies in dialogue, not propaganda about liberation or freedom
  • Leaders who deny the oppressed the opportunities for reflection on their actions thereby invalidate their own thinking and actions
  • The main changes in society are to be brought about through collective deliberation

Freire stresses that apart from learning to read and write in a couple of months, the problem-posing dialogues gave the culture circle-members hope and energy.

In problem-posing education, people develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation.

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