Most literacy educators have at one point come across the work of Paulo Freire. This Brazilian language teacher’s practice has extended beyond the borders of his classroom and has influenced political movements in Brazil and across the world. In addition to working as a teacher, Freire was a political activist and a trade union lawyer, a university professor, the minister of Education of Brazil and a consultant of UNESCO. His work centered around developing literacy outreach programs to economically marginalized and illiterate adult populations (Schmidt, 2013, 7). Yet, perhaps his lasting legacy is his contribution to critical theory. Freire is most famous for his dialogic approach to learning and criticism of traditional teacher-centred approaches to learning which he refers to as the “banking model.” His contribution to the way educators think about the learning process is best exemplified by his two famous books, Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Literacy: Reading the Word and the World. Although these texts were written between the late 70s and the 80s, they continue to be referred to by education researchers for providing transformative, emancipatory and humanizing approaches to teaching literacy (Hickling Hudson, 2013; Straubhaar, 2013; Azevedo and Goncalves, 2012; Luke, 2012).
Recently, he has also become the subject of Sandra Smidt’s short reader-friendly book, Introducing Freire: A guide for students, teachers, and practitioners. This book provides an excellent introduction to the writings of Paulo Freire in ways that are sensitive to context, intellectually engaging, and practical. It certainly is a great book for introducing new teachers to the work of Freire and a go-to guide for educators who are already familiar with Freire’s emancipatory and dialogic approach to teaching literacy. This is not surprising from a writer like Smidt who is an experienced literacy teacher and consultant. She has extensive experience writing texts that provide practitioner-friendly guides for applying literacy theory to practice. Some of the theorists she has written about include Jerome Brunner and Lev Vygotsky.
Introducing Freire is divided into 12 parts. It is framed with a “Preface” and “Final Word” that share how Freire’s theories have influenced the author’s practice. The first chapter provides a mini-biography of Friere’s life and explains the political and economic forces that influenced his work as an educator. Chapter 2 outlines the underlying concepts from Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Literacy: Reading the Word and the World. In chapter 3, she takes the concepts introduced in Chapter 2 and demonstrates how they apply to contemporary issues concerning illiteracy. In this chapter, she criticises literacy learning practices that focuses on decoding, and that emphasize passive knowledge transmission rather than active knowledge construction. She links passive knowledge transmission to the reproduction of inequality and shows how Freire’s approach to learning can be used to address current issues of illiteracy and poverty. The rest of the book explores how Freire’s approach to teaching has been adopted by his contemporaries.
There are four things that make this book a must read for literacy practitioners. Firstly, the book provides information that one would not get by just reading Freire’s writings. For instance, the book includes references to the work of his wife, Elza Freire, who also was a literacy teacher (Smidt, 2014, 15). Secondly, Smidt shows how Freire’s pedagogical approach is relevant and practical to contemporary literacy teachers. She does this by relating his ideas to current literacy statistics, classroom case studies, and social issues in education. Thirdly, the book uses reader-friendly language to define complex concepts from Friere’s writings such as conscientization, praxis, and objectification. Lastly, the book is written in a warm narrative style that models Freirean teaching strategies by emphasizing the context for writing and directly encouraging the reader to question and reflect on the case studies presented.
As Smidt’s work is marketed to a North American audience, I wondered how the book might address Western criticism of Freire’s approach to literacy learning. For instance, once criticism of Freire’s pedagogy is that it is not adaptable to modern educational institutions. Smidt addresses this issue by discussing the work Freire has done with modern educational institutions in Brazil, Guinea-Bissau and his collaboration with UNESCO (Smidt, 2014, 17 and 121). Another criticism is that emancipatory education is too ideological, and its Marxist influence makes it unpalatable for the American system. She addresses this criticism by making reference to an interview between Freire and Ira Shor from A Pedagogy of Liberation. In this interview, Freire states that his pedagogy does not strictly adhere to Marxist ideology and that he agrees that Marxist concepts such as social class empowerment would be difficult for Americans to appreciate because of their emphasis on individualism. However, Freire also suggests that while emancipatory education may be difficult for Americans to adopt, it is not impossible and such an approach to learning is valuable for helping individuals gain access to political power (Smidt, 2014, 92-93). Smidt’s book further articulates possibilities for emancipatory education by showing how Freire’s approach to literacy learning has been used in western countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom (Smidt, 74 and 119). Overall, the book is a very practical guide for literacy practitioners to understand the main ideas that frame Freire’s educational philosophy and to consider practical ways of adapting dialogic and emancipatory learning to various classroom contexts.
Azevedo, N. and Goncalves, J. (2012). Writing and Reading with Art: Adult Literacy, Transformation and Learning. Adult Learning, 23(2), 69-75.
Hickling Hudson, A. (2013). Theatre-Arts Pedagogy for Social Justice: Case of the Area Foundation in Jamaica. Current issues in comparative education, 15(2), 15-34. Retrieved from: http://devweb.tc.columbia.edu.ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/i/a/document
Luke, A. (2012). Critical Literacy: Foundational Notes. Theory Into Practice, 51(4), 2012. DOI: 10.1080/00405841.2012.636324
Straubhaar, R. (2013). North American adult literacy programs and Latin American immigrants: how critical pedagogy can help non-profit literacy programming in the United States. Critical Studies in Education, 54(2), 190-202. DOI: 10.1080/17508487.2012.716074.
Farra Yasin is a second year Ph.D. student who is researching college literacy policy and pedagogy in the Faculty of Education at York University in Toronto, Canada. Professionally, she has worked as an elementary, high school and college educator where the focus of her practice is teaching writing.