Paolo Freire and Testing Assumptions

Recently I saw an article in a newspaper raging about how Paolo Freire had taught South Americans to take ‘left wing’ views. The fact that the South Americans Paolo Freire was working with were amongst the most downtrodden and poor of those in South America seems to have passed the author by. What Paolo Freire taught those people was to ask questions and not to simply accept answers without testing them. This is a fundamental aspect of education. It may or may not lead to revolution; but it will lead to change of some kind. The outrage at the ‘political’ nature of this sort of education is based on the idea that things should stay the same. The people who want things to stay the same are usually those who are benefiting from it.

In first year teaching we often have very bright students who have been well trained and who can answer questions within a given set of parameters very quickly. But some of them have never really used the excellent brain they were given. We can take the opportunity to let them see what it is like to really use your brain. The secret is simple – it is to ask questions, and to keep on asking questions, and when the answers come, it is to test those answers against material which you know to be true – because you asked questions about it and tested the answers.

In my first year law classes I try to have one two hour class where we only have questions. As usual they are required to do their reading. I choose something from the reading, eg a case, and tell them that they need to think of a question which would illuminate this reading. WE go round the class, each asking a question. There are no answers. I do not answer and I do not permit them to answer. They have to keep asking questions. I write the questions on the whiteboard. Normally they think once everyone has asked a question that there are no more, but I don’t let them stop. As we keep going and they struggle to come up with questions their questions change quality and become larger and often more about evaluation; they find themselves asking profound questions about the item, going into philosophical questions, historical questions and beyond.

After this we spend some time looking at all the questions on the whiteboard and I ask them questions about the questions –

  • Which questions have a yes/no answer?
  • Which questions can be answered with certainty?
  • Which questions are historical?
  • Which questions evaluate something?
  • How else could you think about these questions?
  • What assumptions underlie these questions?

I find that this class has a significant effect on my students. They seem to suddenly understand the process of analysis that is required in university work when many of them did not before. And they have learned new types of questions and I hear these questioned repeated later on in the semester as they take them on as their own.

This is the kind of education that Paolo Freire wanted to begin with. Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner wrote a book about it called Teaching as a Subversive Activity. I wish I were brave enough to run more of my classes like this instead of assuming my students may need more content explained to them.


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