Brazilian educator Paulo Freire distinguishes popular education from the traditional “banking” approach to education where participants are treated as empty vessels that must be filled with information.  “The underlying implication of the traditional approach is that students are “uneducated” and in need of knowledge that can come only from teachers or experts.  This need creates a dependency and reinforces a sense of powerlessness.  People learn to distrust themselves, their own knowledge and intuitions and this can lead to confusion.  They often feel there is something wrong but they are not sure what.  Freire’s method encourages participants to see themselves as a fount of information and knowledge about the real world.  When they are encouraged to work with the knowledge they have from their own experience they can develop strategies together to change their immediate situations.  [The approach] is not to come in from the outside and provide “a social analysis” or to provide “the answers” but to help groups do their own analysis by providing a structure and some tools to accomplish this task.” (GATT-fly 1991, pp. 13-14)



“Popular Education” respects the experiences of the participants and builds on this experience in the educational process.  It is education that is intended as a part of the process of groups working for change.  It is education that serves to de-mystify political and economic systems in order for people adversely affected by those systems to better understand what is happening and to be more able to determine their own vision and make that a part of a more just and equitable world.” (The Highlander Research and Education Center 1997)



“Most conventional models of education view students as “empty vessels” to be filled with knowledge by the teacher.  For many of us, this has been our only experience in school.  It’s difficult to see education any other way.  Popular education presents a different pattern.  It differs from these models in that popular education values what students/participants know and experience in their lives and communities.  The students/participants define and express what they know, what they want to learn and how to go about learning it.  By definition, this is an inclusive process which, transforms and empowers those who participate.”  (The Highlander Research and Education Center 1997)




Paulo Freire and Popular Education: 

Banking Approach vs. Problem Posing Approach




Banking Approach

Problem Posing Approach

Teacher seen as possessing all the essential information.

Animator provides a framework for thinking, creative, active participants to consider a common problem and find solutions.


Pupils seen as “empty vessels” needing to be filled with knowledge.


Animator raises questions:  why, how, who?

Teacher talks.

Participants are active, describing, analyzing, suggesting, deciding, and planning.


Pupils absorb passively.



Source:  Freire, Paulo.  1993.  Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  New York: Continuum Books, 1993.


Popular Education:  Key Principles of Paulo Freire


1.           No education is ever neutral – Education is either designed to maintain the existing situation, imposing on the people the values and culture of the dominant class (i.e., domesticating people, as one tames an animal to obey its master’s will) or education is designed to liberate people, helping them to become critical, creative, free, active and responsible members of society.


2.           Relevance: issues of importance NOW to participants – People will act on the issues on which they have strong feelings.  There is a close link between emotion and motivation to act.  All education and development projects should start by identifying the issues which the local people speak about with excitement, hope, fear, anxiety or anger.


3.           Problem-posing – From the beginning all participants are recognized as thinking, creative people with the capacity for action.  The aim of the animator is to help them identify the aspects of their lives which they wish to change, to identify the problems, find the root causes of these problems, and work out practical ways in which they can set about changing the situation.  The whole of education is seen as a common search for solutions to problems.


4.           Dialogue –  No one has all the answers, and no one is totally ignorant.  Each person has different perceptions based on their own experience.  To discover valid solutions everyone needs to be both a learner and a teacher.  Education must be a mutual learning process.  The role of the animator is to set up a situation in which genuine dialogue can take place – a real learning community where each shares their experience, -- listens to, and learns from, the others.


5.           Reflection and action (praxis) -  Most real learning and change takes place when a community experiences dissatisfaction with some aspect of their present life.  An animator can provide a situation in which they can stop, reflect critically upon what they are doing, identify any new information or skills that they need, get this information and training, and then plan action.


6.           Transformation – Popular education aims to involve whole communities actively in transforming

a.       The quality of each person’s life,

b.       The environment,

c.       The community,

d.       The whole society.



Source:  The Highlander Research and Education Center.  1997.  A Very Popular Economic Education Sampler.  New Market, Tennessee: The Highlander Research and Education Center.