Pedagogy of the Oppressed: Design Theory For Our Futures

We need new ways to think about our world in transition. Fortunately, half a century ago Paulo Freire gave us a way of thinking. He stated: ‘there is no such thing as a neutral education process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom’, the means by which men and woman deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world’. 

radicalized my work 

This quote radicalized my work as a teacher, lecturer and educational designer. I first picked up Pedagogy of the Oppressed to better understand how learning, development and liberation is facilitated into our world. I was unpacking innovative learning theories and consequences connected to learning in higher education. At that particular time I was writing a research proposal to start my PhD, so I didn’t get a change to process what I’d learned – I never started my PhD. 

Once I got some distance, I realize how much more work it does -not just for education – but for recognizing and combatting oppression in all forms. Everyone should learn from this classic, if you ask me. The reason has to do with the last phrase in that quote: discover how to participate in the transformation of their world. 


Does going to school makes you feel empowered? I’m talking about those times in a lecture hall, learning about whatever topic you’ll forget at the end of a semester. Actively sitting in a seat, listening to a lecturer, taking notes, quizzes and tests. Today, sitting in front of your webcam… does it make you feel? 

In my practice I experience that it’s very difficult to get students empowered by the learning process – I mean really empowered. For a lot of students and based on my observations the learning process is more often experienced as a circus where they couldn’t find the ringmaster. Okay, they learned what they were told, they accomplished the assignments, they sat down, listened and obeyed.

Reflecting on it, I realized that the students role in deciding what, or how they wanted to learn is far to little. 

Years later I entered a international class around designing and facilitating learning spaces at Kaospilot in Aarhus. An experience that transformed my way of designing and facilitating courses because the experience was so rich in a way that we could decide which challenges we wanted to take collectively and personally in a safe space where all of us matters and take responsibility to appriciate others and contribute significantly. A true dive into complexity, learning to navigate chaos. 

take away

The control people have over what they create makes the experience more memorable, more lasting and more valuable. Taking control, getting into ‘yes’ creates learning that sticks. 

But let’s work through Freire’s text together. ‘One may well remember, man is the only one to treat not only his actions but his very self as the object of his reflection. This capacity distinguishes him from animals. So humans life in a world which they are constantly re-creating and transforming. But what does it mean to be human? Freire decided to adopt a theory of exclusion: we are different because of our ability to remember, relearn and see the world apart from our primal instincts. Although this line might be blurred easily, what is clear is how humans define ourselves by the concept of legacy. By remembering the past, we use it to craft a future we want to see. 


Humans are aware of themselves and thus of the world, because they are conscious beings. Humans exist in a dialectical relationship between the determination of limits and their own freedom. As they separate themselves from the world, which they objectify, they locate the seat of their decisions in themselves and in their relations with the world and others, people overcome the situations which limits them: the limit-situation. In design we usually define the process we use as transforming the future. Herbert Simon described it as: ‘to design is to devise courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones’. However, this process outlines a boundary we are trying to cross. A new world we are trying to reach. Have you heard of someone actually defining that boundary? 

This limit-situation represents the context that changemakers are working to break out of. By giving our current situation a name, it offers the power to determine how we address the challenges we come across. 

We respond to the challenge with action directed at overcoming rather than passively accepting. Thus, it’s not the limit-situations which create a climate of hopelessness, but rather how they are perceived. 

you always have a choice

Humans create artifacts that work to address the issue, and by doing so, humans become agents who shaped the world, instead of objects without choice or influence. It is by perceiving, reflecting and taking action on the world around you that creativity can be used. 

People take contradictory positions, some work to maintain the system/status quo, others to change it. People are personally drawn either to serve, or change, the system/status quo. At our core, humans have a choice. A choice to transform our world, to continue to be served by the limit-situation/system/status quo or to surpass it. This philosophy doesn’t just unpack why it’s human to transform, it describes the motives that determine what people decide to transform and why. Freire finally links this theory of transformation to the moral purpose of the book. 


Can you name a modern single social issue that hasn’t been influenced by domination? Freire stated that the collective transformation of society as it’s been designed for millennia, has been either creating structures around or supporting domination in all its forms. The same systems that constructed a socioeconomic hierarchy of exploitation that is slowly strangling our life out of our future, for all of us. 

But change is always possible, if we recognize the power within ourselves. Here are some starter questions, to move our process forward: 

  • How are you creating fellow humans into ‘objects’, instead of subjects in your learning space? 
  • What’s liberatory about your learning space / teaching? What’s oppressive?
  • What are you doing to push humankind towards liberation in your learning space? 

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