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I have been an elementary and secondary school teacher and administrator. Currently, I am a faculty member in the Faculty of Education at Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. My M.Ed. and Ph.D. had a focus on the educational and linguistic experiences of children who moved from other countries to Canada.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Educational Divide: Lessons from Paulo Freire

The course that I'm designing on "the educational divide" introduces students to a number of key theorists and activists. One of these is Paulo Freire.
Freire was a Brazilian scholar and practitioner who is probably best known for his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed which has become a seminal text in the study of critical pedagogy.

In this book, and his other work, Freire argues that education needs to be part of a transformation of society. He argues that education can either perpetuate economic, political, and social systems or work to change them.

How so? Let's consider an example of two students who grow up in the same community. "Steve" leaves school at 15 because he is not engaged in learning, perhaps because he is told (literally or through the actions of his teachers) that he doesn't have the same capacity as some of his classmates. Steve's early departure likely limits his career options and earning opportunities. Meanwhile, "Karen" is encouraged by her school experience and eventually enters a post-secondary program in which she studies science. A few years later she completes the program and begins work for a large pharmaceutical as a research scientist. Although a simple example, and with very limited consideration for lots of variables, it does illustrate how education can help, or hinder, a person's access to economic means.

On a deeper level, schooling is also a place where children and young people learn the various norms of society. It can be a "place" that reinforces cultural expectations. This is not necessarily a bad thing! For example, teachers can model fair and just assessment of student work. This is a cultural expectation we have: All things being equal, if I complete my work in a satisfactory way, I will be appropriately rewarded. However, schools can also perpetuate stereotypes that are outdated and/or unjust. For example, a children's book that only has images of people who are white in positions of authority is perpetuating a cultural stereotype that those who are Caucasian have an inherent right to positions of privilege.

Paulo Freire said it well:

“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world."

So, education certainly has the potential to inform, illuminate, and change unjust systems. Critical pedagogy is a stance that educators can take in which they deeply question the various practices and norms that exist AND actively work to change those that are unjust.

“For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.”

So we have a great responsibility as teachers. We can address the divides that exist in our classrooms, schools, and communities ... or we can perpetuate them.

For  a great video, one of the last recorded, of Paulo Freire discussing some of these issues, please consider watching this: Freire talks about social justice

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