The most important aspect of Reflect and Reflect ESOL is its philosophy. This takes its inspiration  from the philosophy of Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator whose ideas have subsequently influenced many other academic disciplines.

What follows are some key points of this philosophy. It is not exhaustive, there is much more to read! Freire concerned himself with literacy learning by which he meant reading and writing. However, for Reflect and other transformative models of learning, literacy can have a wider meaning to include acquiring and communicating information through speaking, listening, ICT, numeracy, pictures, diagrams, visuals and other creative ways.

Freire can seem very revolutionary and political and the following has remained faithful to his convictions. Reflect internationally and Reflect ESOL in the United Kingdom have adapted and interpreted his ideas to support their contexts. However, we suggest constant reflection on why any ideas are adopted or rejected as all good educators do with their practice. 

Freire philosophy begins from a deep respect and humility before poor and oppressed people and a respect for their understanding of the world they inhabit. It considers their contributions no less important than the knowledge of dominant groups (Freire called them the oppressors). This respect and humility fosters a condition of trust and communication between teacher (who also learns) and learner (who also teaches). Education becomes a collective activity, a dialogue between participants rather than a 'top-down' one-way lecture from one person for the benefit of the other.

Saying this, Freirian philosophy doesn't mean to create conditions where learners' knowledge, feelings and understanding should go unchallenged or for the teacher to step back as a mere facilitator. Freire saw the teacher having authority without being an authoritarian. The teacher is not neutral but intervenes in order to help the learner reflect on aspects of his or her cultural, social and gender constructs, and to help learners to think critically.

To achieve this, Freire saw a situation where teachers listen to and affirm the experiences of the learners without legitimising or validating their content. All experiences including the teachers - are analysed in order to lay bare their ideological assumptions and ideas.

Freire gave names to concepts which supported his ideas - the first focuses on his criticism around traditional or prevailing models of education:

Banking education

In this form of education it is the job of the teacher to deposit in the minds of the learners, considered to be empty or ignorant, bits of information or knowledge, much like we deposit money in a [empty] bank account. This is why Freire called this model of education 'banking education'. Freire criticized this model of education because he believed it made students into passive objects to be acted upon by the teacher. He argued that the goal of 'banking education' is to demobilise the people within the existing establishment of power by conditioning them to accept the cultural, social, political status quo of the dominant culture. In the banking education model knowledge/education is seen as a gift given to the student by the teacher who considers the learner as marginal, ignorant and resource-less. Freire saw this as false generosity from the dominant group (oppressors) and a way of dominating and controlling the people (the oppressed) to improve or maintain their own interests.

Some of the tools a banking education model might use include a pre-prescribed curriculum, syllabus or course book, which either takes no account or makes assumptions of learners' views or knowledge of the world. Freire called these pre-prescribed plans and course books primers.

A problem-posing model

To challenge the banking education model, Freire proposed a problem-posing model of education. In this model, the teacher and learner discuss and analyse their experiences, feelings and knowledge of the world together. Instead of the belief that learners' and teacher's situation in the world is fixed, as the banking model suggests, the problem-posing model explores problems or realities people find themselves in as something which can be transformed.

It is not the job of the teacher to provide answers to the problems, but to help the learners achieve a form of critical thinking about the situation (Freire called this conscientization). This makes it possible to understand that the world or society is not fixed and is potentially open to transformation. It becomes possible to imagine a new and different reality.

In order to undertake this process successfully, the people (oppressed) must challenge their own perception of the dominant group (oppressor). Freire argued that the oppressed think of themselves as 'less than' or something lacking. He suggested that they have been conditioned to view the practices and behaviours of the dominant groups as complete, whole and correct. To become whole complete and correct means to simulate the practices of the dominant culture. To counter this perception means engaging the learner is a process of dis-identification with dominant culture/oppressor and to help the learner to imagine a new being and a new life according to their own rationality.

Learning circles

The learning circle is a non-hierarchal 'class' model where participants can discuss generative themes which have significance within the context of their lives. This involves creating a democratic space where every ones' voice has equal weight. The conditions needed for this have to be actively created as it does not often occur naturally. This can mean challenging cultural, gender and other status related power relationships and stratifications.

Generative themes and codifications

Participants explore generative themes which are of interest to them. A generative theme is a cultural or political topic of great concern or importance to participants, from which discussion can be generated. These generative themes are then represented in the form of 'codifications' (either represented by a word or short phrase or a visual representation - a picture or photograph). Participants are able to step back from these visual representations of their ideas or history and decode or explore them critically by regarding them objectively rather than simply experiencing them. This makes it possible for the participants to intervene and initiate change in society.

Freire initially concerned himself with literacy learning. The codifications (visuals) prompted discussion, phrases and words which learners would use to develop their skills.

This method of learning literacy through meaningful discussions generated from 'codifications' has been very successful. However, Freire emphasises that the process should not be carried out mechanically but through creatively "awakening [the] consciousness" of the learner - For Freire literacy was a "self-transformation producing a stance of intervention" (Freire 1988, p.404).

Praxis (action / intervention)

Freire put forward the notion that authoritarian forms of education such as banking education prevented learners from 'knowing' the world and seeing it as something which can be changed. He believed that authoritarian forms of education inhibited the liberation and freedom of the oppressed. Freire argued that change could come through a process of dialogue and reflection leading on to change through action or intervention and or political change. Freire called this process Praxis.

"The act of knowing involves a dialectical movement that goes from action to reflection and from reflection upon action to a new action." (Freire 1972).

In summary of Freire with regards to learning, literacy and praxis:

"If learning to read and write is to constitute an act of knowing the learners must assume from the beginning the role of creative subjects. It is not a matter of memorising and repeating given syllables, words and phrases but rather, reflecting critically on the process of reading and writing itself and on the profound significance of language" (Freire 1985)


Adapted from:


2. Reflect Mother Manual

3. Communication & Power

4. Freire, Paulo. 1988. "The Adult Literacy Process as Cultural Action for Freedom and Education and Conscientizacao." In Perspectives on Literacy, ed. Eugene R. Kintgen, Barry M. Kroll, and Mike Rose, pp. 398-409. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

5. Article by David Archer on Freire's death in 1997.



When martial law was declared

When martial law was declared in the Philippines in September 1972, Freire's "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" was one of two books that I wanted back, lest they be used as evidence that I was responsible for subservsive activities in the Catholic college where I was an instructor of English and American literature.  The other book was Saul Alinsky's "Rules for Radicals".

Today I go back to Freire and Alinsky when I need to rev up my adrenaline supply as I do education work on justice and healing for survivors of intimate partner violence.

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