Challenges in Applying Freire’s Method
In a world that is accustomed to the “banking” method of education, it is perhaps no surprise that applying Freire's pedagogical theory in practice is a challenge. One of the greatest challenges is knowing how to effectively “meet the students where they are,” a term essential to social work methodology. According to Horton et al. (1990),
If you're going to start where they are and they don't change, then there's no point in starting because you're not going anywhere. . . . If you [as the educator] don't have some vision of what ought to be or what they can become, then you have no way of contributing anything to the process. (p. 149)
This challenge was identified by Bartlett (2005), who analyzed a case study of the Sao Paolo popular schools. Bartlett observed several teaching sessions in which facilitators celebrated popular knowledge, the knowledge that students brought to the table, even when the knowledge was “contrary to the aims of the program or simply wrong. I heard students tell folk stories or popular sayings that were fundamentally racist” (pp. 357-358) and were not contradicted by the facilitators. As a result, Bartlett suggests the following to facilitators: “Rather than the emphasis on ‘getting along' and valuing students' utterances on principle, students might benefit from a more straightforward discussion of the way unequal power and wealth relations operate in everyday social interaction” (p. 359).
In his practice, Steve Burghardt, a colleague and community organizing professor, confronts the challenge of instructor viewed as expert on a daily basis, noting that “it is much easier to stand in the front of a lecture hall, make jokes and talk at students for a couple of hours than to struggle with others to be honest and strategic” (personal communication, April 11, 2013). However, he sees all the possibilities that teaching using Freire's pedagogical theory can offer, and despite the challenges, he strives to model the theory. He often refers to Freire's quote: “Liberation is thus a childbirth, and a painful one” (Freire, 1970/2000, p. 49). Pedraza (2005) also expressed the difficulty of applying Freire's pedagogical theory in practice, but he found that there was a specific role for teachers to play in their interaction with participants, quoting Freire (as cited in Horton et al., 1990):
In discussing my practice with the people as an educator, I have to know something more than the people know. . . . “[If we do not have this knowledge] we as popular educators begin to walk in a circle, without the possibility of going beyond the circle, without going beyond man's theory of why we do not go beyond.” (p. 99)
Another challenge in applying Freire's theory to the course has been the actual process of creating a democratic classroom. According to Freire (Horton et al., 1990), students arrive at the classroom
absolutely convinced that the teacher has to give a class to them . . . they come to receive answers for any questions they asked before. This is an obstacle—how to confront a group of students who, in perceiving that you are interested in knowing what
they think you know, think that you are not capable I think that in such a case, the
teacher, understanding the situation, would be 50 percent a traditional teacher and 50 percent a democratic teacher in order to begin to challenge the students, and for them to change a little bit too. (p. 160)
Martell reflects that no matter how prepared instructors think they are to teach using this method, they are never prepared enough. She reminds instructors to always have alternatives available for unprepared students and class emergencies. Through her time as the course instructor, Martell notes that students constantly complain about the number and types of assignments and the individual and collective responsibility they must assume; from the students' viewpoint, there is never enough time to cover all the intended material. Students initially experience Martell's classroom environment as disorganized because the students are accustomed to the banking system of education. She and the teaching assistant continue to experience the reality with each new cohort that even after attempting to create an environment in which students understand that they are actually the experts in their experiences, students still view the teacher as the holder of knowledge and do not look to one another enough for answers. In reality, students may not be looking for critical consciousness-raising experiences and often worry about grades and academic performance. Martell notes struggles with supporting students in holistic engagement while respecting demands on their academic, work, and home lives.
By the end of the course, some of the students have more questions than when they started. When asked if they want to become community organizers, some say “No, it's too much work and there are very few victories.” Others say that this was the best class ever; they learned a great deal but they cannot make money as a community organizer. Almost all say that they will use what they learned in their personal lives and share the information with family and friends. From the standpoint of the course's philosophy, wherever the students end up, it is ok. Usually, their ending perspectives reflect the challenges they faced during the semester, how much work they did, and the relationships they developed among each other.