Reviews of Paulo Freire's Books

This website, dedicated to Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (1921-1997), consists of a collection of reviews of his books and links to other pages on Freire. The books are listed in chronological order. When the book has been translated into English, the first date refers to the original publication. 

The website was created by Daniel Schugurensky, Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology, The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT).

Freire, Paulo (1993). Pedagogy of the City. New York: Continuum Publishing Company.

Review by Kathleen Hiyake (UCLA)


Paulo Freire returned to Brazil from exile in 1979. In 1989, the newly elected socialist mayor of the city of Sao Paulo, Luisa Erundina, invited Paulo Freire to become the Secretary of Education. After having spent his life writing and speaking on the topic of education and literacy, he took on this challenge in order to maintain coherence between his words and actions as a means of putting into practice his ideas and dreams for education. This book is made up of interviews of Paulo Freire that had taken place in the early part of his administration as Secretary of Education. Through the interviews, Freire lays out his goals, dreams and aspirations for the public schools. The postscript, written by Ana Maria Saul, describes the achievements as well as shortcomings of the administration. Through these chapters, readers are able to see Freire's efforts to translate theory into practice, and also gain an understanding of Freire's action plan for the transformation of urban public schooling.

Primary Components of Freire's Plan

Freire inherited a public school system that was in crisis. The former administration had placed an emphasis on the privatization of education, and consequently, had left a very small budget for education. Many school buildings were in disrepair, several hundred thousand children did not have access to education, and large numbers of children were dropping out or being expelled from school. In light of the daunting task of improving public education in this setting, Freire emphasized several priorities throughout his administration: addressing the quantitative deficits and increasing access to schools; creating schools to be creativity centers, which would include a reform of the curriculum; instituting permanent professional development for teachers; and ensuring a democratization of process as well as outcome.

In the following section, I will expound on each of these priorities as described by Freire, and also note the successes achieved in these areas by his administration.

Addressing quantitative deficits: democratization of access

Freire believed that the first task of his administration was to address some of the physical and quantitative deficits of the school facilities in Sao Paulo. When he assumed office, he found that fifty-five schools had deplorable conditions, with ceilings falling, floors caving in, sewage systems plugged and dangerous electrical wiring causing hazards to students. Sixty percent of the 657 schools were in dire need of repair. Fifteen thousand school desks were broken, and many schools had no desks at all. Moreover, it is approximated that approximately 400,000 children between the ages of 7 and 14 have not yet gone to school, and that 600,000 preschool children are locked out of classes due to lack of space. Freire believed that it was impossible to speak to children about respect, beauty and joy in the learning process without addressing these basic physical conditions of the schools. It became one of Freire'smain priorities to “change the face of the schools” – both physically and in terms of the children’s learning experience in the schools. Under Freire'sadministration between 1988 and 1992, the number of students enrolled in the public school system increased by 15.59% Seventy-seven new schools were constructed, and a big effort was also made to maximize the use of existing school buildings and to utilize community space. Maintenance and repair work was done on most of the schools, and 60,000 new desks were purchased. Audio-visual equipment, computers and children’s literature was purchased, as well as basic school supplies for poor children.

Creating schools to be creativity centers, including curricular reform

Freire envisioned schools as creativity centers, where teaching and learning can be done with joy. He dreamed of schools not as dull places, but as places that generate happiness. He dreamed of schools as places of democracy where children would not only learn content, but also learn to question and to think critically about their worlds. He believed that schools should respect the knowledge and experience of all children, and should resist the middle-class bias of prepackaged- or “banking-education.” Rather, he believed that pedagogical practices should be based on the lived experiences of children. Freire repeatedly addressed the need to respect the experience-based knowledge of poor children. He desired an education that would respect and not stigmatize the “language” of the poor, while still teaching them mainstream language so that they can engage in the process of transforming society. Implicit in these dreams is a need for the reorientation of the curriculum and the evaluation processes that are currently being used in schools.

Freire also emphasized, as he did in his past writings, that the act of education is an inherently political process. He believed that although education was not the lever for the transformation of society, it is an important part of that process, and that education should be examined to determine in whose favor, or against whom, content gets taught. He “dream(ed) of a school that is in reality democratic, that attends for this very reason to the interests of the underprivileged.” (p. 33)

Even before Freire assumed the post of Secretary of Education, he had begun the process of working toward curricular reform. He convened meetings with university professors and curricular specialists from across various disciplines to discuss potential reforms. Freire also believed that the process of developing a new curriculum must be democratic. Therefore, after he completed the meetings with the university professors, he also held meetings with other educators, and students, parents and grassroots groups (“pedagogical plenaries”) to determine what they needed and wanted from schools.

The curricular reform included a new emphasis on inter-disciplinary approaches which take generative themes as their point of departure. By rooting the learning process in local contexts, education becomes more relevant for students and helps them to critically understand the world around them. Freire argues that the curricular reform, along with the ongoing teacher education described below, helped lead to the reduction of student failure and dropout levels in Sao Paulo.

Instituting permanent professional development for teachers

Linked to any effort for curricular reform must be on-going teacher education. In light of the fact that teacher training had previously been neglected, Freire believed that instituting permanent professional development for teachers would be critical to the success of his administration’s reform efforts. Freire emphasized the importance having teachers reflect upon their work in order to continually improve their teaching practices. As in previous works, he asserted the essential link between theory and practice.

Freire also believed that it would be necessary to help educators to see that education is inherently political and that as progressive educators, they should be committed to increasing participation of the “underclass,” to sustaining coherence between their values and their practice, and to a utilizing a democratic pedagogy that liberates students’ thinking. Educators also would need to learn how to implement the dialogical pedagogy that is part and parcel of Freire'scurricular reform efforts.

Teacher education efforts have been implemented under Freire'sadministration, based on the concept of action/reflection/action, and a partnership has been developed with the university to this end. As mentioned above, Freire considers this advance critical to the successes being experienced in Sao Paulo schools.

Ensuring a democratization of process as well as outcome Freire “the struggle against elitism and authoritarianism” as one of the primary goals of his administration (p. 81). He believed that coherence is extremely important, not only for his own life, but for any democratizing effort. He believed that progressive educators and administrators should not fall into the same abuses of power as conservative administrators, but instead be vigilant that democratic education must be implemented democratically. He believed that a new curriculum, or any other proposed changes, could not be imposed in an authoritarian manner, but instead, that new processes must be set up to ensure participation. Moreover, participation, according to Freire, must not be merely token or superficial, but instead, efforts must be made to ensure that people have input into the decisionmaking process.

Freire experienced many successes along these lines. According to Ana Maria Saul (Epilogue), Freire was able to democratize the administration of the Department of Education in ways unlike any previous administration. As mentioned above, he also democratized the process of curricular reform, through the implementation of pedagogical plenaries, and other grassroots meetings. However, he saw his greatest success along these lines to be the implementation of school councils.

A school constitution had been approved on the last day of the administration that preceded Mayor Junio Quadros, including a provision that school councils be created. However, Mayor Quadros immediately suspended the constitution, and the councils were never implemented. The constitution was reestablished under Freire, and school councils became a reality under his administration. The councils include teachers, parents, staff, educational specialists and community members, and they have the responsibility for elaborating and evaluating the schools plans. Freire also made efforts to decentralize budgeting and pedagogical decisions to the school council level. He believed that the school councils would play the fundamental democratic role of facilitating the participation of communities, parents and grassroots movements in the life of the schools.


I found Pedagogy of the City to be an inspiring book in which readers are able to see the linkage that Freire made between theory and practice during his tenure as the Secretary of Education. He portrayed a realistic picture, as he described the barriers that he encountered, particularly in the dire physical state of the schools. The struggle against an entrenched bureaucracy, longstanding ideology and extreme physical and financial deficits is one that is faced by all cities. Yet it was encouraging to see the progress he was able to make while still adhering strongly to his values.

Many themes in this book were common to his past books. He emphasized the critical linkage between theory and practice. He talked about the political nature of education, and the need to struggle for liberation. He spoke of the role of conscientization, and the need to connect knowledge of the word with knowledge of the world. He described the importance of valuing the knowledge from the lived experiences that learners bring into the classroom. However, for me, the most valuable aspect of the reiteration of these themes was to understand how he applied it to his experience in the administration of an urban school system.

I found it helpful to read his description of the tension and linkage between the quantitative and qualitative challenges faced by urban schools. He discussed how it is impossible to address one without the other – one cannot simply expand the capacity of the schools without addressing quality, while the quality of the educational experience is also impacted by the physical environment. I agree with his assertion that reform work must happen on many fronts simultaneously; one cannot wait until one aspect is addressed before others are undertaken.

One of the challenges that Freire addresses is that of coherence or consistency. In trying to ensure that processes are democratic, how can one ensure consistency? Even with Freire'sdescription of his own efforts, he still had the tendency to dichotomize the elites from the oppressed. For example, in his curricular reform efforts, he described how he first assembled and consulted with many university experts from different fields. After they had completed their initial discussions, he described the process of meeting with the “grassroots” and “underclass.” While I recognize the importance of gaining theoretical input, is partnership possible? Can the grassroots and the elite create proposals and make decisions together? In all fairness, the school councils as described apparently have this partnership relationship. Yet, even in creating participatory structures, how can one ensure that participation is democratic? The fact that a structure is open to parents and the grassroots does not mean that the “underclass” will be represented among the parents who participate. To me, this is an on-going challenge to those who strive to implement democratic structures.

A last question or critique is that of sustainability. Since education, as defined by Freire, is by necessity political, how can one ensure that the successes and the new directions taken, for example, by a progressive administration are not reversed by changes in administrations? As a case in point, Mayor Quadros’ administration suspended the school Council concept despite the fact that it had just been passed by the previous administration. This is particularly challenging when the methodologies that are being forwarded are ones that both take a long time to implement and are outside the experience/knowledge/comfort base of those experiencing it.

For example, it took four years to complete the discussions regarding revisions in the constitution and by-laws. This change did not happen quickly. At the completion of discussions, much of the change still needs to be implemented, but the primary advocate for this change in the administration (Freire) is moving on. How can one ensure that the program continues to move forward? It seems that there is a danger that if the administration does not maintain stability for an extended period, there will be ground work done, but not a lot of forward progress. Political changes could lead to constant reversals in the educational direction of the city.

Despite these questions, however, overall I found the book to be inspiring and valuable in helping me to understand the progress that can be made, as well as the barriers that must be faced, in implementing a democratic learning process in the urban public school setting.


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