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A pedagogy for empowerment

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It was good to learn recently that Paulo Freire’s ideas are still discussed in Brazil. My colleague Rony Medina and I were doing an online induction session for newly recruited facilitators who would soon be supporting groups of teachers in the Brazilian schools participating in the Learning Circles project (see ‘Working with unions to empower teachers in learning circles’). Rony is a member of the HertsCam facilitator team and has the necessary language skills to take the lead in the session. My own role was to make a short presentation about the teacher-led development work methodology which is being used in the project (Frost, 2013). In the discussion that followed, our new Brazilian colleagues mentioned Freire, having seen echoes of his philosophy in the teacher-led development work (TLDW) methodology.

I first began to devise TLDW in the late 1980s as a way of enabling teachers to become agents of change. My thinking had been influenced by Paulo Freire’s work when, as a schoolteacher, I was enrolled on a part-time masters degree course. Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Freire, 1970a) was a one of the books that my fellow students and I revered[1].

Particularly powerful was Freire’s analysis of adult literacy programmes in South America in which he drew attention to the banality of the texts through which adults were supposed to learn to read and write. These texts lacked relevance and authenticity. He argued for texts that reflected the actual struggles of impoverished people. He also called for a dialogical learning process through which learners could become knowledge-creators able to transform their world (Freire, 1970b).

How did this shape the TLDW methodology? The principle that teachers should be invited and enabled to identify their own professional concern as a starting point for a development project and then plan a strategic intervention resonated with Freire’s approach. According to a recent appraisal of his work, Freire believed that:

real learning, learning that was ‘authentic’, only really happened when learners were

empowered to find solutions to the real-world problems they encountered in their lives.

(Stanistreet, 2021: 562)

Following the clarification of a concern in the TLDW process, facilitators enable teachers to plan their own projects designed to make a difference not just to their own practice but to that of their colleagues and to the organisations in which they work. Stanistreet reminds us of Freire’s proposal that ‘problem posing education’ involves the unveiling of reality which leads to enhanced consciousness and critical intervention.

Empowering children

Following the workshop for the facilitators in Brazil, Rony and I discussed the pedagogical principles we both subscribe to. She illustrated them with an account of her recent experience teaching at a Pupil Referral Unit. A small group of children from local secondary schools had been identified as being at risk of exclusion. To say that they were making no progress in their basic subjects was an understatement. They were generally regarded as more or less illiterate, innumerate and disaffected. They needed to be rehabilitated. It was hoped that Rony would be able to remediate this; perhaps she could at least help them to catch up with their basic Maths and English? However, she quickly recognised the root of their problem. They lacked a sense of agency as learners and had adopted a very negative mindset. Can’t learn! Won’t learn! Rony needed to boost their self-esteem and try to show them the value of learning.

Rony judged that project-based learning was the way to go. A glimpse into her notebook gives an indication of her thinking.

The starting point for Rony and her students was an activity in which they created cards representing people they admired to enable them to reflect on their own values. They went on to consider their identities and examine their cultural heritages and represent these in a variety of forms. For example, one student surfaced the fact that one of her parents was a refugee from Albania. She produced recipes of typical Albanian food then cooked from them. Having explored their identities and celebrated them, the students were able to proceed to think about the skills they wanted to master. Rony drew on her experience with the British Council and introduced their core skills for employability, which include items such as digital literacy, critical thinking and exercising leadership. She also showed them the Largest Lesson in the World website where they read about the UN’s ‘Global Goals for Sustainable Development’. Very grown-up stuff. These children were not used to being trusted with such sophisticated knowledge domains. The discussion included matters that were currently in the news. This dialogue between Rony and her students’ broadened their perspectives but also enabled them to focus on what was going on in their own lives. Each of them was able to identify a topic that was of concern. For example, one student locked on to the current cost of living crisis which previously he had been barely aware of. Another took an interest in climate change.

Once the students had seized upon something they wanted to know more about, Rony introduced to them ways of enquiring about them and how to make judgements about the quality and validity of the sources they were accessing on the web. This critical perspective was not only an essential element of education for responsible citizenship, it also strengthened their self-efficacy beliefs and agency. They were not being passive consumers but active knowledge creators.

Rony asked them to collect evidence of their discoveries and compile these in the form of a portfolio. Again, this is a device that features in the TLDW methodology. It does not present an enormous academic challenge. You don’t need to be able to handle accurate, continuous prose or master the academic voice. Your energy is concentrated on what you are finding out and what it means to you in the context of your day-to-day existence. When the students returned to their schools at the conclusion of the series of sessions at the PRU, they used their portfolios to present what they had been doing to their regular teachers and their parents. They also made posters which included an invitation to teachers to attach questions. The responses included expressions of astonishment, all indicating the powerful effect of what had happened. Tears were shed.

Transformational learning

There is no doubt that Rony’s approach to the learning of these young people was transformational, a term which is open to different interpretation. Jack Mezirow is said to have carried Freire’s baton in his writing about adult education in the 1990s, but I have a problem with that. What we see foregrounded in Mezirow’s work is the transformation of the learner’s consciousness and critical perspective (1991). This is of vital importance of course, but I am more interested in the link between learning and action. Enhanced consciousness arises when we address a real problem of concern to us as individuals and then take action to change some aspect of the world around us. For Freire, literacy was the foundation of voice which in turn enables dialogue and advocacy for change. Empowerment is ultimately about enabling the learner to become an agent of change.


Freire, P. (Freire, 1970a) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum

Freire, P. (1970b) Cultural Action for Freedom. Cambridge: Harvard Educational Review.

Frost, D. (2013) Teacher-led development work: a methodology for building professional knowledge, HertsCam Occasional Papers April 2013, HertsCam Publications.

Mezirow, J. (1991) Transformative dimensions of adult learning. San Francisco CA: Jossey Bass.

Stanistreet, P. (2021) Revolution in the Head, International Review of Education (2021) 67:561–567

[1] Find the 2005 30th anniversary edition: pedagogy-of-the-oppressed.pdf.

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