Reading Paolo Freire ('Education for Critical Consciousness') for the first time, I was keen to see what relevance a Brazilian political agitator would have on contemporary Australian children’s education. ‘Education as the Practice of Freedom’ is a piece that explains and documents Freire’s project to address poor adult literacy in Brazil pre- the 1964 military coup. It is both a fascinating background on the cultural challenges Brazil faced (and continues to face) as a nation, as well as a discussion of an innovative literacy program.
At the core of the literacy program was its politicisation. In a nation undergoing the upheavals of early democracy, where literacy was a prerequisite to vote, any literacy program would necessarily be political. Freire made his doubly so by situating contemporary culture and politics at the centre of his program and using engagement with these issues as a driver to build literacy skills. Not dissimilar to the advocates of ‘quality children’s literature’, he believed that literacy was best achieved when grounded in content that was of interest and importance to the learner – and what better than the politics of the nation.
In discussing the history of Brazil, Freire identifies the need for people to become engaged with their environment (he is speaking politically for the most part, but the lesson can be broader), rather than passive ‘objects’ on which the environment acts. As ‘subjects’ with agency whose consciousness is ‘transitive’ (), he identifies two distinct options. The first is ‘naïve transitivity’, where we engage with the world, but is simplistic ways, without argument and discussion, following established patterns unquestioningly. The second is ‘critical transitivity’, a state of consciousness which is “characterized by depth in the interpretation of problems; by the substitution of causal principles for magical explanations; by the testing of one’s ‘findings’ and by openness to revision; by the attempt to avoid distortion when perceiving problems and to avoid preconceived notions when analysing them; by refusing to transfer responsibility; by rejecting passive positions; by soundness of argumentation; by the practice of dialogue rather than polemics; by receptivity to the new for reasons beyond mere novelty and by good sense not to reject the old just because it is old” (p.14)
What parent, teacher, or concerned citizen could argue against critical transitivity as a meaningful outcome for primary education – both as a civics objective, and far beyond. A way of engaging that “is characteristic of authentically democratic regimes and corresponds to highly permeable, interrogative, restless and dialogic forms of life” (p. 14).
Freire strived to create “a literacy program which would be an introduction to the democratization of culture, a program with men (sic) as its Subjects rather than as patient recipients, a program which itself would be an act of creation, capable of releasing other creative acts, one in which students would develop the impatience and vivacity which characterize search and invention.” (p. 39) Well, I have to say, if it sounded suitable for illiterate Brazilian farm workers in the 1950s, it sound equally relevant for early primary to me! “Acquiring language does not involve memorizing sentences, words, or syllables – lifeless objects unconnected to an existential universe – but rather an attitude of creation and recreation, a self-transformation producing a stance of intervention in one’s context.” (p. 43)
Obviously, the challenge facing Freire was dramatically different from that facing a primary school teacher in Australia today. For one thing, working with adults who have developed oral literacy over many years is not the same as primary students who are still building oral skills. Additionally, the highly phonetic nature of Portugese made it a more straightforward educational challenge. Having said that, his technique of contextualising literacy activity on a broader cultural context, and operating in facilitated ‘culture circles’ (abandoning the idea of ‘schools’ as too traditionally passive) offer valuable inspiration. Also worth considering is his comment on the difficulty of finding and preparing people who would deliver his culturally rich and empowering curriculum. “Teaching the purely technical aspects of the procedure is not difficult; the difficulty lies rather in the creation of a new attitude – that of dialogue, so absent in our own education and upbringing.” (p. 45) Suddenly Brazil doesn’t seem so far away after all.