Directive Pedagogy: Freire’s Blind Spot?

In an old post (sadly, along with his great blog Borderland no longer available online, it seems), Doug Noon wrote about a short piece by Paulo Friere called The Act of Study which he described thus:

The Act of Study is really a primer on how to read critically. Freire made his case against what he called “banking education,” the view of teaching and learning as a function of depositing information into the minds of students, which they are then expected to store for later retrieval or personal enrichment. Freire maintained that this form of learning kills our creativity and our curiosity, since the point is memorization, as opposed to comprehension.

Rather than seeing ourselves as “vessels to be filled” Freire recommended that we become “subjects of the act” and attempt to recreate the text for ourselves. He saw critical reading as the expression of an attitude toward the world, and not just a relationship to a book or an article. “To study,” he said, “is not to consume ideas, but to create and to re-create them.”

Anyone who reads my writing will know that I have a strong admiration for the work of Freire. It is an admiration born as much from his political activity as from his educational legacy,  although the two were, of course, indivisible in his life. And just as Freire’s politics and teaching were indivisible, so Freire himself is indivisible from the particular environment in which he grew up, taught and developed his own radicalism and hatred of oppression. So, while Friere offers so much that is universally applicable, his location in a particular time and place and set of circumstances, I believe, means that not all of his thinking and ideas can or should be accepted unquestioningly (something that Freire, I am sure, would never have wished for or expected anyway).

So, for example, I would accept Freire’s fundamental notion that learning to read and write (to quote Colin Lankshear in an article in Paulo Freire: A Critical Encounter by Peter McLaren and Peter Leonard):

.…establishes literacy as a medium for expressing one’s own intentions, creative potency and (emerging) critical perspective, rather than serving as a vehicle for absorbing directives and myths imposed from without.

On the other hand, I find myself less willing to agree with him wholeheartedly on the tension between ‘directive’ and ‘non-directive’ teaching. To quote Freire himself (from The Politics of Education: Culture, Power and Liberation)

The educator who says that he or she is equal to his or her learners is either a demagogue, lies or is incompetent. Education is always directive, and this is already said in the Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

I just do not believe that the second assertion follows logically from the first, or even that the first is always true in every case. I do not believe that education ‘is always directive’, and I certainly do not believe that teachers who feel themselves equal to their learners are necessarily, or even probably, demagogues, liars or bad teachers. That simple word ‘equal’ has far too many connotations to permit such a forceful declaration to pass unquestioned.

Freire’s separation of teacher and learner is one that flows from what is, at heart, his acceptance of a fairly traditional concept of the school as the locus for education. We can all be teachers and we can all be learners today, and our ‘school’ can be anywhere and nowhere, since teaching and learning no longer have to take place in any particular institutional or physical setting.

If Freire were alive today I believe he would see that too.