Read the Word or Read the World?
It was way back in college when I first read Paulo Freire’s book, the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, but one idea has stuck with me since then: the distinction between reading the word and reading the world.
As an educational system today, what is our focus – the former or the latter?
Paulo Freire and Learning to Read the World
Freire’s concept was pretty simple. The act of reading cannot happen independently of the world in which the reader exists.
In the beginning, when a student is learning to read, she needs to be able to connect the words on the paper back to her own experience. The word “dog” or “cat” are meaningless if you don’t know what a dog or a cat is.
At this stage, reading the world around you is a prerequisite to learning to read the word. Talking and thinking about your experience in the world gives you a foundation on which to build. Really, it’s pretty basic education 101.
After learning to read the word, the next step is to use it to read the world – to interrogate it and think critically about it. Read a book, like 1984, not just for the meaning of the words but to help understand our own world.
In this view, literacy education is cyclical. You start with the student’s experience, you learn to read words on a page, and these words on the page help refine the student’s understanding of the world and create a new, modified experience. The value in this is the richer understanding of the world – that’s the end goal. Reading is simply a means by which to achieve it.
So what does all this have to do with civics education, and why am I rambling on about an old literacy educator from Brazil…?
Focus On What’s Important – The Ends Not the Means
When you’re designing a lesson, you have a goal in mind – something you want the students to learn or experience. Then, you assemble resources and methods that help you facilitate that learning or experience.
The resources themselves are inconsequential. If you collect a series of documents to help students analyze the Boston Massacre, it doesn’t much matter if they remember the individual documents. What matters is that they incorporate what they learn from those documents into their understanding of the world. The goal is the theme, the big idea.
Writ large, this suggests that much of the day to day details of school are simply means to an end. The details of the Battle of Gettysburg, the plot to Romeo & Juliet, how to calculate the average of 10 numbers, the impact of pressure on the volume of gas are all tools in service of a larger goal.
Sure, they are important in the short term. Students will need to remember these details for a while to engage with the lesson or the unit. But in the long term, the details fade away and what should remain is the end goal – a better, more critical understanding and reading of the world.
Reading the World is Civics Education
Which brings us to the second thing that Freire helps us think about here. “Reading the world” is just another way of saying “civics education.” Although Freire was a literacy educator by trade – he taught people how to read – he was in actuality a civic educator. He used literacy as a tool to help people understand and engage with the world around them.
Here’s the full quote from Paulo Freire featured in the image at the top of this post:
Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of the world.
If you focus exclusively on the means – the reading skills, the math skills, the historical facts, the scientific formulas – then you are facilitating conformity. That is not the goal of education. That is not our purpose.
But if you use those means to help students read the world, then you are helping them deal critically with the world and facilitating its transformation at their hands.
That is our purpose, and that is the reason I launched this project. I’m passionate about civics education, but it’s not just about the nuts and bolts of civics. It’s about helping students think more critically about the world and be engaged citizens in their community.
That’s a job for all of us.
Are you going to facilitate conformity or transformation?
Some Reading for Homework
If you want to read more about this topic, I’d suggest two books by Paulo Freire – Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Pedagogy of Hope. The former is his seminal work in which he relies on his experience as a literacy educator in Brazil to establish the foundation of what would become critical pedagogy. The latter was written twenty years later, and it revisits the themes of the original with the benefit of two decades of reflection.