Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Paulo Freire and B. F. Skinner: A Slight Introduction

Paolo Freire’s ideas on education, especially his “banking model” from Pedagogy of the Oppressed, have long been misused.  Freire wrote about systemic oppression within the structures of education; pieces of his work cannot, given the nature of his argument, be applied as Band-Aids.  The “banking model,” a case in point, is described to clarify the problems of the system, not as a means for changing a few things for the better by pointing out small wrongs within a structure that is, itself, the real problem. 

Look at the “banking model.”  As Freire describes it:
Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat.  This is the “banking” concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.  (Freire 58)
This is a simplistic view of what goes on in many classrooms—simplistic for a reason.  Freire contrasts it to what he sees as real education:
Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry men pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.  (Freire 58)
What he doesn’t explore, and never intended to in this particular discussion, is where this “restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry” comes from.  That’s not his purpose.  Ultimately, he is not writing about the student here, or about how individuals learn, but about the educational systems that oppress them.  He was a real revolutionary… but his book is generally used, in the United States, only by reformers.

And that causes problems.

As an introduction to his discussion of the shortcomings of the “banking model,” Freire depicts traditional education as one-way, going from teacher to student:
A careful analysis of the teacher-student relationship at any level, inside or outside the school, reveals its fundamentally narrative character.  This relationship involves a narrating Subject (the teacher) and patient, listening objects (the students).  The contents, whether values or empirical dimensions of reality, tend in the process of being narrated to become lifeless and petrified.  Education is suffering from narration sickness.  (Freire 57)
This is much the way that, until recently, most of us have seen media, with the audience as passive and receptive (at best—or so advertisers hope), not as grappling, testing, or deciding.  In neither case is the picture complete: students don’t just listen, no more than audiences simply absorb.  Both constantly make decisions; both are much more active than once they were seen.  This creates another problem with reliance on the “banking model” as what teachers should not do.  It sets a false contrast between “passive” audience and “active” participants.  It denies a place for the ‘sage on the stage,’ setting preference for ‘the guide by the side’ when, in fact, good education should provide both.

In fact, ‘the guide by the side’ alone is as ineffective as the ‘sage on the stage’ and the “banking model.”  It does not take into account needs of motivation, assuming that the students already desire to learn, desire to take guidance.  This, emphatically, is not always the case.  In addition, in an attempt to empower students, it entitles them—but only in a limited arena.  In effect, because the change is local rather than systemic, it lies to students, making them believe they have greater rights than, in fact, they possess—and greater ability to make decisions than is actually allowed them.  And this, of course, sets up conflict between them and the teachers, who are, after all, creatures of the system more than they are advocates for the students.

Recently, I have been re-reading B. F. Skinner’s The Technology of Teaching, a book contemporary to Freire’s.  Skinner describes three metaphors he sees as often used for education: growth or development, acquisition, and construction.  His “acquisition” sounds a little (though not completely) like the “banking model”:
The teacher plays the active role of transmitter.  He shares his experiences.  He gives and the student takes.  The energetic student grasps the structure of facts or ideas.  (Skinner 2)
Much more concerned with the act of education instead of the system of education (where Freire’s concentration lies), Skinner sees that an “energetic student” can gain even through this model, that it can serve Freire’s “restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful” students—though it is not the complete picture of a “good” education.  It is only one way of imagining what education, good and bad, is.

That’s not to say that Skinner is not concerned with systems as well, but his concentration certainly is with method:
The most widely publicized efforts to improve education show an extraordinary neglect of method.  Learning and teaching are not analyzed and almost no effort is made to improve teaching as such.  The aid which education is to receive usually means money, and the proposals for spending it follow a few familiar lines.  We should build more and better schools.  We should recruit more and better teachers.  We should search for better students and make sure that all competent students can go to school or college.  We should multiply teacher-student contacts with films and television.  We should design new curricula.  All this can be done without looking at teaching itself.  We need not ask how those better teachers are to teach those better students in those better schools, what kinds of contact are to be multiplied through mass media, or how new curricula are to be made effective.  (Skinner 93)
Freire might explore why it is we continue a system that doesn’t work; Skinner, in this view, is more concerned with making it work.

Of course, this is a simplistic take on either.

Though I do not know if Skinner and Freire ever had any contact with each other, it is possible that Fred Keller, whose Personalized System of Instruction owes a great deal to Skinner, knew Freire (or knew of him) when he worked in Brazil in the early 1960s.  It would be interesting to discover whether or not there was a connection, for the two books, Pedagogy of the Oppressed and The Technology of Teaching, paired together, offer a foundation for building a renewed educational structure.  They differ in more ways than I have indicated here, and each covers much more than I can talk about in a single blog post, but together they can focus our attention on the real needs and possibilities of education, moving us away from further rounds of half-hearted and half-baked reforms.

To that end, I will be writing more on the symbiosis possible through the two books over the coming weeks and months.  Freire’s work has been misunderstood and misused, Skinner’s merely forgotten.  Together, they are more a whole than simply the sum of their parts—and both need to be brought to new light in a milieu desperate for more than Band-Aids.

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