Reinventing Freirian Pedagogy Among Privileged Students in Hong Kong


This entry compares concepts espoused by the well-known  Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, with a course taught at HKIS called Humanities I in Action.  Following a summary of key Freirian concepts, this article identifies five principles and five practices in the pedagogy of Humanities I in Action that are similar to Freirian thought.


It wasn’t until the late 1990’s, well into my first decade as teacher, that I first came across the ideas of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire.  I was taking a course on the historical Jesus course with Professor William Herzog and read his groundbreaking study, Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed, which employed a Freirian lens to re-interpret Jesus’ parables.  To my embarrassment, I had never even heard of Freire, who is frequently referred to as the most influential educator of the second half of the 20th century.  Five years later I read more about Freire as I did my doctoral research on social conscience education, and I sensed that there was much resonance between his work and my classes at HKIS.  In my research I did a small-scale qualitative study investigating student and teacher perspectives of social conscience courses rather than employ an a priori critical lens focusing on power relationships; thus, Freire made only a brief appearance in my dissertation.

Only now, however, with the dissertation completed, have I had to chance to ask to what degree my teaching can be described as “Freirian.” I have recently read Paulo Freire: Teaching for Freedom and Transformation – The Philosophical Influences on the Work of Paulo Freire (2010) by John Dale and Emery J. Hyslop-Margison.  This well-written book attempts to bridge the gap between the academy and school teachers, and has provided me with an easily accessible summary of Freire’s thought and work.  Through reading this book, it has become clear that social conscience education at HKIS indeed shares much in common with Freirian pedagogy.

It’s likely, however, that Freire himself would be concerned with the phrase, “Freirian pedagogy,” for he himself stated that his curricular and pedagogical programs should not be imitated in other settings:

I don’t want to be imported or exported.  It is impossible to export pedagogical practices without reinventing them.  Please tell your fellow American educators not to import me.  Ask them to re-create and re-write my ideas (74*).

Freire explicitly warns teachers about the dangers of blindly copying his methods; rather, pedagogical principles and practices need to be reconsidered in each new context. This blog entry seeks to heed this advice, comparing social conscience education among elite students at HKIS with conscientizacao, the pedagogy Freire developed teaching the poor in Brazil.  If, as McLaren (2000) claims, that “few accounts are provided to help understand how teachers are to move from critical thought to critical practice” (cited in Dale & Hyslop-Margison, 75), it is hoped that this entry will demonstrate how Freirian concepts have been practically implemented into high school classrooms in Hong Kong through a course called Humanities I in Action.

Overview of Key Freirian Concepts

Before sharing the similarities of these two approaches, a short list of key Freirian concepts are provided as a brief introduction to his thought:

  1. Banking education: a system of education in which knowledge, deemed useful by social elites, is deposited into the minds of students
  2. Conscientizacao: an educational process of raising student consciousness about society that is the opposite of banking education.
  3. “Reading the word and the world:” critical thinking that is brought to bear on in-class materials and out-of-class reflection on society.
  4. Humanization: a reasoning process by which students become moral participants in human history rather than mere observers
  5. Praxis: an alternating process combining action and reflection

These concepts can be found in the broad principles and the specific practices that we employ at HKIS in teaching a 9th grade course called Humanities I in Action.

Similarities of Social Conscience Education and Conscientizacao: Pedagogical Principles

1)   Humanization

Philosophically, our HKIS Humanities Department is committed first to a “collaborative exploration of the human experience.” The 9th grade course that we teach, Humanities I in Action, proceeds naturally from this philosophical basis.  While the “action” component of the course attracts a good number of students, we as teachers understand that what is most important is for students to develop the wisdom and compassion to lead a life that puts community values ahead of personal gain.  This means that we need to engage students in a journey of transformation, reversing the self-focus that is the mark of modernist education and introducing a community-centered education that benefits both students personally and society more broadly.

This emphasis at HKIS is consistent with Freirian education, which roots modern problems in a lack of humane values in society.  “There is no global shortage of food, only a shortage of justice and caring to ensure that food is widely available” (93).  Ultimately, Freire considered humanization as the goal of all educational endeavors.  In his context, humanization meant helping those who were poor to become subjects rather than objects of human history.  At HKIS, our affluent students already consider themselves to play a role in human history, but their goals are typically about advancing self and family interests rather than reaching out to the marginalized and providing them with the opportunity to become contributing members of society.

2)   Create a relationship between self and world

In my research at HKIS the term “social conscience was defined as a personal consideration of one’s role and responsibility in society in the context of an emotionally-engaged understanding of the world.  The goal in social conscience classes is to help students understand the world, and then to begin the journey to finding their place in that world.  For these wealthy students, their first step is coming to terms with the fact that most of the world does not live like them.  We teach them about the global income disparity situation both through in-class study as well as out-of-class experiences.  Understanding that much of the world’s population has much less than they do and consequently suffers is disturbing to many students.  However, in order to “find their place” in the world, it is necessary for them to gain perspective on this issue.

Freirian pedagogy supports this approach.  In contrast to banking education, Freire emphasized that his low-income students needed to “read the word” and “read the world.” According to Freire, these processes should happen simultaneously.  As students analyze and critique texts in the classroom, they should consider how they view the world, and seek a harmony of understanding between classroom study and out-of-classroom lived experience.  Much like the definition of social conscience from my research, Freire believed that education should support the greater ontological goal of coming to understand the world so that students can find their place in it.

3)   Transformation of self and world

When students sign up for Humanities I in Action, I idealistically assume that their motivation is to make a difference in the world.  My starting point is that they have some sense that the world needs help, so, let’s get started!  What is less explicit early on in the course is a second assumption: to change the world, we need to change ourselves.  While what draws students to the course is making a difference in society, the underlying goal is to offer students an opportunity to determine their own worldview.  This exploration of their beliefs will over time result in changing the world in accordance with their own newly informed perspectives.

Freire believed that traditional educational systems are systems of control that portray the world as a static entity.  However, Freire argued that this is a misreading of the world, for it is always in a process of change.  Furthermore, Freire believed that our common human vocation is to understand the world in order to influence its future direction.

Much of Freire’s attack on traditional education was aimed at critiquing the physical and intellectual violence that denies students and learners their agency to act upon and transform the world (43). 

To attain their human vocation students need to be transformed through the educational process of critical consciousness, or conscientizacao, from mere objects of human history to subjects that can make a positive impact upon the  world.

4)   Necessity of Perspective Transformation

The first unit that we teach in Humanities I in Action focuses on worldview.  We state explicitly that the goal of the course is help students define for themselves their own set of beliefs about the world.  The most important exam question, which we introduce in the first few days of the class, asks:

Given your study and experiences in Humanities I in Action, how has your worldview been expanded, challenged, deepened or influenced by this course?

From the outset, then, students know that the key to the course is their own critical thinking, which is oftentimes a new concept for them.

In my research I drew upon Mezirow’s (2000) term “perspective transformation” to describe growth in student cognition, whereas Freire used the term “critical” to describe this process: “Constantly questioning, or problematizing, the world leads students to be critical . . . in order to understand the social construction of the world” (75). Whether “perspective transformation” or some form of “criticality” is used (e.g., critical reflection, critical pedagogy, or critical analysis), the goal is the same: to help students come to a well-informed understanding of the world that invites their own perspectives.

5)   Teaching as an act of love

Personally, I see no end to my enthusiasm for social conscience education, for like Freire, the breadth and depth of its scope seems to create a self-generating field of energy.  Moving from the microcosm to the macrocosm, we care for each individual student who has signed up for our classes, for we know the potential good that may emerge from any student.  In terms of the curriculum, we study local, regional, and global contemporary issues that matter to real people.  At the same time, we understand that these urgent issues emerge out of millennia-long conversations about what is the good life in society.  Thus, there is also a love for truth, and we feel privileged to engage ourselves and young people in this the heritage of truth-seeking.  Finally, we feel a kinship with other teachers and activists that have come before us and those that will follow after us in the pursuit of justice and mercy.  Love for students, love for current events, love for truth, and love for fellow teachers past, present, and future all energize us to head to our classrooms on a daily basis.

Those who knew Freire, including those whom at times disagreed with him, have remarked about his love of life and people.  One scholar who even relates some differences she had with Freire, Antonia Darder, nevertheless chose this theme for her book title: Reinventing Paulo Freire: A Pedagogy of Love (2002).  Dale and Hyslop-Margison concur: Freire’s “writings, perhaps more than anything else, continually remind us that teaching first and foremost is an act of love” (49).

Similarities of Social Conscience Education and Conscientizacao: Pedagogical Practices

1)   Focus on Justice over Charity

One of the discussion points that often arises in our classes concerns the question about short-term charity vs. long-term justice.  Is the goal to “mop up of the floor” or “turn off the faucet?”  This is an important question for my wealthy students because for most of them charity is an unquestionably good thing.  As activist theologian Ched Myers notes, “The affluent are forever involved in charity causes, which, while helpful, refuse to raise the systemic issues to the public eye.”

Similarily, Freire felt that performing acts of charity without a similar commitment to educating poor people about social issues was what he called “false generosity.”  Dale and Hyslop-Margison explain from their own personal experience:

Many of our friends and colleagues engage in such acts of ‘kindness’ often as a way to feel good about their own lives.  There is nothing wrong with their actions per se, but they are woefully incomplete, since, as Freire observed, any assistance to the oppressed must be accompanied by transformative education that targets changes to the structural injustices leading to oppression (28). 

Humans must understand the structural sources of individual problems before society can be repaired (96).

We feel the same tension and look for ways to move beyond the inadequacies of charity towards more holistic approaches that solve problems of social injustice.  As Professor Rob Shumer said recently at a conference in Hong Kong, “Service without learning is a disservice.”  At all levels of society, social conscience teachers need to educate students about the larger questions of fairness for all members of society.

2)   Problem-posing rather than banking education leads to a sense of purpose

When we ask students what they like about Humanities I in Action, they oftentimes say they find studying about current events to be eye-opening and relevant.  The unit they most comment on is our genocide unit in which we focus on Rwanda and Darfur.  We also frequently discuss current events.  For example, during March, 2011 students wrote an op-ed piece about whether the U.S. and their allies ought to intervene in Libya as a devastating attack appeared to imminent on the eastern city of Benghazi.

The entire course is often portrayed as an exercise in problem-solving.  It doesn’t take a great deal of effort to convince students that world faces pressing crises, such as climate change, overpopulation, and genocidal threats.  In order to study something like climate change, it is necessary to study related topics, such as consumerism and the role of advertising in modern society.  Students find such topics highly relevant to adolescent culture.  Overall, the study of contemporary issues with the goal of future decision-making is an attractive dimension of the course.

Freire saw banking education as a way for social elites to maintain a self-serving status quo that dehumanizes both elite and non-elite students. Rather than assessing students based on the world as it was, Freire proposed studying current issues relevant to students’ lives as a way to restore their humanity. Drawing upon Aristotle, Freire believed that human purpose was to act in a reflective manner in society based on one’s role in the world (p. 78-79).  Putting student reflection and agency at the center of pedagogy leads to human happiness.  The positive reactions of students to the Humanities I in Action course add credence to the Freirian practice of educating for human purpose.

3)   Teacher-Student Relationship of Respect

When I walk into class with my students, I know that there is a power differential.  Most of the power lies within my control and students are placed into the position of receivers and reactors.  The implicit message is that in the future they too will come into positions of power and enjoy the same advantages over others.  In response, one of my pedagogical goals is to empower students to offer their opinions on any aspect of the educational process: curriculum, grading and discipline policies, and types of service activities.  This includes giving students the opportunity to provide personal or anonymous feedback on aspects of the class through various formal and informal means.

Freire believed that “humanizing education requires a particular learning milieu that includes a broad-based respect for students, for their pre-existing knowledge, and for their agency . . . .  Means and ends in education are intrinsically connected” (73).  Just as the Humanities I in Action curriculum was built primarily through teachers getting feedback from HKIS students about which topics were most meaningful and valuable, Freirian education trusts students to lead the teacher towards outcomes that are most useful for students.  In the end, demonstrating respect for students is the most effective way to undermine the traditional teacher-student hierarchical starting point of banking education and construct a firm foundation for social conscience.

4)   Divergent Thinking

 Four years ago I was teaching about Peak Oil through use of a convincing video entitled, “Crude Awakening.”  When I first saw the video, I believed that the argument advanced in the film was seemingly irrefutable, and I taught the video from this vantage point.  Over the last several years, however, I have come across resources that call the Peak Oil argument into question.  While I’m sympathetic to its basic tenets, I am no longer convinced that this view can be wholly trusted.  This example of moderation of my own views regarding Peak Oil are more generally true of our teaching team: we have become conscious of our own potential gullibility in taking on the perspectives of a few related resources.  More importantly and even if we are convinced of our views on various topics, generating critical thinking among students is more important than teaching for “correct” answers.

Freire also welcomed a diversity of perspectives. Rather than imposing interpretations on students, he held that it was a human right to draw one’s own conclusions about issues (101).  Presenting various perspectives was important for the growth of his students:

He believed that people are more likely to make the correct decision when they are provided with an opportunity to resolve problems by exploring alternatives or an antithesis to prevailing circumstances – by turning a situation upside down to see how it looks from the other side (115). 

Freire had great faith that human reason, “the paramount transformation mechanism” (80), would guide people to the wisest course of action.

Practically, we need to encourage multiple perspectives in our classrooms.  It is likely that students will take away conclusions that are contrary to the teacher’s views.  Social conscience teachers need to accept this and should encourage such diversity of opinion.

5)   Action is necessary for the learner and for society, and action steps bring hope to students.

Once HKIS students gain an emotionally-engaged understanding of the world, the next step is to act on this understanding.  In my research, action was a necessary part of this process of becoming socially conscious.  Through action students were changed from observers to participants in the social world.  And it is only through action steps, be they individual or collective, that students gain a sense of hope.

Freire believed that acting on a newfound understanding of the world had a catalytic effect upon the learner, beginning the process of humanization as an actor upon the world.  Furthermore, without action, change will not come to society: “Critical reflection without action cannot change prevailing social attitudes, values, and structures” (63).  For the individual, this empowerment dismisses fatalism and awakens hope as our ontological birthright (103).

Practically, we teachers need to keep in mind that action is a necessary component to social conscience education for the individual and for the transformation of society.  Such powerful actions generate hope within students.


Despite an obvious verbal similarity, the term social conscience education was not chosen with the intent of bringing Freire’s conscientizacao to mind.  However, the fundamental principles and practices involved in Freirian pedagogy are abundantly present in the Humanities I in Action course.  That broad pedagogical principles developed among working class students in mid-20th century Brazil should be useful to teaching elite students at an international school in Hong Kong in the 21st century lends credence to Dale and Margison’s claim that “Freirian thought is more relevant than ever before in social development” (130).  It is hoped that other schools can employ Freirian concepts and seek to cultivate them in a way appropriate to their own setting.


Dale, J. & Hyslop-Margison, E.J. (2010). Paulo Freire: Teaching for freedom and transformation – the philosophical influences on the work of Paulo Freire. New York: Springer.

Darder, A. (2002). Reinventing Paulo Freire: A pedagogy of love. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Herzog, W. (1994): Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox

McClaren, P. (2000). Che Guavera, Freire, and the Pedagogy of Revolution. New York: Roman and Littlefield.

Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning to think like an adult: Core concepts of transformation theory. In J. Mezirow & Associates (Eds.), Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress (pp. 3-34). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

* Note: I have relied extensively in this blog on Dale and Hyslop-Margison’s book.    References from their book are simply noted with a page number.


About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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One Response to Reinventing Freirian Pedagogy Among Privileged Students in Hong Kong

  1. Pingback: Education for Transformation: Introducing Humanities I in Action | Social Conscience and Inner Awakening

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