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Popular Education(*)

A young student

What is Popular Education?

An Active Learning Process: Popular education is an active learning process that raises social awareness; stimulates critical and creative thinking; and leads to action for social change. Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator, became renowned for his methods of popular education developed through his work with poor and disenfranchised communities in Latin America during the 1960s and ‘70s.

Freire rejected the notion of teachers as experts who transmit knowledge to passive recipients. Rather popular education begins with a talented facilitator inspiring all participants to share their experience and knowledge. The facilitator encourages dialogue with a heightened awareness to the learning process of each participant. In popular education, the process itself is paramount.

Popular education facilitators impart an approach to learning that participants can bring to their daily lives and community organizing. The facilitator’s expertise is in the active learning process itself. Like any talent, the art of facilitating requires discipline, rigor and practice. It calls for experienced, innovative practitioners open to new possibilities.

Popular education involves improvisation akin to free-form jazz: familiar notes synthesized in an entirely new way enable us to listen anew.

Reflecting on Shared Experiences: In workshops, people learn from each other’s experiences, and typically discover they’ve faced similar problems in their daily lives and communities. They begin to see the social injustice implicit in the issues confronting them daily. Facilitators may rely upon a range of popular education techniques to draw out what people already know about their shared situation.

As participants analyze their situation, the facilitator may introduce additional information or concepts that help them trace the connections between their own life experiences and broader economic, social and political processes. Popular education workshops thereby often lead to learning about history, politics, economics, and public policies. Freire described this as “learning of the world through the word.”

Envisioning Strategies: Participants draw upon their enriched understanding to develop strategies and concrete plans of action for social change. They share ideas and strategies generated at the workshop within their communities, stimulating further dialogue and collective action.

Popular education is a continual learning process wherein each experience in social change informs subsequent strategies and action.

What are Popular Education techniques?

The tools of popular education are as diverse as people and communities themselves. The workshop facilitator or participants may introduce visual images, songs, stories, or skits that express their shared experiences, or that reflect the daily life of their community. There are a number of group activities that draw out people’s experience and knowledge often in a playful way.

Today, people of varying ages, life experiences and educational backgrounds engage in popular education. A talented facilitator tailors each workshop to its participants.

Why is Popular Education so closely associated with social change movements?

Popular education helps people take action to resolve their problems, but this action is not restricted to the individual plane. Rather participants begin to see their own situation in broader context. They become aware of the vastly unequal power relations in our economy and society, and of the social injustice this generates.

In response, workshop participants envision ways of working together to transform unjust social and economic structures. Engaged in this process, they begin to liberate themselves from circumstances that once dominated their lives, and to take collective action to shape their future. This transformation within each person generates the momentum for social change, and becomes integral to it.

Popular education is an effective process for building community and creating a dialogue about the social needs of people’s daily lives. This approach has played a creative role in social change movements in the Americas and other regions for over four decades.

*The term "popular education" is derived from Spanish and Portuguese terms, and as such the word "popular" carries a different weight of meaning from the way we commonly understand in English.  While in English we often think of it as meaning "in wide favor" or "well-liked by the majority" -- in Spanish it has a more social meaning.  Think of it as meaning "pertaining to the people."

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