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Home arrow Sociology arrow Holistic engagement : transformative social work education in the 21st century


We suggest that the pedagogic method of Paulo Freire and theatrical processes promoted by Augusto Boal offer a means to bridge the emotional and cognitive selves of the learner by offering an opportunity to reflect on and integrate course content. Their approaches, we believe, invoke emotions and provide tools to maximize self-awareness that conventional cognitive approaches to teaching cannot offer. Their approaches stimulate learning by doing and allow students to quickly grasp often paradoxical ideas that require cognitive comprehension and empathetic connection. We also argue that pedagogy and theater of the oppressed (Boal, 1979) can serve dual roles as a pedagogic approach and a set of practice skills to develop for aspiring social work and other helping professionals.

Critical Pedagogy as Method and Content

Critical pedagogy, or pedagogy of the oppressed, pioneered by Paulo Freire, is a grassroots pedagogic strategy for adult education. Conceived during Freire's work with peasants in Brazil, it is founded on a premise that education of the marginalized and poor populations has to begin with consciousness-raising about their daily life situations. Here, we discuss its dual role as both a pedagogic approach that can be applied to and content (e.g., a method of community practice) that can be taught in a social work classroom.

As an instructional approach, critical pedagogy is learner-centered. Freire rejected the roles of all-knowing teacher and ignorant students in favor of a learning process as a shared practice between them. He believed that teacher and student are capable of dialogue and of problematizing together (Freire, 1974, 2000; Gadotti & Torres, 2009). This standpoint of Freire functions as a mantra in our classrooms as well.

Furthermore, Freire (1974) was in opposition to a “banking” education, a kind of traditional approach to education in which the student is viewed as an empty account to deposit information into by the knowledge-holding teacher. Alternatively, critical pedagogy asserts that the teacher's job is not to transmit or inject information but, rather, to engage and to challenge students, ensuring that the voices of everyone are fully involved (Gadotti & Torres, 2009; Kollins & Hansman, 2005). We also reject a simple injection of knowledge and seek to create space for a two-way transaction and mutual learning process with our students.

In addition, “banking” education rarely works for adults who are enriched with prior experiences. This experiential baggage needs to be accounted for, and built on, in the education process (Freire, 1974, 2000). Therefore, critical pedagogy builds on the experiences of the learner, helps people assert their rights, encourages questioning, enhances resistance to authority and confrontation, and increases feelings of empowerment (Freire, 1974). We value this important characteristic of adult learners and seek to incorporate it in our own instruction as a component of continued holistic development of learners' selves.

According to Freire (1974, 2000), “critical consciousness” emerges as a result of such a learning process, which means that learners become aware of oppressive structures and their own abilities to participate in the creation of knowledge and change. Consequently, their perspectives of themselves and their worlds change. Furthermore, by means of critical education, the students acquire tools to resist oppression and exploitation and learn to challenge existing and permeable structures of domination. Through the use of these tools, social transformation, participation, and social mobilization ensue (Gadotti & Torres, 2009; Kollins & Hansman, 2005). Critical consciousness or awareness is a central component of the kind of pedagogy that we advocate for in the social work classrooms. We believe that holistic selves of learners emerge from the awareness of their inner selves and their relationships with the world.

Primarily understood as a philosophy of education, Freire's critical education approach is also widely applied as a method of community practice intended to raise consciousness and mobilize people to resist unjust social conditions. While working primarily with people struggling with poverty and illiteracy in Brazil, Freire began drawing connections between education and socioeconomic development. He approached development from the perspective of a political and pedagogical scholar-activist trying to revive the question of ethics in education and its implication for citizenship building (Gadotti & Torres, 2009; Kollins & Hansman, 2005). Therefore, critical education as community practice is by, and with, the people, wherein people are understood as engaged citizens who come to know themselves, understand how social reality functions, and proceed with transforming it (Freire, 1974). Pedagogy of the oppressed relies on assumptions that unofficial, community knowledge is more valuable than outside “expert” knowledge as a resource for problem-solving at the individual and societal level.

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