In the second part of his two-part series, Cian Parry explores the ideas of socialist educator, Paulo Freire. He argues that there is much we can learn from the Brazilian’s work, especially the notion of a liberatory education which could provide an alternative to the currently failing system.
The Brazilian Marxist and schoolteacher, Paulo Freire, wrote that modern education alienates the student from the learning process by artificially making the teacher the subject and the student the object of education. This means that the process of critically analysing and interpreting educational material is done by the teacher who then presents this interpretation to their students. It is up to the student to systematically learn and regurgitate this interpretation in an exam setting.
This form of education suits the ruling classes, as people are taught not to critically think or analyse information that is presented to them. Instead, they are taught to accept, remember and repeat information. This philosophy is also present in the authoritarian structure of the classroom, whereby a teacher hands students a set of instructions and they are expected to ‘do as their told’, prepares students for the workplace where all decisions are made by a boss or manager and the ‘well-behaved’ worker follows orders.
The end result of this is an education system where many working-class students resent learning. Many resent being disciplined by teachers who have to ensure that they have learned a sufficient amount of educational material by rote.
The Leaving Cert as ‘Banking Education’
The Junior and Leaving Cert (and A-levels and GCSEs) typify what Freire terms ‘the Banking Concept of Education’, where students are simply passive objects of the learning process. The Leaving Cert, in particular, involves an incredible amount of rote learning. Leaving Cert (LC) subjects do not require students to engage with, critically analyse or contribute to the subject. Instead, most textbooks contain exam questions and sample answers to learn off. An example of this is the LC Economics course which, ironically, has not been updated since Paulo Freire published his critique of the education system, ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’, in 1969.
Below is the answer to the question ‘How can Less Developed Countries (LDCs) promote economic development’, given in both textbooks and the LC marking scheme:
- Promote Population Control
- Improve Infrastructure
- Incentives for the development of enterprise
- Reduce State Bureaucracy
- Reduce Corruption
Instead of students investigating or debating the reasons why no LDCs, bar the Soviet Union, China and South Korea, have ever succeeded at developing to the same level as most western nations they are asked to memorise that list off by heart. This is not an atypical exam question either; the majority of the economics course involves students taking down lists and definitions and then learning them by rote. In the process, the big-picture issues of capitalism, colonialism and oppression are erased from the story.
Even in subjects such as history and politics where discursive essays are required, the strict timings for the essays in the exam (40 minutes per essay) means that many students are forced to learn these essays by rote as well.
Irish language education
One subject where the influence of rote learning has been discussed at length is Irish. Despite Irish being a compulsory subject for students since 1922, the majority of Irish people are still not proficient at speaking it. Both Leaving and Junior Cert students are required to learn a significant amount of poetry and literature alongside the language. One of the practical implications of this is that teachers often do not have time to teach students the grammar and syntax of the language, which is key for building proficiency.
However, as most students do not have a sufficient command of the language to write discursive and literary essays, most textbooks and teachers give out ‘sample answers’ where students learn off essays about poetic and techniques. Many students also commit to memory their discursive Irish essay, as well as their Irish oral examination, so that they do not make grammar mistakes. In short, many students go into the LC exam having mechanically learned off multiple essays for 5 of the 7 exam sections.
Although enthusiasm for the Irish language and the Irish language movement remains alive across the island, the fact that students are not able to take an active role in learning and speaking the language means that many grow to resent it. This has culminated in a continued effort to scale back the importance of the Irish language in the education system with many aiming to remove it as a mandatory subject in the South, leaving language activists demoralised and despairing over the attempts to downgrade its importance.
Indeed, the number of school exemptions in Irish has continued to increase year on year and it was recently revealed that only 6% of civil servants are able to do their jobs through Irish. However, it isn’t productive to blame children with learning difficulties for seeking exemptions from the subject. We should instead ask why we have an education system that further alienates students from Irish in the first place.
A positive development has been the #Gaeilge4All campaign which argues that we should look at approaches in which we can teach every student Irish by adapting our teaching methods to meet students’ different learning needs and difficulties. In this vein, a liberatory education would place students at the centre of that learning process where they can discover and make their own the different aspects of Irish culture that interest them.
A socialist alternative
A liberatory education is one where students are the active subjects of the learning process. The job of the educator is to guide, as opposed to instruct, the group. Education takes place through a conversation where the students’ voices, opinions and contributions are an active part of learning process. This dialectical approach to education not only allows the student to appreciate learning but it also gives them the necessary tools to understand the true nature of reality.
While many teachers want to encourage students to think for themselves, the entire education structure, including the curriculum as well as the exam cycle, is fundamentally weighted against such an approach.
Freire argues that authentic liberation cannot be achieved through banking education: “Authentic liberation – the process of humanization – is not another ‘deposit’ to be made”. In contrast, it is interactive, a back-and-forth: “Liberation is a praxis: the action and reflection of [humanity] upon their world in order to transform it”. To achieve this liberation through praxis a different approach to education is needed; one that is based on dissolving the teacher-student contradiction and posing problems that arise from the lived experience of humanity, the social and the natural world.
Freire argues that this problem-posing education ‘demythologises’ humanity’s relations with the social and real world, regards dialogue as indispensable in the education process and treats students as critical thinkers. In other words, problem-posing education breaks down established and taken-for-granted myths, or ways of looking at the world. It contrasts strongly with the banking concept of education which is delivered in a one-way, doctrinal manner (a ‘didactic’ manner, as Freire calls it) and reinforces the existing ruling ideas in society.
A concrete example of Freire’s ideas on education praxis was his work in Brazil with poor people and peasants, who could not read or write. In the 1940s and 1950s Brazil was emerging from a period of dictatorship. To vote in elections at that time you needed to be literate, so as director of education in the state of Pernambuco, Freire instigated an education programme aimed at helping the masses:
We wanted a literacy program which would be an introduction to the democratization of culture, a program with [humanity] as its Subjects rather than as patient recipients …
The motivation behind the program was that if the peasants, workers and the poor could become literate, they could enter into the democratic processes as part of a stepping-stone to embedding democracy and building a socialist society.
Education praxis today
There is much more to Freire’s ideas than just those outlined above. His practical work on developing culture circles remains ground-breaking. Instead of classes, participants in culture circles decide what is important to them and so what they want to learn about. There is no handed-down, pre-set curriculum – learning is geared to the needs and desires of the students.
Today, learning is instead geared towards the needs and desires of finance and big business. This is true North and South, and across much of the modern world. As discussed in Part 1, despite the best efforts of underpaid and overworked teachers, the current model results in deep inequality, punishing those from the least well-off backgrounds. Running the LC at the end of August will only disadvantage those students even more.
By treating students as humans rather than just cogs in a machine, the difference a liberatory education would make shouldn’t be understated.
So yes, let’s cancel the Leaving Cert. Let’s cancel it for good.