Paulo Friere, a Brazilian educationalist, was one of the most influential theorists of South America in the late twentieth century. Friere developed his conception of education from the critical analysis of his work teaching illiterate adults in the 1950s and early 1960s. His educational philosophy focused on praxis, a term first introduced in his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Praxis is reflective of a relationship between individuals and their wider community. Active learning experience is the core of praxis whereby a theory or lesson becomes part of a lived experience. Classrooms of the 21st Century are culturally diverse and accommodating the needs, interests, and learning styles of each individual student poses challenges for many educators. The critical pedagogic philosophy of Friere can be used to bridge the gap between theory and practice and action in curriculum studies.
Praxis involves the ongoing relationship between critical thinking, analysis, action, reflection, and dialogue. According to Friere, action occurs when students attempt and construct solutions. Action and reflection is achieved through collaboration and dialogue. As active participants in their education, students must move beyond memorization and begin to think critically and analyze their experiences. In practice, educators use active techniques such as problem solving activities, experiments, and dialogues, to introduce students to information and issues and then encourage students to reflect on and discuss what they did and how their understanding is changed. This active learning process allows students to no longer be passive recipients of knowledge. Instead, they become dynamic partners linking knowledge to action and are able to shape their classroom environment in order to meet their needs and interests.
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Friere opposed the banking concept of education in which the student is viewed as an empty account/vault that is filled by knowledge deposited by the teacher. In the banking concept the teacher is viewed as the thinker and the one who talks. The student follows and listens and does not question "why?" Friere maintained that critical thinking and dialogue was a substitute for banking education. Through meaningful dialogue, students and teachers are able to produce new knowledge and experiences. The student, who is considered as the oppressed, critically views the world and challenges the culture of silence. This transformative process allows students to question the status quo and liberate himself from the oppression.
I have applied Friere's praxis concept in real life to help bridge the gap between theory and practice in action in curriculum, while working with my community-based youth group, Girls in Action for Change (GAC). The mission of GAC is to promote academic achievement, positive leadership, and empowerment for at-risk young girls through interactive, structured curriculum that focuses on social, political, and economic justice. The three components of GAC include academic coaching, personal and leadership development, and service learning. GAC consists of 6 girls between the ages of 14 and 17. GAC meet once a week for two hours at a local community center during the school year. The curriculum that is used highlights race, gender, class, sexuality, political, and cultural issues. The curriculum is somewhat limited in that it only provides students with a brief snapshot of the subject matter and does not allow for in-depth analyses and reflection of the problem which hinders students' critical consciousness. On a monthly basis, a guest speaker visits GAC and discusses an issue that is pertinent to the curriculum. In addition, the GAC select, plan, and implement quarterly community service projects. These service learning experiences enable them to make a valuable contribution to their community as well as experience firsthand the issues that are prevalent in their community.
The first unit in the curriculum dealt with class and one of the generative themes was homelessness. There was a photograph of business men walking through a bus terminal where homeless people were sleeping. I showed the girls the image and to gauge their awareness of homelessness, I used open-ended questions to generate the discussion. However, due to time constraints, we were only able to discuss the topic for a short period of time. After reflecting on our discussion, I realized that we needed more time on this unit because the girls' perceptions of homelessness were erroneous and based on images that they saw on television. None of them had experienced homelessness or knew anyone who was or had been homeless. Also, in order to broaden and deepen their understanding of homelessness, I needed to find better ways to engage them in the learning process.
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When we met again, I asked the girls did they want to continue our lesson on homelessness. They responded by saying, "yes." I proceeded to tell them that we would deviate some from the curriculum and have an in-depth learning experience on homelessness. I further explained to them that I would be a co-learner and they would be able to discuss their thoughts and ideas openly without fear of being ridiculed. Sufficient time would be allotted for reflection. We also decided that we would dedicate the next three meetings to homelessness. I instructed the girls that they would develop a journal about their experiences. Their first writing assignment was for them to engage in internal dialogue by thinking reflectively about homelessness and recording their thoughts and feelings as well as what they hoped to learn from this experience in their journal. After their journal writing, we engaged in a small group discussion. This discussion was richer and more insightful because of the self dialogue. Again, I reflected on this meeting and decided to help the girls reach a new level of understanding and action.
During our next meeting, I guided the students in a critical thinking exercise by asking them to reflect on the causes of homelessness. To increase their curiosity, I also asked them to describe and draw a picture of what a homeless person looked like in their eyes. These exercises were followed by an in-depth and meaningful dialogue centered around what they wrote in their journals and their drawings. Lastly, I encouraged the students to reflect intrapersonally on how their understanding of homelessness had changed since our first discussion. Later during our meeting, one of the girls reported that her family had been homeless for a short time after her dad lost his job. She said that she did not disclose this information initially because she was ashamed and did not know how everyone would react. This revelation led us to explore the issue of homelessness from a different perspective. The girls were profoundly impacted because they realized that they could also be homeless one day. During our guided reflection activity, we discussed what they learned during our meeting and how their classmate's revelation impacted them.
When we met the next week, I surprised the girls with a guest speaker. The guest speaker was a community member who was once homeless but became gainfully employed and moved into an apartment. The GAC were surprised to learn this man was once homeless. They could not believe that "someone like him" used to live on the streets and eat out of garbage cans. The girls listened intently to the speaker and appeared drawn in to his experience. They each shared their viewpoints with the guest speaker and asked in-depth questions about his plight. The dialogue that followed after the guest speaker left was powerful and compelled the girls to action. They decided that they wanted to develop a community service project for the homeless. With my support and resources from three local churches, the GAC were able to provide blankets, clothes, toiletries, fruit, and dry goods to the homeless people in their community. After the completion of the project, we had a reflection circle where the GAC looked critically at their experiences and how those experiences were translated into learning. They wanted to share their experiences with others and decided to have a service learning showcase which provided an opportunity for them to share the project and its results with other students and community members.
The showcase took place at the community center and included presentations from the students, community leaders, and two homeless individuals who were affected by the project. Several of the girls are now involved with the city in developing solutions to homelessness. Through ongoing reflection, dialogue, and action, the GAC confronted the problem of homelessness, which negatively impacted the oppressed members of their community. They were able to critically and creatively address the problem and were transformed in the process.
I have learned that both reflection and action result in knowledge. When educators create learning environments that support praxis, optimal learning occurs. Although the curriculum that I used with the GAC did not allow sufficient time for reflection or action, I decided to bridge that gap by modifying the curriculum to make the experience meaningful for the students and myself. I acted as a co-learner and used my power in such a way that I was able to accommodate the exchange of dialogue between learners and created a non-threatening environment of mutual respect. Reflection allowed us to think critically and look within ourselves to develop deeper awareness of the problem. On the other hand, action propelled us to make changes and
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