How a theory born in the 1930s could transform African education systems

Connie Nshemereirwe, Uganda Martyrs University

You may not have heard of Paulo Freire. That’s not surprising if you don’t work in the field of education theory, since it’s in this space that the Brazilian’s ideas are most famous.

In his seminal work, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, Freire calls for the transformation of education to create a more equitable society. The seeds of his philosophy were planted during his childhood after his middle-class family suddenly fell into poverty during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

He found himself falling back four grades in school and was later to say this was because he couldn’t understand anything because he was hungry. “I wasn’t dumb. It wasn’t lack of interest. My social condition didn’t allow me to have an education.”

The lessons he learnt nearly 90 years ago and the theories he developed from painful personal experience still resonate across Africa’s schooling systems. They hold powerful ideas for those who function within the continent’s education system in any way – teachers, parents and pupils.


An education that oppresses

Formal education in most African countries was introduced during colonial times. Formal education was a means by which the colonial machinery trained low-level clerical staff. It wasn’t really aimed at developing thinking persons. Most of the content in this system described a world alien to Africans, in languages that were also alien. Those who best conformed to the norms and expectations of this alien world were then rewarded with the title of “educated”.

Today many of the continent’s existing systems are still largely based on those early models. Since these systems are divorced from most people’s realities, they tend to produce individuals who don’t understand their own world – but don’t fit into this other alien world either.

This, to use Freire’s language, is a system that oppresses. It neither acknowledges our reality as Africans, nor presents us with any opportunity to engage with that reality. Instead, formal education proceeds by the practice of what Freire calls “banking”. In this kind of education, the best teacher is the one who is most expert at making “deposits” – to continue the banking metaphor – and the best student is the one who can best return these deposits at exam time.

Banking education presupposes that the students know nothing, and the teacher knows everything. This, Freire says, does not acknowledge students as an active part of the education process. Students are simply objects upon which action is taken rather than subjects who can participate, reflect and become.

In this way, Freire says, the education system is really a weapon of oppression and those who run it are the oppressors.

Unfortunately after enough time in this system the students come to believe the only things of value are those that someone else tells them. They believe that nothing of what they feel, think or initiate can be of any value. Rather, they come to:

[internalise] the image of oppressor and his guidelines, [and are] fearful of freedom. Freedom would require [them] to eject this image and replace it with autonomy and responsibility.

It is no wonder, then, that in Africa, even after half a century of “independence” in some countries, we tend to look outside ourselves to define our values and find guidance on what we should do to solve our problems instead of looking inward to critically analyse the nature and causes of the problems that plague us – disease, conflict, poverty – and develop the appropriate solutions. Instead, we continue to count on the very system that perpetuates our oppression to liberate us, and are afraid of engaging in the midwifery of our own liberating pedagogy.

Freire poses the central problem here as follows:

How then can the oppressed, as divided, unauthentic beings, participate in developing the pedagogy of their liberation?

His work holds some ideas about how to go about this.


An education that liberates

Freire advocates for a “problem-posing” rather than a “banking” education. In this system, teachers and students are in a dialogue that advances both parties’ understanding of how their world functions. This, in turn, gradually reveals the true nature of this world.

In an education that continuously presents students with questions relating to themselves and their world, they cannot help but feel challenged to respond in order to transform it. Liberation, as he says, is active: “The action of men and women acting upon their world in order to transform it”.

Recently a friend told me that her son’s swimming instructor had approached her with the following proposition: “For the upcoming inter-school competitions,” he said, “why not enter your son as a seven-year-old instead of an eight-year-old? In that way he can compete in the five-to-seven-year category. Otherwise, if we enter him as an eight-year-old, he will have to compete against children as old as ten, and that will be to his disadvantage.”

As one might expect, my friend was greatly perturbed by this. When she questioned him, though, the instructor assured her: “There is no problem, Madam – that is what everyone does.”

This story, for me, encapsulates the essence of oppression. Even though this swimming instructor operates in a system that he perceives as unfair, that is to say, oppressive, his response is to conform. Because oppression interferes with our ability to become (a process that requires purposeful questioning and conscious decision-making), Freire says that our only option is to become like. As was the case with this swimming instructor, the thing that we become like is whatever the status quo suggests. So we perpetuate, or even worsen, the very systems that prevent us from transforming as a society.

On the contrary, we as Africans must have the courage to stop and look critically at our own world. We need to name this world with our own words and pose our own questions about it. We must believe that we have the ability to become whatever we choose, and choose that which we should become. We need to stop always looking outside ourselves just so we can pursue becoming like.

Fortunately, there are some promising initiatives aimed at addressing the continent’s challenges appropriately. One example is the local language policy in my own country, Uganda. This specifies that the language of instruction in the first three years of primary school should be whatever local language is dominant in a given region. It makes sense: imagine a rural six-year-old entering primary school for the first time and being presented with a book written in English, full of scenes of children “running through meadows” or “riding a pony”. What is this child to make of any of it?

Why not allow this child to use the words she already knows to name things that she is familiar with. This, Freire would argue, is the place to start her education about those things she does not know yet, and gives credence to such a language policy. Unfortunately, these initiatives are sometimes poorly communicated and implemented. In Uganda, for instance, there’s been a lot of resistance to the local language policy.

What’s worse, even some Ugandan leaders do not support the policy. They believe that it is a tool to keep certain of the country’s regions underdeveloped. As the victims of oppression themselves, they believe that education is only of value if it is conducted in English.


So much potential

Africa is faced with many challenges. But it’s also a continent bursting with potential. To realise this, however, its education systems must be altered so they no longer simply produce individuals who unquestioningly conform to the status quo.

Freire’s work holds valuable ideas about how to transform Africa’s education systems and its children from oppressed to truly liberated.

The Conversation

Connie Nshemereirwe, Senior Lecturer in Education, Uganda Martyrs University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Indigenous education



In his seminal book “History of Education in Nigeria”, the late Professor A. Babs Fafunwa talked about the “Traditional African Education” in the book’s first chapter.

He defined education as

“the aggregate of all the processes by which a child or young adult develops the abilities, attitudes and other forms of behaviour which are of positive value to the society in which he lives; that is to say, it is a process for transmitting culture in terms of continuity and growth and for disseminating knowledge either to ensure social control or to guarantee rational direction of the society or both.”

This philosophy of education is similar to the education theory of Lave & Wagner that “learning is a social process whereby knowledge is co-constructed and is situated in a specific context and embedded within a particular social and physical environment.”


He, Fafunwa, saw education from a behaviourist perspective and believed that the essence of education is first and foremost enculturation and this according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary isthe process by which an individual learns the traditional content of a culture and assimilates its practices and values.And in a similar light Jerome Bruner in the preface of his book “The Culture of Education” alluded to a similar position when he said “What we resolve to do in school only makes sense when considered in the broader context of what the society intends to accomplish through its educational investment in the young.”

 To Fafunwa, education was a means of social control, this position he further emphasised when he said “African society regarded education as a means to an end…Education was generally for an immediate induction into society and a preparation for adulthood. In particular, African education emphasised social responsibility, job orientation, political participation and spiritual and moral values.”

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In expanding on his theory and practice of traditional African education, he talked about children and adults engaging in participatory education and to establish how this learning theory was implemented he talked about people engaging in “ceremonies, rituals, initiation, recitation and demonstration.” Likewise, for intellectual stimulations in the system, he said people were engaged in “the study of local history, legends, the environment (local geography, plants and animals), poetry, reasoning, riddles, proverbs, story-telling, and story-relays.” 


Education to him in this traditional setting was also practical in the sense that the people were engaged in different physical activities like “practical farming, fishing, weaving, cooking, carving, knitting, and so on.” He rounded up the process of educating people in the setting by saying that “At the end of each stage, demarcated either by age level or years of exposure, the child was given a practical test relevant to his experience and level of development and in terms of the job to be done.” This he said “was a continuous assessment which eventually culminated in a passing out’ ceremony, or initiation into adulthood.”

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He talked extensively about the different informal educational practices amongst the Yoruba ethnic group in the present day South-west part of Nigeria. He talked about the oral traditions of the Yoruba people – traditions like: Oriki (praises) and Ijala (an oral poetry by Yoruba hunters). With numeracy he talked about the number and measurement systems in the Yoruba language, also he made mention of the different games in cultural practices of this group of people and how these games promote mathematical skills acquisition in the areas of “addition, subtraction, multiplication and division…geometry, combinations, and the properties of numbers.” 

On science education, he used the examples of how

“the appearance of certain butterflies in the area was an indication that the rainy season was approaching…Planting of some other crops was patterned on the appearance of new leaves on certain types of trees. The immigration of some birds indicated the beginning of a certain season.”

He also talked about teamwork and gender equality. Teamwork according to him was important and to this effect he said “At a certain stage in the lives of the boys, age-grouping became predominantly important…”

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On gender equality he said

“Girls were also apprenticed to certain trades, the only difference between them and the boys being that they were apprenticed to mistresses instead of masters. According to some informed sources, however, there were certain trades in which both men and women participated on equal terms but there were minorities who held the opinion that there were no trades in which both the men and women could not participate on equal terms. The trades where it was possible for both men and women were farming and weaving…From the information collected it was obvious that the women also practised some sort of farming but this was not on such a large scale as men. But in the weaving industry, the women did as excellent a job as men. The only difference was in the setting up of the weaving apparatus. For instance, the women used long shuttles while the men used short shuttles. The men wove in parallel position and women in vertical position…”

“‘Similarly, trading was an open door occupation, and every Ojo and Aina (these are traditional Yoruba names) participated in it on equal terms regardless of any family ties or qualifications.’”

Perhaps, the author could have titled the chapter Traditional Yoruba Education as most of the practices he cited in the chapter centred on practices from amongst the people of the Yoruba ethnic group, predominantly found in the South-West region of Nigeria.