ERIC Identifier: ED411415
Publication Date: 1997-00-00
Author: Kerka, Sandra
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult
Career and Vocational Education Columbus OH.
Popular Education: Adult Education for Social Change. ERIC
Digest No. 185.
Popular education is a form of adult education that encourages learners to
examine their lives critically and take action to change social conditions. It
is "popular" in the sense of being "of the people." Popular education emerged in
Latin America in the 1960s-1970s; Paulo Freire is its best known exponent.
However, its roots may be found in the French Revolution, in workers' education
of the 1920s-1930s, and in such movements as the Highlander Folk School in
Tennessee (Beder 1996; Jeria 1990). The goal of popular education is to develop
"people's capacity for social change through a collective problem-solving
approach emphasizing participation, reflection, and critical analysis of social
problems" (Bates 1996. pp. 225-226). Key characteristics of popular education
are as follows: everyone teaches and learns, so leadership is shared; starting
with learners' experiences and concerns; high participation; creation of new
knowledge; critical reflection; connecting the local to the global; and
collective action for change (Arnold et al. 1985; Mackenzie 1993). This digest
describes popular education methods, addresses challenges, and offers some
insights for adult educators.
THE POPULAR EDUCATION PROCESS
Because it is strongly
community based, popular education takes a wide variety of forms. However, the
process usually follows a pattern or cycle described as action/reflection/action
(Arnold and Burke 1983) or practice/theory/practice (Mackenzie 1993). Beginning
with people's experience, the community initiates problem identification; then
they reflect on and analyze the problem, broadening it from local to global in
order to develop theory; next, participants plan and carry out action for
change. Adult educators can facilitate the process by serving as democratic
collaborators who ensure that learning takes place and leadership and
self-direction develop in the group (Arnold and Burke 1983). Facilitators keep
the group on track and encourage participation, but they should also try to
foster a longer-term perspective on the problems addressed, helping the group
place the issues in social, historical, and political context (Bates 1996).
One important aspect of popular education is the way it often draws on
popular culture, using drama, song, dance, poetry, puppetry, mime, art,
storytelling, and other forms. Proulx (1993) distinguishes "popular culture"
from cultural institutions often perceived as elitist and from instruments of
mass culture such as the media, identifying popular cultural forms as those in
which "working class adults recognize their life and their values" (p. 39). The
use of these forms can enhance communication among audiences with an oral
tradition, demonstrate respect for community cultural values and enhance group
spirit, demystify the information conveyed and make it accessible and relevant,
and encourage participation and learning by appealing to different modalities
(Bates 1996; Proulx 1993).
Arnold and Burke (1983) recommend the use of a variety of techniques for
popular education, based on the assumption that learning is most effective if
participation is active, different learning styles are addressed, content is
relevant to learners' lives, learners are treated as equals, and the learning
process is enjoyable. Examples include theater--participants act out a situation
from real life experience using words, movement, gestures, and props;
drawing--which appeals to those with a strong visual learning style and helps
crystallize or symbolize ideas; and sculpturing--people physically position
themselves in ways that depict their understanding of an issue or theme.
CHALLENGES TO POPULAR EDUCATION
Popular education is often
seen as different from, threatening to, or marginalized by dominant
institutions. Popular educators thus face a number of challenges illustrated in
the examples that follow (Beder 1993; Walters and Manicom 1996): the demands or
constraints of funding sources (Zacharakis-Jutz, Heaney, and Horton 1991);
perceptions of the role of facilitators (Merideth 1994; Zacharakis-Jutz et al.
1991); disconnection between program goals and participant objectives
(Stromquist 1997); failure to address gender issues (ibid.); and the perception
that popular education is too radical or revolutionary (ibid.).
Describing how university-based adult educators can play a role in
facilitating community learning, Zacharakis-Jutz et al. (1991) give examples of
successful and unsuccessful popular education efforts at the Lindeman Center at
Northern Illinois University. Instead of acting as experts, educators
demonstrated their view of the community as co-researchers and co-learners by
assisting public housing residents in developing their own capacity for
leadership and their own knowledge about tenant management. On the other hand,
an attempt to develop an intergenerational home repair cooperative in an
impoverished neighborhood failed because facilitators neglected community-based
needs assessment and strategy development and because a city agency that
provided funding imposed "top-down" decision making and insisted on selecting
Facilitators of Casa en Casa, a project in an Hispanic health clinic, sought
to train community volunteers to be health promoters in their neighborhoods.
However, volunteers did not assume leadership roles or organize for collective
action because they received no orientation to the purpose of training or the
role of promoters. Training emphasized content knowledge but not the skills to
use it for community action. Overly concerned with imposing their own agenda,
project facilitators abdicated their responsibility to guide the learning
process. As Merideth puts it, "starting where the people are does not mean
staying there" (p. 365).
A popular education program in Paulo Freire's own city, Sao Paulo, Brazil,
sought to develop citizenship for the radical transformation of political and
social structures through literacy education (Stromquist 1997). However, civic
and political content was infrequently addressed and discussions were not always
tied to learners' understanding of how the subjects affected their lives. "There
was a substantial disjunction between efforts to make them discuss political
issues in class and the type of political discourse they engaged in daily life"
(p. 114). Although most of the facilitators and participants were women, the
program did not explicitly address gender issues.
Although the overall objective was increasing citizen participation, this
goal was not strongly connected to the objectives of participants, many of whom
were primarily interested in social interaction or satisfaction of personal
needs. Ultimately, the program encountered--and was terminated by--a major
obstacle of popular education: opposition of political groups threatened by an
agenda of social change.
INSIGHTS FOR ADULT EDUCATORS
How can adult educators
address these challenges to popular education? Stromquist (1997) recommends that
community needs and goals should form the basis for a popular education agenda
and that facilitators should be trained in critical dialogue that blends
political content with instructional practices and connects the issues with
participants' immediate reality.
Beder (1993) maintains that "power is a critical resource ...because change
cannot be accomplished without power" (p. 80). However, power must be owned by
the group, but exercised by individuals on behalf of it. Facilitators should
neither impose an agenda nor abdicate responsibility. They should recognize that
merely incorporating participatory learning techniques and democratic structures
does not necessarily enable people to challenge their internalized beliefs and
develop critical abilities, and they should have a clear vision of social change
and how their work fits into the broader picture (Merideth 1994).
Zacharakis-Jutz et al. (1991) conclude that the role of university-based
educators is not to precipitate action but to support actions the community
takes on its own behalf. They suggest finding ways in which university resources
can work for the community.
Merideth (1994) notes how popular education programs may be constrained by
the mandates and regulations of funding sources. Heaney (1992) reinforces the
pitfalls associated with public funding, suggesting that popular educators keep
the proportion of public funds in the overall budget low, form an umbrella
organization to channel funds, or "promote and support indigenous resources
within the community, helping local groups to build strong organizations under
local control" (p. 25).
Stromquist (1997) emphasizes that empowerment and emancipation are not
generic: they have different meanings and implications for men and women. Gender
relations must be part of the analysis of power relations and social conditions
that takes place in popular education. Walters and Manicom (1996) recommend
strategies that take women's standpoint, drawing on women's experiences in a way
that illustrates that "woman" is not a homogeneous category; explore the
intersection of gender, race, class, and culture; and enable women to find
space, time, and a place for learning.
Popular education is not limited to addressing the needs of identifiable
cultural groups or the poor and the powerless (Bates 1996). It has wider
application as a method of developing critical understanding, building
self-confidence and analytical skills, and linking them with social action in a
variety of contexts and socioeconomic levels.
Education that has as its goal social transformation faces formidable
challenges, as shown by some the programs described here. However, education for
social transformation is an ongoing effort. Although a particular program may
appear to have failed in its immediate goals, it may represent one step in the
slow, complex, and cumulative process of social change.
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