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Pedagogy of the Oppressed

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“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
In Sum

An approach to education that aims to transform oppressive structures by engaging people who have been marginalized and dehumanized and drawing on what they already know.


Paulo Freire first outlined his widely influential theory of education in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968).

Over a lifetime of work with revolutionary organizers and educators, radical educator Paulo Freire created an approach to emancipatory education and a lens through which to understand systems of oppression in order to transform them. He flipped mainstream pedagogy on its head by insisting that true knowledge and expertise already exist within people. They need no “deposits” of information (what Freire calls “banking education”), nor do they need leftist propaganda to convince them of their problems. What is required to transform the world is dialogue, critical questioning, love for humanity, and praxis, the synthesis of critical reflection and action.

In short, Pedagogy of the Oppressed is education as a practice of freedom, which Freire contrasts with education as a practice of domination (see below).

Banking education:  education as the practice of domination

Goal is to adapt people to their oppressive conditions.
Teacher attempts to control thinking and action of the students, who are treated as passive objects.
Assumes that people are merely in the world, not connected to it or each other.
Removes students from their context; teaches reality as unchangeable.
Treats oppressed people as marginal to a healthy society and in need of incorporation into it.
Fundamental to maintaining systems of oppression.

Problem-posing education: education as a practice of freedom

Goal is to transform structural oppression.
Both educator and educand (Freire’s word for “student,” designed to convey an equitable and reciprocal relationship) teach and learn from each other.
Assumes the world is an unfolding historical process; everything and everyone is interrelated.
Begins with the educands’ history, present and unwritten future.
Seeks to transform society to rehumanize both the oppressed and their oppressors.
Fundamental to the revolutionary process.

Dialogue and participatory action research are two practices heavily influenced by Freire that are now common in the fields of popular education, critical pedagogy, Theater of the Oppressed, and eco-pedagogy. Freire explains that what most people think of as dialogue is really just debate, a zero-sum game in which people compete to deposit ideas into one another or name the world on behalf of others as an end in itself. In dialogue, on the other hand, both parties work together to name their world by exploring their lived experiences to identify common patterns and generate action.

Participatory action research, meanwhile, is a community-led process in which people determine solutions to their problems by gathering data from their peers, analyzing it, and then taking informed action. It’s a model of community organizing that builds the capacity and expertise of those on the front lines.

Unfortunately, many progressive movements today are still trapped in the “banking” approach to education, seeing the public as a passive receptacle of their information. According to Freire, transforming the world requires flipping this model and replacing it with ground-up practices of emancipatory education, organizing and action.

MOST FAMOUS APPLICATION: In the United States, Freire has inspired the movement for “critical pedagogy,” which seeks to reconstruct both schools and society. Around the world, Freire’s work has been used by many revolutionary movements (such as Amílcar Cabral in Guinea Bissau, the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil, and the Zapatistas in Mexico), by popular literacy campaigns, and in the World Social Forums.

MIS-APPLICATION: Some educators take the words “popular education” to simply mean taking complex information and dumbing it down or sloganizing it, a misguided approach rooted in the very idea that Pedagogy of the Oppressed opposes: that the educators are experts while the students are empty and passive receptacles awaiting knowledge.

Levana Saxon is an organizer and educator with Practicing Freedom, using participatory action research, popular education and Theater of the Oppressed to generate collaborative community-led change. Over the last seventeen years she has trained and facilitated thousands of children, youth and adults. Some of the groups she has worked with include the Paulo Freire Institute, Rainforest Action Network, Center for Political Education, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Youth In Focus, El Teatro Campesino and multiple Oakland Public Schools. She currently co-coordinates the Ruckus Society’s Arts Core and facilitates trainings and dialogues with the White Noise Collective (, which she co-founded. She can be found at

Virginia Vitzthum has written for the Village Voice, Ms., the Washington City Paper, Elle, Time Out New York and was a columnist for and for She's also written two books, including I Love You, Let's Meet, a screenplay, and a play and edited many publications. She was recently dramaturg/actor/songwriter for Pedagogy of the Oppressed: The Musical! — an original production by Falconworks theater in Red Hook, Brooklyn: She currently edits Represent, a national magazine written by and for youth in foster care:

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