Popular or participatory education?


In my work as a popular educator I often struggle with the tension between the different ways popular education is understood. The many views can be located between two poles.

People on the first pole would see popular education as a method to support self-mobilisation of oppressed communities for emancipation. Paolo Freire, the Brazilian author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, is associated with this view. Those on the second pole tend to see popular education as education through participatory and participant-controlled methodologies. 

These views can work well together, and most people who come into contact with popular education combine them in some way. Mobilisers certainly value participatory methodologies, and people who prioritise these methodologies are often supporters of emancipation movements.

There are times though, when the poles come into conflict. Emancipatory movements sometimes need knowledge that is outside the experience of their members. In such cases, it is still sound educational practice to start with what people know, and move from there to what they do not know. Educators must avoid being boring and condescending at all times, so new information must be presented in as accessible and exciting ways as possible. There is no denying the fact though, that when you do so, you are doing what Freire disparagingly called the banking method. The educational material is communicated in a way that is “fundamentally narrative in character” as Freire described it. Students should be encouraged to actively respond and participate in making meaning of the information, but this can only take place after the “deposit” of the information has been made. 

Is this still popular education? 

Another way this conflict plays out is when oppressive institutions and groups use participatory methodologies. One of my favourite popular education methodologies is The World Café. It was developed by Juanita Brown and David Isaacs in their work as business consultants. Since then many companies, including oil and gas giant Royal Dutch Shell, have used this methodology to come up with ways to improve their profits. 

Is this still popular education?

I think the answer is yes for when liberation movements use the banking method to convey information and skills their members do not have, and no when exploiters of people and nature use participatory methodologies.