A recent World Bank report says that “nine out of ten Filipino children still struggle to read simple text by age 10.” This reasserts another report released by the Programme for International Student Assessment in 2019 where the Philippines ranked the lowest in reading comprehension among 79 countries. Coupled with the “history is like chismis” squabble that undermines history as a bona fide academic and scientific pursuit, these assessments, among many others, encapsulate the real and depressing state of our education sector.
This supposed learning poverty saddens me as an educator. But at the same time, this also gives me a renewed sense of purpose to better understand why this is happening and what we can do about it. In search of perspectives, I revisited one of my favorite reads when I was still at the university: Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire.
Paulo Freire was a Brazilian educator and philosopher and his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, has become more like the bible on critical pedagogy. Originally written in Portuguese and first published in 1970, it’s one of the most cited books in the social sciences. There, he critiques the current system of learning and lays down what the primary role of education should be, and that is to liberate human beings in order for us to become fully human. But what does he mean by that exactly?
For this month’s WFSR, I want to share some of my reflections and realizations from the book in the hope that more people, especially our teachers, school administrators, and public servants, would pick it up as their next read.
Many of us think that our problems are personal, that we have them because of our own fault. One classic example of this in our society is how we blame the poor for being poor. Some of us tend to look down on them and think of them as “lazy,” “kulang lang sa diskarte,” or “hindi marunong mag-ipon, kaya ganyan.”
Furthermore, we tend to sensationalize success stories of people who manage to achieve something remarkable amid and despite their poverty. Filipinos love to invoke this idea of “poverty is not a hindrance. If you only work hard, nothing is impossible.” But in reality, poverty is an enormous impediment in life. Downplaying that fact is ignoring or choosing not to see the existence of oppression and the structures that permeate it.
Our education system is not exempted from this systemic oppression. In fact, it contributes a lot to the status quo. This is what Freire is trying to point out in his book. Our current education system is an oxymoron because it actually makes us less educated. It has become an institution that inhibits creative power to keep people from thinking for themselves.
At schools, we learn to conform. We have to learn what our teachers say we should learn. We have to learn to follow instructions or else we fail. That’s how the oppressor subjugates the oppressed. They control thinking and action that make us alienated and divided. That’s how structures of oppression are said to operate and how we are called slaves of the status quo.
Freire introduces us to the “banking concept” of education where the teacher-student relationship is like a depositor-depository one. The teacher is seen as the authority—the learned one—who has the responsibility to “deposit” knowledge to students. The usual flow of information is from the teacher to the students and seldom (or in some cases, never) the other way around.
Another approach we have in our current education system is rote memorization which is usually devoid of meaning. I think this is why many Filipino students have a difficult time appreciating their history lessons because they are asked to dwell too much on the names, dates, and places, and not on the stories and themes. But I’m not blaming the teachers for that. It’s just sad that we all fall victim to this kind of system.
Consequently, being educated should neither be for knowledge’s sake alone nor so that we can get a good-paying job and a fruitful career after graduation. According to Freire, the process of knowing and learning should exercise our humanity and that is by being able to think critically, question the information we are given, and confront the patterns of inequality within the status quo. In other words, education should be transformative and an exercise of freedom.
Thematic approach in education
In the book, Freire also teaches us about “generative themes.” These are topics or issues that people feel strongly and are willing to take action about. This is also where learners can draw inspiration and ideas for discussion, and can initiate and develop a critical understanding of their social reality through reflection and action.
To further understand, let’s put this in the Philippine context. Our history classes usually teach us facts in a chronological manner. For example: first, we learn about the precolonial and peopling of the Philippines. Then, we discuss Spanish colonization up to the Philippine Revolution. Next, we study American occupation and so on. In this process, we learn about the important figures, events, facts, and dates that shape the nation’s history, all of which we most likely forget after the exams.
In contrast, a thematic approach focuses more on themes. For example, we can pick the concept of “human rights” and view history through that lens. From that, we can discuss the injustices and atrocities our ancestors have experienced throughout our history.
But we can also choose a more concrete and simpler generative theme such as “bigas.” Rice is a staple and an inherent part of our culture. We can say a lot of different things about rice. Some might say they prefer brown rice because it’s healthier. But many would say that they hope its price will be pegged at 20 pesos per kilogram. This example reflects our lived experiences within our society of which we can learn a lot from.
Hence, according to Freire, moving from a didactic fact-by-fact to a more thematic approach, through “generative themes,” can help us appreciate and understand our world better, since these themes are more relatable and closer to the people. It can also develop critical faculties and consciousness, given that the students also share and add to the discussion.
Speaking of students having the ability to share their thoughts freely, Freire also highlights the importance of toppling the hierarchical arrangement between the teacher and the student. Pedagogy of the oppressed means the teacher and the student are both learners, and that the process and flow of learning is two-way (or multi-way such that among students) and mutually beneficial.
This learning approach empowers everyone since everyone—not only the teacher—can contribute to the process. The teacher can only initiate the dialogue by using generative themes but can no longer monopolize the discussion. Through this collaborative way of learning, learners, including the teacher, can share ideas more freely while exercising their agency and humanity in the process.
Towards freedom and human flourishing
Education can happen anywhere and anytime, even outside schools and years after graduation. In fact, a lot of our “education” happens outside the walls of the classroom. This reminds us that we should learn not only from and for the people but with the people. In that way, we can create an awareness that can liberate not only the oppressed but also the oppressor. Because when we realize our potential and free ourselves from inequality, both the oppressed and the oppressor will finally be able to exercise what really makes us human, and that is to love, to hope, and be complete.
However, this doesn’t mean that we boycott our schools. Getting formal education is still valuable. But we should always bear in mind what education really is or should be. As I’ve learned from the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, real education is not there to test our memory or for us to perfect our exams. It’s there to make us better human beings who value and cherish our fellow beings. ☁️