“Banking” vs. Problem-Posing Education

Paulo Freire

Paulo Freire (Photo credit: chhhh)

Like Mary Louise Pratt’s “Arts of the Contact Zone,” which I wrote about in a previous post, the second chapter of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is reproduced and widely circulated in the textbook Ways of Reading, under the title “The ‘Banking’ Concept of Education.” I’ve taught it several times myself, and I doubt that I’ve done a great job of embodying the essay’s lesson. That’s because teaching as we usually understand it, which consists of the teacher presenting information that the students are expected to commit to memory and reproduce when prompted, is exactly what Freire is calling into question here. It’s not very easy to break from deeply engrained habits and attitudes that shaped most of our own educations, but in this second chapter Freire outlines an alternative approach, one that will help students become critical participants in our shared reality, rather than merely frustrated spectators.

First, what’s wrong with education as we’ve normally experienced it? Freire begins this chapter by writing that education suffers from “narration sickness” (71); that is, in the usual way of doing education, the teacher presents a narrative about the world that the students are expected to internalize and reproduce when asked to do so. Freire identifies a number of problems with this system: the information presented to the students is separated from their existential experience, and therefore dull and lifeless; the students are trained to take a passive role in relationship to the world; the world is treated as a static reality separate from the student, and the student is treated as an individual separate from the world, rather than a participant in the on-going creation of reality. These are the reasons Freire says this style of education is dehumanizing: it separates students from a critical participation in the world, and in fact discourages it, substituting a false image of the world for the true knowledge that comes from the pairing of action and critical inquiry, which Freire also calls praxis.

Freire labels this dehumanizing style of education the “banking” concept of education, because it treats students as empty receptacles into which the “banker” teachers deposit information. What makes it dehumanizing is that the students are excluded from actively participating in their own becoming by the dichotomy between teacher and student that is central to banking education: the teacher is an absolute authority, and the role of the students is to receive the narrative the teacher presents uncritically. Students are presumed to know nothing, while the teacher is presumed to know everything. Drawing on terms from Freire’s previous chapter, we can observe that in this case the students are the victims of a false charity that perpetuates a structure of oppression while presuming to do it for the students’ benefit: the teacher gives the gift of knowledge, understood as the teacher’s property, to the students in an act of educational welfare. The students have no role in contributing to or challenging the narrative they’re presented with, or in establishing the objectives or values of the class. It is always an authority who sets the agenda, and always the students’ duty to adjust themselves to the agenda the authority has set. Because the students are presumed to be fundamentally ignorant, and because knowledge is the property of the teacher, information presented in banking education is necessarily abstract, with no relation to the students’ own experiences of the world. Because the knowledge presented in the classroom is divorced from the students’ own observations, the students’ perspectives and experiences outside the classroom are understood to be educationally worthless. What matters is that the student memorizes facts; the application of knowledge to reality has no role in banking education. That is to say, banking education treats the students as non-historical: “banking theory and practice, as immobilizing and fixating forces, fail to acknowledge men and women as historical beings” (84), which is simply to say that banking education denies the students a role in determining the shape of the world, whether the world of the classroom, politics, or the workplace. The authoritarian quality of banking education trains the students to be submissive members of society even outside the classroom.

In contrast to banking education, Freire proposes “problem-posing” education. Problem-posing education departs from banking education by resolving the teacher/student dichotomy. Whereas banking education is founded upon the inflexibility of these roles, problem-posing involves a collective critical inquiry in which the participants are teacher-students and student-teachers. Freire outlines the contrast thus:

Banking education (for obvious reasons) attempts, by mythicizing reality, to conceal certain facts which explain the way human beings exist in the world; problem-posing education sets itself the task of demythologizing. Banking education resists dialogue; problem-posing education regards dialogue as indispensable to the act of cognition which unveils reality. Banking education treats students as objects of assistance; problem-posing education makes them critical thinkers. Banking education inhibits creativity and domesticates (although it cannot completely destroy) the intentionality of consciousness by isolating consciousness from the world, thereby denying people their ontological and historical vocation of becoming more fully human. Problem-posing education bases itself on creativity and stimulates true reflection and action upon reality, thereby responding to the vocation of persons as beings who are authentic only when engaged in inquiry and creative transformation. (83-4)

In problem-posing education, teacher-students and student-teachers mutually participate in praxis, in “true reflection and action upon reality.” Freire develops the specifics of how such a program might work in more detail, here and in the following chapter of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, but I don’t intend to get into the details here (although I certainly encourage you to read Freire, especially if you teach or aspire to).

What strikes me as most important for teachers of composition and other subjects, as well as their students, is to recognize the problems that Freire has identified in his description of banking education, and to work on developing and instituting alternative education practices within our own institutions and cultural contexts. Part of this process means recognizing the extent to which we’ve been conditioned by the banking process in our previous experiences of education, and, frankly, habituated to the authoritarian values it promotes. I believe that recognizing and dismantling this training is bound to be a long process, given that virtually all of us spent our most impressionable years in institutions of education dedicated to and shaped by the banking method and its assumptions. (And here I’d like to gratefully acknowledge the very few places in public education where, in my experience at least, the banking method was not applied–mainly humanities classes in which students were encouraged to think critically and develop their own perspectives about the stories they were presented with, something that runs fundamentally counter to banking education and its insistence on uncritical acceptance of given narratives). Such reflection and action seems extremely important now, with the increasing emphasis on standardized testing in the United States, and the corresponding bowdlerization of the humanities, which, let me say again, are one of the few pockets of resistance to the banking method, another being art classes.

While the institutions of primary and secondary education are already afflicted with a mania for standardized testing, the emergence of the massive open online course, or MOOC, threatens to make banking education an entrenched feature of higher education as well. The risk is especially grave to humanities classes, especially such widely-required, widely-staffed courses as English 101 and 102, which administrators will be increasingly tempted to replace with cheaper online classes that will require fewer staff and faculty to facilitate. Whereas the composition classroom has the potential to be a forum for the open exchange of ideas and the kind of problem-posing education that Freire advocates, the MOOC is by it’s very structure an exercise in pure banking education: in the MOOC, the transfer of knowledge is entirely one way; the student receives the instruction from a distance via the medium of technology. In this case, the banking concept’s distance between teacher and student is actually enacted physically, as the teacher becomes a kind of distant authority, less a human being to the student than something akin to Orwell’s Big Brother. Direct critical collaboration with either the instructor or classmates is not possible, and the student is alienated not only from the course’s ostensible subject matter, but from all potential partners in the dialogue that Freire observes is “indispensable to the act of cognition which unveils reality” (83).

Because of these immediate and increasing threats to anything resembling critical pedagogy in the United States, Freire’s book seems more important than ever, and less like an abstract exercise in theory, which it was never meant to be, than a call to action and reflection on ourselves, our students, and the situation we mutually find ourselves in.