Luke's Notes

For Alternative Dialogical Education

On dialogical education, what it is, more radical and less radical versions, putting it into practice, and whether it can be defended.

I teach a course on Alternative Societies on the Sociology degree at Sussex University and this week we're looking at alternative education. One thing we cover is Paulo Freire and his advocacy of dialogical education1. I've been struck how the seminars this year on the course have been quite Freireian, part design, as I try to steer the classes in this direction, and partly it's the way the students have taken it this year.

Teaching alternative education

On the course I give a lecture at the start of the week, a one-way monologue packing in lots of information. This is un-Freireian but lays the basis for a more dialogical approach in the seminar later in the week. In an un-Freireian way it lays the basis for a more Freireian approach. I give the students a list of questions for thinking and discussion. But they are prompts and we often end up mostly ignoring them in the seminar, because the students in dialogue determine the questions and content. They have their own preoccupations and life experiences they bring up. Students discussing determine what our questions are, what knowledge we come up with, and the direction of the class. In feedback, most years I get some students who say they like the openness of my classes and being allowed to follow their thoughts, and some who say they would like more structure. This year the group have so far not (to me) complained about lack of structure.

Fatalism and banking education

There are three themes on education I'll pick out from Freire. A first is Freire's opposition to fatalism and banking in education. By fatalism (my use of a term he uses slightly differently) I mean that knowledge is decided and set in advance. Education is about what is determined beforehand, to be conveyed to and absorbed by students. It's education for students, not developed with them; explained to, not determined in dialogue with them. This is also banking education, where someone is a narrator and transmits and deposits knowledge. Students are receptacles to be filled and they receive, file, and store what they have been given. There is a lack of creativity or transformation from the students in determining knowledge, as they learn what is the pre-decided knowledge and they take it on. The teacher chooses the content and it is transferred to them.

My lecture involves fatalism and banking. But the week as a whole does not because of the seminar later. There we take what came up in the lecture and reading but formulate our concerns together in the seminar, determine what knowledge we are creating, and what we think, rather than following a preset agenda of concerns, knowledge to be covered, and critical views. What the discussion is about and the content of the cognition is not decided ahead but is decided by the students in the class. This is done through their own creative thinking and they develop their own critical consciousness.

Dialogical education

This leads to a second theme of Freire's which is dialogical education. This contrasts with fatalistic and banking education. The alternative involves dialogical thinking, not transferals of knowledge. Knowledge that comes out of the discussion is not the property of the teacher, it is made in a jointly responsible process, in which the teacher gets taught by the students as much as vice-versa. The contrast between the tutor and student is eroded. Knowledge is not pre-determined and fixed because what it is is worked out in the discussion. It is a process and develops.

In my seminars this term, I never know what definition of the topic is going to be made by the students and how they are going to develop their idea of what we are discussing. I don't know what creative thinking about it will develop and what critical thinking will arise. All this is done in a joint process. So if we start off this week discussing Freire they will develop what is then discussed, on the basis of their experiences, what issues are important to them, the meanings they make, their creative ideas, what critical issues about the topic they raise, their own evaluations and preferences. These develop in the process. As a member of the group I pitch in, but otherwise little of this is set in advance by me.

A key indicator of this working is if we do not cover many of the conventional issues discussed in relation to studies of Freire. There can be aspects of his theory that don't get discussed, others that get discussed but redefined into something the students are interested in, criticisms often made of Freire that never get mentioned because we go with where the critical discussion of the students take it. Not hitting the formal learning aims and objectives for a seminar on Freire is a sign of success. Students determining these over the two hours is a sign of success.

Generated themes

A third point is generated themes (adapted from Freire's concept of generative themes). The way this works is that students determine what they want to know about. The education starts from their objective situation and their awareness of it and the tutor takes themes they develop from that. The tutor then puts these themes into a context and asks the whys and hows about them, and about the causes. They problematise the themes and ask the students to question what they think about them, and conventional views of them. So, if students say they want to understand the polluted river nearby then this is discussed, but the tutor asks what has caused the pollution, what wider institutions and structures are involved, what actors, and what interests and power. A theme generated by the students becomes one that is critically understood in a wider context through the tutor seeking out their theme and then problematising and contextualising it.

This gives quite a bit of power to the tutor. The students generate the themes but the tutor guides discussion by leading them to think critically and contextually about them. There is a dialogue but put into certain frames by the tutor. (Freire himself also gives the tutor a role in generating themes).

I don't completely follow this approach on my course. The students do not determine the initial themes. I do. I determine the curriculum, including that we will cover alternative education and, within that topic, Freire. This week in the lecture I'll raise the three Freireian themes set out above. I generate those themes. And then I will kick off the seminar from Freire.

But from there it gets more Freire-like. From this base, students generate themes. Often, when discussing this topic, they will raise their own needs in education, their experiences, and what they feel is needed in an alternative or conventional education. So my students do not generally generate initial themes, but they do so once we are up and running and the group then goes with what they generate. Consequently, it can go way off focusing on Freire specifically because the themes and knowledge the students generate can go in other directions. We dialogically determine what the topic means to us all, which can be quite different to key points I have in my notes to potentially cover.

Are we all Freireian now?

Freire was quite radical in his day but most schools and universities nowadays talk about, and practice, student-centred learning. What I'm describing from my seminars could sound like what is widely done in education these days, especially in the arts and social sciences.

But the Freireian approach is more than active or student-centred learning. Tutors in education commonly have a set series of learning targets to be met in their classes, knowledge they want the students to have achieved. This is often pursued through group work and student discussion. But students, it is thought, should have acquired some things by the end of the class. Dialogue is used as a method for working through pre-set themes and knowledge, but not for deciding what the themes and knowledge should be. This doesn't, of course, mean that students are blocked by tutors from developing their own perspectives and critical thinking. But the aim is to use dialogue to understand pre-set knowledge.

In a Freireian dialogical class students may raise conventional themes and critiques discussed in the literature on the topic. But they develop what is of importance for them in terms of their life experiences, concerns, knowledge, and views. As such, dialogical education determines knowledge rather than dialogue being used to steer students through set themes. I don't know what knowledge is going to be produced in a Freireian class, what critical appraisal will be formulated, or the outcomes of the class. This is developed in dialogue. The agenda and knowledge is created by the group.

So, dialogue can be a means for learning specified things, or alternatively it can determine what is learned. Lots of dialogical education does the former; it is a means for learning what has been decided rather than the method of determination of what will be developed. If students go off pre-set themes and objectives they are brought back. The knowledge has been set in advance not set by the group. In a Freireian class they determine the themes and that may not fit with a preset agenda.

Objections to Freireian dialogical education

Some may say it's important to stick to the ends set by academics. We are the experts and we should determine this. Otherwise, tutors just become facilitators of discussion rather than teachers. My students in the past have often said they want me to determine the knowledge of the class because I know, from years of experience, the topic, the area, the readings, the critical issues and so on. It could be said that it's irresponsible to let key knowledge get lost in a dialogical definition of education. Students have to learn certain things to know their subject and get on in later life with knowledge that's useful and that they should have. If they determine their education themselves this may be lost.

Missing out on key education is not generally what happens in the approach I've outlined. This is partly because, in my case at least, my students have a very banking lecture and set reading which helps them with taking on what they are supposed to learn. But leaving that aside, students in a Freireian seminar come out with critical imagination and alternative knowledge they have developed, which is valid and valuable itself for life. What losses they may have from not covering pre-determined set knowledge is set against what they gain by developing their own experiences and knowledge and the creativity, maturity, and self-development that develop with shaping and working through that process.


I'm not setting up the dialogical determination of knowledge in a university class as the superior and only approach (or my seminars as the unique place this happens). I've used many teaching methods in my time as a university lecturer all of which have merits and disadvantages. The dialogical approach may work better with final year students and on a course about social alternatives like mine than in other contexts where other approaches may be better. You have to have the right kind of course or topic and the right kind of students. This year on my course it's been possible to be more radically dialogical than in previous years because the students have been going with it.

But this approach is different. I've tried to say it's more different than it may sound and more radical than other dialogical approaches. It diminishes pre-determination and power over knowledge. It re-balances it in the hands of students and tutors together, collective determination, and process. Alternative knowledge is developed and the process of active production involves freedom, empowerment, collaboration, creativity on the part of students, and the self-development and growth that flourishes with this.

1 Paulo Freire's book on Pedagogy of the Oppressed can be found here.