It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.
I am an educator both as vocation and avocation, although I do not have a formal education degree. And while I can deliver a strong 3-hour lecture with the best of them, I much prefer to leave behind the banking model of education — education in which students receive, memorize, and repeat the learned knowledge and wisdom of the instructor. I remember the frustration when, as a teen, I would share information or an idea with my dad that would go ignored until later when it was delivered by the expert on TV or the radio. Embarrassingly, I’m sure I did the same with my sons and indeed sometimes continue to do so with my wife, although I try not to because I truly do respect and value their insights. When I work with other youth, such as when leading the Twin City Bible Church mission trip to East St. Louis each summer, or when I was a scout leader, I try to be more a guide on the side channeling and infilling their knowledge and leadership rather than being the authority with all the knowledge and ideas to be meekly implemented by students. This is even more the case with my masters students, who had they instead entered the workforce would have been valued for their skills and knowledge gained through their bachelors program of study.
The guide-on-the-side teaching model has been well described by John Dewey in his book Experience and Education. For Dewey, experience serves both as the means and the goal of education. Our past experiences, combined with our learning purposes, can be brought together into a current learning experience. Not all experiences are the same, though, as only some truly work to progress our education as one step in lifelong learning. Further, this progressive education should be situated within community, be conducted by community, to achieve the goals of the community in what Chip Bruce and others have described as community inquiry. That is, it is a type of problem- and project-based education that is vitally situated within the experiences of the people in a community. Community-centered experiences serve as the means for progressive educational experiences in, by, and for the community.
One of the joys when we approach education as a teacher-student — someone who has certain responsibilities as a teacher but who also brings in the humble attitude of a learner seeking insights from student-teachers — is that our thinking is constantly challenged and richly expanded. And so it was this week as our Community Engagement class reviewed Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. While some were encountering this book directly for the first time, others of us were revisiting this classic work.
Personally, this most recent visit had me reflecting especially on Freire’s discussion of limit-situations, limit-acts, and generative themes. As conscious beings, we have the ability to separate ourselves from the world around us and also our own activities. In so doing, we can identify and act to overcome situations that keep us from being more human. That is, we can actively work to negate and overcome limit-situations through limit-acts. Thus, it is not the limit-situations which serve to bring about a sense of hopelessness, but rather our inability to move beyond seeing them as insurmountable barriers to instead recognize them as shackles that can be overcome.
Subsequently, as we nibbled around the edges of Pedagogy of the Oppressed in class discussion, one of the participants began to explore more deeply Freire’s alternative to the banking model of education — the problem-posing model.
In problem-posing education, people develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation.
Banking education treats students as objects of assistance; problem-posing education makes them critical thinkers. Banking education inhibits creativity and domesticates (although it cannot completely destroy) the intentionality of consciousness by isolating consciousness from the world, thereby denying people their ontological and historical vocation of becoming more fully human. Problem-posing education bases itself on creativity and stimulates true reflection and action upon reality; thereby responding to the vocation of persons as beings who are authentic only when engaged in inquiry and creative transformation. [emphasis in original; pages 83 and 84 of the 2011 edition translated by Myra Bergman Ramos]
Freire’s description of problem-posing education is fully consistent with Dewey’s progressive education and Bruce’s community inquiry. But what the class discussion helped me to more fully appreciate is the importance of posing more critical questions if we are to not only address immediate local issues, but to also advance knowledge power. A few weeks back I posted regarding the impact goal of allying with citizens to affect social change, based on my reflections of Randy Stoecker’s writings regarding two forms of social change (for instance, in his recent paper “What If“).
This past week has me further refining my understanding of these ideas. I continue to believe that in affecting social change, citizens set about fostering community. But from this most recent reading and discussion on Freire, I now further understand this to be a work of transforming reality so as to liberate all people from limit-situations. These limit-situations serve to dehumanize us as they keep us from our vocation of being more fully human. These limit-situations exist because there are persons who are directly or indirectly served by these situations — the oppressors — while others who are being curbed by them — the oppressed. But both groups are dehumanized and less than fully human because of the limit-situation. The work of problem-posing education, then, is to specifically act and reflect within the knowledge power cycle in such a way so as to affect social change that works to liberate both the oppressed and the oppressor. To do otherwise would only risk the oppressed becoming the oppressor, thereby exchanging one form of being less than fully human with another form.
While not trivial, we can readily consider how to harness progressive, project- and problem-based education to address local issues. This is important work. But if we struggle further, we can hone and deepen our critical thinking through dialog such that we continually revise our awareness of limit-situations and participate in limit-act projects that speak into existence a new reality. As thus practiced, education is not an individual work, but a work done in community as we come to know through dialog our objective situation and also our awareness of that situation. We have a perception of our previous perception and a knowledge of our previous knowledge. And as we engage as co-investigators in action and reflection — praxis — to transform and create material goods and social institutions, ideas, and concepts, we simultaneously create history and become historical-social beings within epochal units.
An epoch is characterized by a complex of ideas, concepts, hopes, doubts, values, and challenges in dialectical interaction with their opposites, striving towards plenitude [the condition of being full or complete]. The concrete representation of many of these ideas, values, concepts, and hopes, as well as the obstacles which impede the people’s full humanization, constitute the themes of that epoch. These themes imply others which are opposing or even antithetical; they also indicate tasks to be carried out and fulfilled. Thus, historical themes are never isolated, independently with their opposites. Nor can these themes be found anywhere except in the human-world relationships. The complex of interacting themes of an epoch constitutes its “thematic universe” (page 101)
The task of the dialogic teacher in an interdisciplinary team working on the thematic universe revealed by their investigation is to “re-present” that universe to the people from whom she or he first received it — and “re-present” it not as a lecture, but as a problem. (page 109)
The epochal units of themes can occur at multiple levels simultaneously. For instance, at the broadest level we might consider the global theme of domination. At a more local level, we might consider racism as constructed individually and structurally within the United States. And at still a more local level, we might consider racial bias in Champaign schools as identified in cases presented by African Americans to the Office of Civil Rights in 1996. If we apprehend reality only as non-interacting fragments, it is impossible to truly understand reality. By using the methodology that Freire calls conscientization — learning to perceive social, political, and economic contradictions and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality — the dialogic teacher leads a co-investigation of themes that in turn generate new investigations. These generative themes begin to introduce the student-instructor to a critical form of thinking about their world. The challenge is to lead towards a comprehension of the total, interconnecting reality, for only then can we proceed towards isolation of separate elements for effective intervention.
This is my sixth time reading these concepts. But true to Freire’s description, as we complete a cycle of dialog that names our understanding of the world, we stand at the cusp of a new reality to be perceived. And thus in the intervening months between visits to Pedagogy of the Oppressed, my praxis has brought me to a new cusp of understanding of these words because of my dialog with various other authors, dialog with students, colleagues, and community, and intervening creative works.
Consequently, light bulbs went off as I looked at the Eugene Ionesco quote that hangs on a cabinet in my office: “It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.” My responsibility as a teacher is to create a learning environment that fosters community dialog along with a critical form of thinking. Then, as we engage in co-investigation, my responsibility is to help the team reflect on the thematic universe being revealed through our investigation in a way that generates additional enlightening questions. Along the way, problem-posing education concurrently works to “facilitate the discovery of the interaction among the parts of the disjoined whole”, leading towards even richer sets of questions initiating further enlightening investigation.
I wish I could say with full confidence I thoroughly understand Freire, or even what I have written above. I wonder if the best evaluation whether I am advancing in my understanding is with regard the types of problems posed by me and my students. Over time, do the questions leading to new investigations and interventions demonstrate an increasing comprehension of the total reality even if they are directed at an isolated element for co-investigation? Thus, my strongest evidence to the affirmative is this paragraph itself as I further reorient my evaluation from answers to questions, from the works created to the questions used to inspire and investigate those creative works. And as I deepen my practice of progressive education to practice problem-posing education.