Paulo Freire’s critical consciousness

Paulo Freire

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Paulo Freire, a Brazilian, who lived between 1927 – 1997, is still popular for his revolutionary ideas about adult education, particularly with “critical consciousness”. He was a “pedagogue”; the term, according to dictionaries, refers to someone who goes by-the-book.

He became influential with his community work in educating adults and published his seminal work -“The pedagogy of the oppressed” – in 1970. You can have free access to the book through this link;

He metaphors the traditional classroom teaching method to the “banking” concept in which the teacher “deposits” knowledge into the student’s head and the students, in turn, are expected to use it, probably with some adaptations depending on the context.

Sounds familiar?

Anyway, what is wrong with that?

“Education for liberation”

Freire theorized the purpose of education as to “liberate human potential” and education is a part of the process.

The purpose of education should be to liberate human potential”.

Paulo Freire

Dialogue versus discussion

The meanings of these two words contrast each other. Oscar Graybill and Lois Brown Easton explain, citing Robert Garmston and Bruce Wellman (1999), the difference between the dialogue and discussion as follows;


Dialogue engages the participants to gain an understanding of the topic without the “pressure” of arriving at a decision. In a dialogue, we can hear frequently the “why” questions and the phrases such as, “I am wondering”, “I am curious”, “I am interested”, and “what if” etc.

A dialogue may result in action to gain further understanding such as conducting a survey, focus group discussions, interviews, etc.

We can plan a dialogue by giving the topic beforehand, setting ground rules and guidelines for the event. To learn more about this, I recommend reading the post I cited above.


Discussion is a talk with the purpose of arriving at a decision; it may begin with brainstorming ideas and exploring possibilities. However, later the discussants will choose sides, similar to a debate, and attempt to arrive at a decision. It will not build on ideas and frequently mentions one’s opinions and holds on to them.


The praxis is another term used by Freire. It is not enough to have a dialogue to understand reality. We must act upon and reflect to experience reality.

According to Keith Popple and Anne Quinney in their paper says that Freire found

Culture of silence

He relates the problem of this “banking” concept to the “culture of silence”. In other words, the process ensures the maintenance of the status quo and may only result in a very limited form of system improvement. He uses here a very strong language: the method allows the oppressor to continue the oppression onto the oppressed.

So, what exactly was the Freire’s prescription?

His prescription for teaching is grounded on “liberation” from oppression; he preaches that education should liberate the learner. How could we do that, according to him?

That is when he brings forward the concept of “critical consciousness”.

Critical consciousness

To begin with, the teacher should acknowledge that the learner does not attend with an empty bank account.

The learner should not be considered an empty vessel.


The learner brings a wealth of ground-level experience and some knowledge into the discussion; it should be respected. After all, they are the ones who are going to use the “new” knowledge in real life. It needs to be merged and adapted. Therefore, they need to be consulted. While I was working at the Health Promotion Bureau, I used to name the “training” sessions for health education officers and other healthcare professionals as “consultative meetings”. And, I made sure that the “class” arrangement in a circular fashion, not as a traditional classroom. These things matter, in fact, matters a lot. I even explained why I did that.

The above preparations set the ground for the next step; knowledge should be produced during the interaction between the facilitator and the participants. Ideally, it needs to be problem-based learning. During my time I always encouraged the participants to carry out the presentations. They came with their preparations based on the topics that we agreed upon prior to the session. In fact, these were self-reflective encounters promoting “critical consciousness”. It always boosted their self-esteem as well as entered into a dialogue about how we need to meet real-life challenges.

How to design workshops

While I was researching about Paulo Freire and his work, I stumbled on this link that describes how to run a workshop based on his concepts;

Paulo’s influence seems to have spread all over the world; several institutions, organizations, and projects have been launched under his name. one of them is here:

In fact, Freire’s critical consciousness is almost similar to the following quote by Lao Tsu (China 700 BC).

Live with them,

Love them,

Start with what they know,

Build with what they have,

But with the best leaders

When the work is done,

The task accomplished,

The people will say, “We have done this ourselves” –

– Lao Tsu (China 700 BC)

from Goodreads

Author: Prasantha De Silva

A specialist in Community Medicine board-certified in Sri Lanka and a research analyst in Canada

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