Paulo Freire in Finland and in Brazil: A Love-Hate Relationship

Professora postou fotos da agressão no Facebook (Foto: Reprodução/Facebook)
No, she wasn’t boxing. She was trying to teach Portuguese. This is Marcia Friggi, 51yo teacher from Santa Catarina who was attacked by her 15yo student. Read her story here.

“Teacher is assaulted by 15yo student”

“Student breaks both arms and six teeth of a teacher”

“I’m still afraid of saying no to a student and be physically attacked”

Says teacher who was pushed against the wall and suffered a head trauma.

“Student attacks 56yo teacher who asks him to put away his cell phone”

“Brazil is the world champion of violent acts against teachers according to OECD’s report”

This is how my week started: reading these headlines taken from Brazilian newspapers to discuss a recent case with my students. The violent episode happened in Santa Catarina, my wife’s home state, and it involved 51yo Portuguese and Literature teacher Marcia Friggi. She asked a 15yo student to put his book, which was between his legs, on his desk. Failing to oblige, he became aggressive, called his teacher bad names and threw the book at her. She then sent him to the director’s office. That’s when he snapped. On their way, he punched her face multiple times cutting her eyebrow and giving her a look worthy of Rocky. Except that this was not Sylvester Stallone and that was real blood.

I’m torn.

Those were Marcia’s words and they resonated in my heart. I’m torn too. I’m torn to realize this awful reality in my beloved country. I’m torn to see that, despite being a teacher like Marcia, I’m a privileged teacher. I work in the private sector as an EFL teacher. I have 5 groups and if I decided to put them all together, we’d still be outnumbered by the students in a public or private school in a single classroom. I’m torn because I live the difficulties of teaching every day but my reality is nowhere near as bad as what millions of students and teachers must endure and there’s very little I can do about it.

But what really gets to me is how some people react to all this. As if it was not enough, Marcia was attacked online too. Quite a lot of people blamed her for her “left-wing ideology” and said that she “deserved” what she got. I can’t really tell why that still surprises me when I know that the Brazilian Senate put forward a motion last year to “prohibit ideological and political indoctrination in the classroom”. It does sound vague, but after reading the project, following the discussions and listening to the statements of the lawyer who represents the movement that gave birth to this motion, I can say that, in practical terms, if the motion passes, that means that schools will most likely ban the use of our most notorious educator simply because some of his ideas aligned with Marxism. Paulo Freire, whose work is the most used in educational institutions abroad will become a taboo in our educational system. According to a very conservative percentage of our population, our history, philosophy, sociology, and apparently all human sciences, teachers are indoctrinating our students in the ways of communism. To them, and they have a lot of representation in Congress, discussing and reading communist authors means to indoctrinate and this has been going on for decades, which has led to terrible outcomes in our society.

This really gets to me because if feels that the mindset they want so much to maintain, and officially institute, is the very reason why they are so blind to what the world’s best educational systems are doing. The criteria they want to establish go against the widely accepted trends of quality education in any area. They go against the 21st-century skills, which emphasize critical thinking, and creativity. They want to create taboos rather than extinguish them. They can’t see that discouraging the mention (or prohibiting, in practical terms) of certain authors is doing exactly what they say they want to prevent: ideological and political indoctrination. Let us borrow for an instant one example from a country I admire and that we should most certainly look to. Ladies and gentlemen, Finland:

Whereas the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE)  is guided by the list of “potentially biased, sensitive, or controversial” topics, the Finnish examination does the opposite. Students are regularly asked to show their ability to cope with issues related to evolution, losing a job, dieting, political issues, violence, war, ethics in sports, junk food, sex, drugs, and popular music. Such issues span across subject areas and often require multi-disciplinary knowledge and skills.

Sample history question:

“Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels predicted that a socialist revolution would first happen in countries like Great Britain. What made Marx and Engels claim that and why did a socialist revolution happen in Russia?”

Source: Washington Post. Click here for details

Have you actually seen what schools look like in Finland? Student-centered lessons, collaborative study environments, teachers as monitors or project managers, Project-based learning. If you haven’t, here’s a video:

I admit it’s nearly impossible for us to imitate the Finnish system because of several factors such as the size of our population, investment, policies, study culture or habits, teacher training, and development, infrastructure, etc. But should we move in the opposite direction then? Is that the solution? I’m not a fan of standardized testing to assess a country’s educational performance, but let’s work with what we have, right?

Brazil loses positions in the world education ranking. Pisa assesses 70 countries and classifies Brazil in 63rd – science, 59th – reading, 66 – math

Source: G1 and Pisa. Click here for details

That’s the sad reality of Brazil. Right at the bottom. Finland, on the other hand, has been number 1 for many years. And they read Karl Marx, considered Satan himself by many.

But there’s more. We have one of the highest pupil-to-teacher ratio in the world (32 students per teacher), lowest salaries (comparable to Indonesia), the lowest value for money considering investment vs students’ results. All of that you can see here.

Now imagine, confronted with this scenario, that someone proposes a couple of things as listed below:

1. We must fight illiteracy and help adults learn to read and write;

2. We must extend education to the poor population, often alienated, to empower them;

3. We must reach a consensus by inquiry and debate allowing the students to express their opinions without fearing an authoritative response; 

4. We must shift the view of learning as quietly sitting in the class and trying to absorb everything the teacher says to a more collaborative and constructivist view; 

5. We must use education as a means of transformation in our society;

Sounds worth sharing, right? Sounds a lot like Finland, wouldn’t you agree? Sounds like something every country should bear in mind when it comes to education, don’t you think? Well, these are some of the principles of no one less than the 3rd most cited author in the human sciences in the world, most used Brazilian author abroad, born in my mom’s hometown in the northeastern region of Brazil, Recife, renowned educator, Paulo Freire. That’s right, the same man whom a large portion of our population would love to see out of our schools. His death at 75 twenty years ago hasn’t stopped his work from taking the world. If you want a quick view of his theory, click here.

If anything is clear now, it should be that we know very little, can’t do much or at least don’t care all that much about good quality education in Brazil. That means that despite having a body of knowledge, nationally produced, widely accepted and referred to in the world by various educational settings, we look at it as “ideological and political indoctrination”, dangerous and worthy of banning. Something is clearly not right. I have to ask a few questions to see if I can make myself clear (clarity is obviously the word of this paragraph and what we’re looking for):

1) Teaching our children about Hitler and Nazism could be considered indoctrination and could also be discouraged? PS: Basically the opposite of what happens in Germany.

2) Allowing parents to demand that their kids are taught their religious traditions and, consequently, discourage (prohibit) the teaching of other religions could be considered indoctrination? Jesus and God over Mohammed and Allah? Buddha over Krishna? PS: the motion I mentioned above wants that.

3) Judging authors by their political and ideological views and not by the content of their work should be taught in our schools? PS: Job interview: “She’s the best candidate for the position, but I don’t like her soccer team/skin color/sexual orientation/political party. Let’s hire the other guy.”

I think we can all agree that brilliant minds come in all shapes and sizes, no matter how they vote or where they stand on the left-right spectrum (and so do evil ones). So judging a person’s contribution to humanity by those standards and ultimately deciding solely on those grounds if it’s worthy of attention or prohibition is to me one of the biggest ideological and political doctrines there can ever be.

Why don’t we incorporate Paulo Freire’s view (and those of many authors) into our daily teaching practice and let our students use their critical thinking skills to actually question things instead? Perhaps we can teach them to solve things in a civilized conversation rather than resort to violence when people disagree with them. Perhaps we can become champions in a different category that is not violent acts against teachers. Perhaps we can make sure that teachers like Marcia Friggi, and thousands or even millions of others, feel safe in their classroom and actually teach. Who knows? Maybe that’s how we’re going to make teachers respected, better paid and give them the tools to make our reality better.

In Freire’s most popular book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he states that education is done in an oppressive way, through a top-down bank-like structure, where the student is seen as an empty box that needs to acquire the knowledge from the master’s (teacher) periodic deposits. In this structure, we can say that there’s violence against the students, who are rarely seen as subjects of their learning. They are supposed to obey the order of the system quietly. To provoke some thinking, I ask: How does one normally respond to violence? It is not that hard to think why teachers would like to use Freire’s teaching in Brazil and why many would oppose. I guess Freire must’ve been on to something.

What people don’t get is that Freire was against authoritarianism, being exiled himself during the military dictatorship in Brazil, and having spoken up against regimes that distorted and corrupted the ideas of Marx, such as Stalin’s URSS. He wanted democracy to be the rule, not anything else.

It truly puzzles me. Maybe the answer lies here, in two other great inspirations to education (I’ve mentioned them before, but it never seems enough):

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world

Nelson Mandela

One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world

Malala Yousafzai

I say: rather than demonizing Karl Marx or forcing him down students’ throat, why not present his contributions and have students question them?

16 thoughts on “Paulo Freire in Finland and in Brazil: A Love-Hate Relationship”

    1. this is misinformation… I live in the same city as these teachers. and the history is different. ppl that know eng are fighting a war that does not understand.

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  2. Paulo Freire was against authoritarianism. What authority does a teacher who gets punched in the face have? The virtue is in the middle of extremes. I agree that a Paulo Freire method would go nicely in a school where there is a top-bottom authoritarian method of teaching. But that’s not the case of Brazil where we have the opposite: an authoritarian and violent bunch os students. In this case the medicine would be to give these students a greater sense of dicipline, responsibility and consequences to their actions. And there is nothing wrong with teaching left wing ideas, so long you also teach right wing ideas, which is not the case. Children are ONLY taught the left wing view of the world and that doesn’t make for much critical thinking.

    1. Rita, thank you for your comment. I believe I focused on how Paulo Freire open what was once considered a very rigid pedagogy to new possibilities. I agree that teachers in Brazil have lost their authority, but, perhaps, it’s precisely because of the way we still teach in the country that students are rebelling against the system. At least one of the reasons. I know this woman’s work and can tell you that she’s definitely not the case. I’m just saying that what we may be teaching students in class has very little to do with students’ real life struggles. That’s what Freire defended too. He wanted education to reflect students needs and reality. The greater sense of discipline you’re referring to should come from an overloaded teacher who struggles to make ends meet at the end of the month? What about these students’ families? To me, the statistics show that not only is our educational system flawed, but also our familial structure. As for teaching left wing ideas and right wing ideas, I don’t know where you got this info that ONLY the left is taught. This is an ideological claim of the right wing, the way I see it. The right wing is the one that wants to get rid of Paulo Freire. Most of the pedagogical practice we have in the country is still a product of right wing ideas (mass learning, rows, bells, summative assessment, classes per age, etc). The irony is that it doesn’t really matter if Paulo Freire was a leftist or not, what really matters was the message that we should be able to think for ourselves and discuss ideas.

  3. Your article is a huge lie just like you as well. The left wing students, teachers and people are thee most violent people in Brazil. I am living here and I see that with my eyes. They forbid other students, so they cannot study, they attack students and teachers, they are very violent. And also in Finland there is students attacking teachers. I am a Finn and I know that.

  4. Do not believe in articles like that. Full of lies, tipical Brazilian shit. You guys think that nobody can see your bulshit, but sorry…

    1. OECD must be the huge liar then. It was based on their report that I wrote many aspects of this post. Now, I’d be glad to discuss the things you believe I’m lying about, but first you’d had to identify yourself and then present something other than your feelings about this scenario. If you’re following the latest developments of Brazilian politics, you should know that our newly elected government is a far-right one and that almost everything has gotten worse under the premise of getting rid of ‘Freire’s pervasive ideology’.

  5. Your article is a huge lie just like you as well. The left wing students, teachers and people are thee most violent people in Brazil. I am living here and I see that with my own eyes. They forbid other students, so they cannot study, they attack students and teachers, they are very violent. And also in Finland there are students attacking teachers. I am a Finn and I know that.

    1. I live in Brazil, everything that André wrote is right and based in reality, you guys need to stop being biased and look at both sides, Jesus.

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