Studies in Philosophy and Education

, Volume 26, Issue 6, pp 545–559

Freirean Philosophy and Pedagogy in the Adult Education Context: The Case of Older Adults’ Learning


    • Department of Adult and Continuing EducationUniversity of Glasgow

DOI: 10.1007/s11217-007-9063-1

Cite this article as:
Findsen, B. Stud Philos Educ (2007) 26: 545. doi:10.1007/s11217-007-9063-1


Central tenets of Freirean philosophy and pedagogy are explored and applied to the emerging field of older adults’ learning (educational gerontology), a sub-field of adult education. I argue that many of Freire’s concepts and principles have direct applicability to the tasks of adult educators working alongside marginalized older adults. In particular, Freire’s ideas fit comfortably within a critical educational gerontology approach as they challenge prevailing orthodoxies and provide a robust analytical framework from which radical adult educators can work effectively in promoting social transformation.


Critical educational gerontologyOlder adultsRadical adult education

The field of adult education, like other spheres of educational practice, has always been subject to the impact of broader political and economic forces. Freire’s death was in 1997. Before, but more particularly after his death, the moves towards a deeper entrepreneurial and vocational character have quickened. Arguably, the idea of adult education as a vehicle for social justice has become numbed, if not lost, in the inexorable advent of lifelong learning across Western countries. Lifelong learning has become synonymous with upskilling individuals to help create a competitive workforce in the global marketplace (Field 2002). The social justice imperative, so strong in the less formal side of adult education and virtually absent from the discourse of lifelong learning, is in need of rejuvenation to offset the dominant ideology of individualism and vocationalism in much of adult education (Collins 1998).

This article explores the relevance of Freirean philosophy and pedagogy to a specific sub-field of adult education: older adults’ learning (educational gerontology). Initially, I explore Freire’s theory and practice in terms of the relevance to adult education (of which older adult learning is a part, albeit rather neglected until around the 1980s). Then I examine some of the current conventions and orthodoxies of educational gerontology, arguing for the utility of a Freirean framework of theory and practice as insightful for educational gerontologists, especially those from a critical theory tradition (e.g. Phillipson 1998; Glendenning 2000). Finally, I argue that a critical Freirean approach, as part of a critical educational gerontology, provides a useful framework for praxis in the lives of marginalized older people.

Concepts and Principles of Freire in an Adult Education Context

The roots of Freire’s adult education work initially were formed in the development of critical literacy in Brazil and Chile. Freire’s ideas were subsequently ‘exported’ to other countries concerned with mass literacy such as Guinea Bissau and Tanzania. The fundamentals of his literacy education approach entailed peasants not only understanding the word but also the world. This task was never just a technical one, concentrating on techniques of reading and writing, but one in which the participants developed an increasing understanding of their structural constraints and undertook collective action to oppose oppression in whatever form it took. While functional literacy may have its place in more conservative arenas of adult education, it is always subservient in Freirean terms to the development of a critical consciousness of one’s place and potential in the world. Essentially, the task was to move people from a magical consciousness to a critical one where collective social action against oppressors could improve their quality of life (Freire 1973). Importantly, this process of inducing conscientization was not a technical set of procedures but a process reflective of and empathetic to the particular circumstances of the people with whom he was working. This process occurred according to the identification of limit situations (those which constrained people’s consciousness of what was possible for them to change) and was derivative of a problem-posing approach to produce generative issues.

In Education: The practice of freedom (1973) Freire’s literacy process includes five steps beginning with participant observation of the educator followed by the development of codifications related to concrete items and associated words and eventually a demystification of an oppressive reality for people within a culture circle. It is unfortunate that this seemingly procedural approach has received undue attention in adult education contexts. For example, in the book, Paulo Freire: pedagogue of liberation, Elias (1994, 17–30) describes what he calls “The Paulo Freire method” as comprising two major components—adult literacy training and a subsequent post-literacy and political education phrase. As a conventionally practice-dominated field, adult education has tended to over-emphasise the practical at the expense of the theoretical. This is a stark case in point. Several writers have discussed the importance of reading Freire holistically (see, for example, Aronowitz 1993; Freire and Macedo 1998; Roberts 2000) and they argue cogently against Freire’s pedagogy being interpreted as a simplistic recipe for a “method” for any teaching-learning situation. Aronowitz stridently asserts that

nothing can be further from Freire’s intention than to conflate his use of the term pedagogy with the traditional notion of teaching. For, he means to offer a system in which the locus of the learning process is shifted from the teacher to the student. And this shift overtly signifies an altered power relationship, not only in the classroom but in the broader social canvas as well (1993, p. 8).

However, a difficulty does arise for many adult educators because liberal, humanistic writers such as Knowles (1984) and Rogers (1983) emphasise the centrality of the individual learner in effective adult learning and this element of Freire’s pedagogy is extracted out of the historical and political context from which it emerges and is applied uncritically to teaching-learning transactions in Western environments. The focus on method, which Aronowitz (1993) describes as an obsession for American educators, strips pedagogy of its ontological imperative so that literacy, for instance, can become just a set of procedural tasks to be enacted at an individual level for self-improvement.

A central concept in Freire’s work is that of praxis defined as “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it” (Freire 1984, p. 36). This notion is pivotal to Freire’s agenda of developing people’s ontological awareness of themselves and their potentiality. Crucially, this is never an isolated, individualistic task. We are fundamentally social beings and it is through critical engagement with others that new possibilities for living become evident. Roberts (2000, p. 43) reminds us that humans are “communicative beings” and that humanization occurs through dialogue with others. In particular, in a pedagogical setting, dialogue functions as a catalyst in the emergence of the practice of freedom for both students and teacher in a teaching-learning exchange:

Through dialogue the teacher-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teacher cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-student with students-teachers (Freire 1984, p. 67).

Dialogue sets up the conditions for “authentic liberation” (Freire 1984, p. 66) to occur; it also provides for the possibility that people may move from naïve consciousness towards critical consciousness. In the latter state, people are more likely to be critical of “oppression” and want to act to change it.

This idea of developing critical awareness through critical reflection in adult learners has become almost a taken-for-granted component of what it means to be an effective adult educator, especially if one comes from a more radical, social justice perspective (Collins 1998; Brookfield 2005). Yet arguably mainstream adult educators such as Jack Mezirow in North America have built much of their reputations from exploring concepts of critical reflection, transformative learning and communicative action (an Habermasian ideal). These theorists pay tribute to Freire for providing theoretical substance to their emergent formulations (see Brookfield 1986, 1995, 2005; Mezirow 1981, 1991). However, there has been a distinct tendency to over-simplify the idea of conscientization from its historical origins in Brazil and apply it to First World contexts as “consciousness raising”. Yet major social movements in which adult educators have assumed active roles have drawn upon conscientization as an important step in mobilization. For instance, the respective waves of feminism have usually involved taking women away from a naïve understanding of their sometimes oppressive realities to a more critical stance towards capitalism and patriarchy. In adult education the work of feminists Thompson (1983) and Mayo (1997) is in part derivative of Freire’s pedagogy in which invoking conscientization plays a central role. In addition, the studies conducted by Mezirow with returning women to higher education in North America were primarily responsible for his emergent discourse around perspective transformation (1981). This is a process, according to Mezirow, where women challenge their psychosocial assumptions and develop a more critical positioning towards their structural oppression. Mezirow has subsequently been critiqued (see, for example, Collard and Law 1989) for the individualistic character of perspective transformation and the lack of consequential social action by women as a result of this process.

A major area of Freire’s project has been his penetrating analysis of traditional forms of education practice. Amid his notions of pedagogy is a denunciation of banking education and its destructive tendencies; instead he advocates for the humanising and liberatory impact of problem-posing education. The famous passage in chapter 2 of Pedagogy argues against the bestowal of knowledge by a bank-clerk educator upon the uninitiated by promoting instead an active enquiry-based approach in which students are potentially transformed into co-investigators of issues which arise in their lives. Their learning is inseparable from prevailing social and material conditions, from their immediate (usually oppressive) context. The role of the revolutionary educator is to have students engage “in critical thinking and the quest for mutual humanization” (1984, p. 62). It is essential that the student-teacher contradiction is reconciled because “no one can be authentically human while he (sic) prevents others from doing so” (ibid, p. 73).

This discourse around problem-posing education and critical thinking has been hardwired into critical pedagogy circles in adult education (Brookfield 2005). It has formed a baseline for a critique of the ways in which education (often unwittingly) helps to reproduce social inequalities. In a Marxist analysis of the relationship between education and unequal relationships in society, Freire aligns the unequal power relations between teacher and student with the domestication by education of disempowered groups in society. Oppression in the classroom mirrors oppression in civil society. Expressed differently, the unequal relationships in broader societal contexts such as racial/ethnic domination/subordination cannot be left at the door of the classroom. In this respect, according to Elias (1994), Freire may have exaggerated the role of education in producing inequalities or in remedying them. Whatever the reservations critics may hold regarding Freire’s exposition of these two different paradigms of teaching-learning, banking versus problem-posing education, this portrayal has been highly influential in many contexts of education but arguably most cogently in adult education where socially-democratic educators have used his ideas to expose conservative and life-inhibiting approaches to pedagogy (Brookfield 2005).

In adult education there are several philosophical traditions summarized in books such as Merriam and Brockett’s The profession and practice of adult education (1997) and Merriam and Caffarella’s Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (1999). The common differentiation is into liberalism, progressivism, behaviourism, social constructivism and radicalism. Such categories hide the modern reality of a very narrowed focus on those practices and accompanying underlying assumptions that favour the development of the individual (especially as an economic unit) rather than a critical pedagogy which emphasises social democracy, human liberation, and recognition of the actual, usually harsh, circumstances of marginalized groups. It is no accident that in New Zealand, Freire’s ideas found strong favour with leading Maori academics (see Walker 1990 and Smith 1999). Some of the essential qualities of kura kaupapa theory are distillations of Freirean pedagogy (Smith 1999). In Scotland, the ideas of Freire were the foundation for the Adult Learning Project in the working class suburb of Gorgie Dalry in Edinburgh (see Kirkwood and Kirkwood 1989, for elaboration on this initiative) and more latterly have been continued through the work of community learning and development practitioners (see Purcell 2006).

In that portion of adult education that still has an ethic of promoting social justice and democratic ideals, diminished though it may be, adult educators continue to use Freire as an exemplar of what it means to be an effective agent for social change.1 It is not a case of reducing Freire’s central concepts to a technical procedure or applying them to a formula (see Roberts 1999, for a critique of such reductionism). Instead, it is more a matter of invoking inspiration through astute questionning, of promoting a liberatory approach to social and educational issues, of upholding the importance of working with oppressed peoples with integrity and a shared vision for a better tomorrow. Essentially, it is a pedagogy of hope that is so crucial to adult educators as agents of social transformation. Just as Freire himself oscillates in his writings between pragmatism and idealism, adult educators as both practitioners and theorists tread this same ambivalent path. According to Coben (1998, p. 7), adult educators tend to veer towards an “undertheorization” and their use of theory is not unproblematic:

Theory may be used to obfuscate debate, to mystify understanding, or to legitimize particular practices, rather than as a tool for the interrogation of practice or for the exploration of ideas (ibid, p. 7).

In short, theory should be used to help adult educators think critically about their practice. There is a danger that they use Freirean concepts as a handbook for action without sufficient critique of his original ideas or subsequent applications of them.

While acknowledging the need for caution, it is noted that the applications of Freire’s philosophy and pedagogy are widespread in adult education (Mayo 1999). Applications have been reported by Findsen (1999) in the previously mentioned community development project in Edinburgh (Kirkwood and Kirkwood 1989); in popular education in Canada; in Ira Shor’s adaptation of Freire’s literacy approach in the community college system of New York (see particularly Critical teaching and everyday life, 1980) and in the dialogue between Myles Horton and Freire concerning the tenets of social change recorded in We make the road by walking (Bell et al. 1990). In the perhaps lesser known example of “Ah-hah” popular education workshops conducted by Gatt-Fly (1996) in Canada, the participants undertake structural analysis of local communities after drawing their societal positions in varied contexts such as Latin American immigrant workers, Toronto steelworkers and indigenous communities. No doubt other examples could be found internationally of Freire’s influence but there is a sense, using the author’s current base of Scotland as an example, that Freire’s influence is as strong as ever and a necessary antidote to neo-liberal practices of devolution, accountability, privatisation and individualisation. For instance, in the higher education sector especially, there is the need to be wary of excessive monitoring of individual staff performance and burdensome quality assurance mechanisms. The present Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) in the United Kingdom demonstrates how a system-wide initiative can have the effects of narrowing the definition of performance and of stifling creativity as individual academics race for an acceptable baseline of research activity. In adult education within universities Freire’s ideas function as a welcome relief to the dominant ideologies of individualism and competition and provide educators with an imperative for continuing with social justice-oriented projects aimed at helping to address social and cultural inequalities.

Lifelong Learning and Later Adulthood

The concept of lifelong learning, while problematic because of its multiple meanings (see, for instance, Jarvis 1985; Field 2002), has been popularised in governmental rhetoric related to the need to produce more knowledgeable and informed citizens. While discourses have primarily focussed on competitive nation state attempts to establish conducive conditions for workers to develop greater labour market capabilities (Field 2002), there is quite often a counter-balance provided by more socially democratic governments in terms of a social justice agenda. In the case of Scotland, for example, a report such as A Smart, Successful Scotland (2001) emphasised instrumental and vocational strategies with minimal reference to the importance of having an informed citizenry. Read in isolation from subsequent reports from the Scottish Executive, this exhortation to Scottish people to become more entrepreneurial and business-minded would distort a more balanced reality. There is an equally prevalent ethos within the public sphere of a strong social-democratic imperative illustrated in this country’s strong community learning and development initiatives. In Learning for All (2005) the Scottish Executive calls for greater social inclusion of groups traditionally marginalized from education. In this report, one supportive of lifelong learning yet dominated by neo-liberal discourse, several marginalized groups in Scottish society are targeted, including older adults. So while lifelong learning in most Western countries has been used by governments to support greater economic activity, there is at least some consciousness among more democratically-oriented societies such as Scotland of the necessity to find ways of enabling what Freire might call “oppressed groups” to have their voices heard. The tension between market liberalism and social inclusion in political ideology is evident in Government discourse. Most adult educators have been forced to contend with economic rationalism which accompanies a free market approach while endeavouring to find possibilities for social action based on a more socially inclusive context.

So, where do older adults fit into this context? A prominent educational gerontologist within the UK, Peter Laslett, developed a way of conceptualising major phases of the lifecourse in his well-known book, A fresh map of life (1989). He writes of four major phases or ages: in the first age of life, one of early socialisation, a person is heavily dependent on others, usually parents; the second age is one of adult maturity in which typically individuals take on increased responsibilities of social relationships, career development, perhaps childrearing and financial autonomy. In the third age, Laslett refers to renewed opportunities available to adults free from the constraints of the second age; it is a time for exercising greater freedom and creativity, sometimes suppressed in the “peak” of life when duties and obligations to work took precedence. In the final and fourth age, a person prepares for death and may once again be dependent as in the first age. This portrayal of later life is highly romanticised. Would the workers in the shipyards of the Clyde have seen life in this way? Probably not. However, Laslett’s typology does allow us to think of older adults in a positive light, away from ageist, outdated stereotypical views of older people as decrepit, frail and dependent on society. He also opened the door for more realistic portrayals of later life as a time for both expressive and instrumental forms of learning. Most significantly, he placed the third age of learning into a lifelong learning framework, arguing that learning and education continue throughout life and that there should be equality of educational opportunity, regardless of one’s location in the life course (Jarvis 2001).

Among attempts to provide a philosophy of older adult education, one important rendition, based on the learning needs of older adults, was provided by American pioneer in this field, McClusky (1974). Fundamentally, he pointed to at least four important learning needs as follows:
  • Coping needs: adults engaged in physical fitness, economic self-sufficiency, basic education;

  • Expressive needs: adults participating in activities for their own sake and not necessarily to achieve a goal;

  • Contributive needs: adults deciding how to be useful contributors to society;

  • Influence needs: adults becoming agents for social change.

For the vast majority of older adults, it is the coping and expressive needs which gain prominence in their lives. Indeed, most educational providers are quite adept at targeting seniors for helping to meet these groups of needs. Courses in preparing for retirement, creative writing, maintaining fitness and eating healthily are illustrations of this kind of course, perhaps provided by a local community education centre or a further education college or university. Yet contributive needs are also important for large portions of the older adult population as many elders seek to ‘repay’ society, often through volunteering activities in a host of agencies, thus providing a reserve of cheap labour. The fourth set of needs regarding influence are largely missing from many (older) people’s lives and are apparent in the political and cultural configurations of Scottish society. This needs-based model typically favours the middle classes wherein professionals and well-educated older people conduct education programs which fit their definition of what civil society should be.

It is sobering to consider older people’s spheres of influence in nation states and their relative visibility. Formalised influence groups for seniors include agencies concerned for older people such as Age Concern and Help the Aged. While there is much potential for seniors to effect social change (especially given the advances of new technologies for communication of which significant numbers of older people have increasing familiarity), this is counter-balanced by the marginalizing of many older adults from active participation as citizens and their own propensity to self-segregate (as in retirement villages). In most Western societies, it is the glorification of youth, exemplified in public advertising on television, which tends to have ideological dominance (Blaikie 1999). To be old is to be “other”, to be different (Biggs 1993; Bond et al. 1998). It is prudent to consider that while older people may be perceived as a homogenised group by those who think of themselves as “not old”, there is marked differentiation within third age cohorts. Just as the life experience differences between a 20 year old and a 50 year old are likely to be very pronounced, so the differences between a 50 and 80 year old can be similarly acknowledged. It is important to note that in applying Freirean analysis to the lives of older people I am referring to that portion of the third age population who are more overtly “oppressed” through dire poverty, poor housing, insufficient social welfare support or other social indicators indicative of major deprivation. It is simply untrue to state that all older people are “oppressed”. Many of societies’ richest people are in older age groups. Further, social deprivation may be only a temporary phenomenon. So, this argument relates principally to older people in long term states of deprivation for whom there are few possibilities for relief.

A serious social issue for societies is the treatment of older people (usually one of the most marginalized and least visible sectors of society). American pioneer, Moody, in 1976 developed a way of explaining patterns of treatment of the aged which still has a clear resonance today. These patterns reflect basic underlying assumptions made by society and education providers about older people. They also connect strongly with the four set of needs as expounded by McClusky (1974).

In the first instance, in what Moody called rejection, is the invisibility of older adults where society tends to avoid contact and segregate older people. In this scenario, education makes little sense as there is the (mis)perception of minimal productivity left in them. Secondly, there is the social service approach typically embodied in the institutions of the welfare state. A whole set of professionals and bureaucrats are required to oversee the distribution of social services with the motif of passivity being dominant. Its educational implication is that older people should be kept entertained and busy and they should be dependent on the providers. The third, more positive scenario, is one of older adult participation wherein the dignity and autonomy of people are upheld. The basic notion is to encourage older people into active engagement. Educationally, older people may adopt second (or third...) careers or take part in volunteerism. Education can encourage older adults to undertake advocacy in areas such as employment, social services and health. Fourth, the pattern of self-actualisation is emphasised where spiritual growth is highly valued. This is potentially a defining characteristic of older age, according to Moody. He stresses the importance of contemplation and meditation in older adulthood as part of self-actualisation. Educationally, the humanities and social sciences (philosophy, psychology, literature) can assist older adults to achieve this new dimension of meaning.

This pattern of treatment matches the earlier four types of learning need—coping, expressive, contributory and influence. Both approaches stress the centrality of meaning-making for older people and, in the more positive renditions of later life, the desire that they continually contribute to society as active citizens. The idea that older people should assert their rights and possibly take collective action to effect change is arguably an important function within civil society (Cusack 2000). It is this aspect of older adulthood practice that best connects with a Freirean approach, as explained below.

Educational Provision for Older Adults

In line with coping and expressive needs of older people, many programs based on individual development and skills upgrading have been developed both in business and in more general adult agencies. While undoubtedly individual personal development is important at any point in life, there are other philosophies at play in provision. The complexity of provision in older adult education matches that of younger people (Findsen 2005). Hence, other social objectives assume importance: education related to intellectual fulfilment; education for leisure and recreational pursuits; education for social cohesion; education in the arts and so on. Within the education sector itself, programs are seldom found to foster critical capacities of seniors which may challenge the social order. More commonly, more radicalised forms of education are located in agencies outside conventional funding systems where greater independence can be maintained.

If one investigates participation patterns of older adults in formal education in Scotland these are not much different from those of other countries. Almost universally in Westernised countries, studies have demonstrated differential access for groups of adults according to socio-economic status, social class, gender, ethnicity and geographical location. The under-engagement of older adults in higher education has been highlighted in the work of Sargant et al. as expounded in The learning divide (1997), of mature-aged women through Veronica McGivney’s studies (1990, 2004) and, very recently, in the efforts of Tuckett and McAuley (2005).

There is strong evidence to suggest that members of the white middle class are quite adept at looking after their learning needs, at least in comparison with working class groups and ethnic minorities (Tuckett and McAuley 2005). This comes as no surprise since prior education level is a powerful predictor of subsequent formal learning opportunities (Sargant et al. 1997). The challenge is to better understand the material and social conditions of working class older adults and how historically these circumstances have influenced their attitudes towards and participation in informal and formal learning contexts.2

To depict older adults’ learning as strongly connected to ‘official’ education institutions would be a mistake. There is far more education occurring in other ostensibly non-education agencies than we might expect (Findsen 2005). There are many organisations in which education plays a major or ancillary function without the word “education” appearing in neon signs. Many of the organisations which are committed to improving the life chances and living conditions of older adults (such as Age Concern; City Councils; Help the Aged) use educative strategies to fulfil their goals. Learning is not easily disentangled from social and cultural activity; it could be argued that taking a social issues approach to learning allows for really useful knowledge to be developed. By adult educators understanding the social and material conditions of older people’s lives they can more readily develop relevant curriculum wherein the older people themselves have a vested interest (Cervero and Wilson 1996).

The Emergence of a Critical Educational Gerontology

Peterson, like McClusky a pioneer in the emergent field of educational gerontology, described it as “a field of study and practice that has recently developed at the interface of adult education and social gerontology” (Peterson, 1976, p. 62, cited in Glendenning and Percy 1990, p. 14). In the journal Educational Gerontology, Peterson (1980) explained that this interface includes thee components: the education for older adults: public education about ageing; and the education of professionals and para-professionals in the field of ageing (ibid). In this paper the concern is mainly in the first domain with respect to the mobilization of older people for political ends but also with the role of adult educators as professionals in working with them.

Several educational gerontologists have acknowledged the limitations of current conceptions of this field and have used critical theory as a basis for new developments (Battersby 1987; Arber and Ginn 1995; Phillipson 1998, 2000; Cusack 2000; Glendenning 2000). My thesis supports this critical approach and argues for a more hardened coupling with social gerontology as an appropriate way forward to develop a critical educational gerontology (Estes 1991). This new discourse about the education of older adults moves away from a functionalist tradition of adaptation of individuals to society to one which emphasises the agency of older adults, their collective capacity to empower themselves. This approach to critical theory, of which Freire’s pedagogy is especially useful, provides the basis for such a critique of the status quo and for the call for social action to empower older adults. Freire’s ontological stance, including a Marxist and humanist orientation, has direct affinity with this critical theory approach.

A Freirean Discourse: Older Adults and Critical Educational Gerontology

In previous work (Findsen 1998, 1999, 2002) I have pointed to the potential for the use of Freirean philosophy and practice for marginalized groups in society, including indigenous peoples, the poor and disenfranchised workers. Particularly, I argue that Freire’s corpus of work provides a useful framework for proactive curriculum development based on disenfranchised people’s generative themes. The seeds of this approach were planted in Freire’s literacy work in diverse countries, where he emphasises challenging the status quo, power sharing and the establishment of learning programs for and with marginalized groups in which they assume greater autonomy. The plight of many older adults is similar. Apart from self-help learning organisations such as the University of the Third Age (U3A), the membership of which is disproportionately white, middle-class and economically and educationally privileged, the majority of older adults have diminished prospects for effecting change to improve the quality of their lives. At the extreme, there are significant numbers of older people in Western nations constituting an underclass who suffer severe deprivation (see Bernard and Scharf 2007, for discussion of critical theory related to actual examples in the UK).

Returning to Freire’s work, a fundamental tenet is that adult educators should be fully conversant with the socio-cultural context in which older adults conduct their lives. Educators should understand cultural and material conditions so that they are dealing with these adults’ realities, not some false consciousness. Freire advocates that people are capable of being the subjects in their own learning, of knowing their world and acting on it (Freire 1984). The relationship implied between educator and student is that of collaborators who both understand the constraints of the situation brought on by structural conditions but also the potentiality of learners to overcome oppressive practices via collective social action. Initially it is necessary that co-investigation of limit situations be undertaken wherein taken for granted aspects of daily life are reinterpreted for generative themes including an analysis of differential power relations between “oppressors” and “oppressed”; then through conscientization—the new collective awareness by the affected group of learners of the oppressive features of the social context—and praxis, the older learners adopt specific actions to challenge the social order and make significant changes in their lives. As previously argued, oppression of older people is not experienced evenly; however, the work of Phillipson (1998) points to the poverty and sense of fatalism experienced by many older people in the UK.

This emancipatory task requires courage for it challenges dominant groups who are not readily about to give away their privileged positions and power. Freire astutely criticizes most of traditional education for its narrative character in which knowledge is usually bestowed by some expert to the masses (empty vessels), where consultation on what constitutes appropriate curriculum is negligible and “objective knowledge” is regurgitated at some appropriate point (e.g. for examinations). This banking education approach is the antithesis of a humanising, authentic pedagogy, one which endorses the creativity of people to become what they are capable of becoming. I argue that older adults, despite their advanced chronological years, are deserving of emancipation from oppression in whatever guise. Given that older adults are usually rich in life experiences (Knowles et al. 1984), their store of individual knowledge can be substantial; in combining knowledge, the reconstructed social knowledge can be considerable (Dewey 1938; Kolb 1984). This emergent form of collective knowledge construction is based on the effectiveness of dialogue and the resolution of the teacher-student contradiction. Many older people in the UK, usually participants in schooling of the 1930s to 1970s, often adopt a passive, defensive stance with respect to education even though in other spheres of life they may exhibit considerable autonomy. Desirable problem-posing education strategies may not develop intuitively but need to be nurtured by adult educators sensitive to the material and social conditions of elders’ lives.

In an effort to encapsulate some workable principles for adult educators emergent from Freire’s writings and practice, I have previously enunciated the following aspirations (Findsen 1999, p. 76):
  • An educator does not impose knowledge on others but works with them to jointly construct knowledge

  • Adults should be encouraged to take increasing responsibility for their own learning and not be dependent on the teacher (outside expert) to interpret the world for them

  • Teachers and learners are, in fact, co-learners in a situation where mutual respect must operate

  • Learning is not something done to learners but is a process and result of what learners do for themselves

  • The teacher does not enforce choice but rather encourages learners to make decisions and choices for themselves

  • Responsibility and freedom are primarily in the hands of learners but the teacher is not exempt from exercising responsibility and on occasions intervening in the situation.

The danger in voicing these tenets is that they may be seen as prescriptive and inhibitory, just the opposite of what Freire himself would want. These recommendations for adult educators are intended as aspirations consistent with Freire’s discourse on dialogue and praxis.

This set of principles can be applied to older learners. From this standpoint it is imperative that marginalized older lifelong learners engage in an active, creative struggle to not only assert their rights to formal education opportunities but also to develop critical thinking processes and collective social action to fight against a prevailing ideology that presents older people as passive bystanders, dependent recipients of the public purse and non-contributors to civil society (Bytheway 1995).

Typically education is perceived by most in society as essentially a preparatory exercise for the challenges of adulthood—it is something enacted before ‘real life’ takes over. It will be difficult to change this prevailing narrow conception of education. Universities, which arguably should be at the cutting edge of advocacy for lifelong learners, are too often recalcitrant actors still comfortable with giving preference to talented young adults directly from school. Given that governmental funding in most countries is in decline in real terms, there will be considerable reluctance to redistribute resources from the young to the old or even to spread the resource more evenly across the life course. Nor can employers normally be called upon to support educational claims of older adults except perhaps in preparation of workers for ‘retirement’. Hence, the most likely effective longer-term strategy for greater older adult self-determination is to support self-help provision in the independent tradition of adult education but moving beyond middle class models.

For adult educators (in this case for those working alongside older people), education principles from a social justice perspective suggest a different kind of relationship with older adults from traditional norms. Gramsci (1971) has previously identified organic intellectuals—those who emerge from within a cultural group and who understand the social norms and aspirations of the people—as usually more effective than traditional intellectuals, those closely associated with universities. These organic intellectuals do not take control of the learning process but act, in Freirean terms, as co-investigators, to help older adults understand better the origin of relative powerlessness and to work collaboratively to effect social and political change through an educative process. To be sure, such educators are not neutral agents. On the contrary, these persons’ values, predilections and expertise are explicitly stated or obvious to the group of older learners. In this case, educators’ roles should be transparent throughout the investigation of older adults’ generative themes and issues. Educators and older adult learners are jointly engaged in a consciousness-raising exercise for the purposes of enacting social action to change their world, to improve their quality of life. The learning programs which emerge should reflect the authentic aspirations of the older adults and be issue-based. For instance, this may involve an action learning group to fight against oppressive policy and practices in social housing schemes. This proactive and more self-determined learning strategy differs from conventional provision for older adults, where curriculum is usually determined by experts who think they know what is best for older people (akin to the social service model explained by Moody 1976).

This Freirean approach links to the contributive and influence needs of older adults, as previously outlined, and to Moody’s two later depictions of older adulthood. Too much provision for older adults has so far been couched in coping and expressive terms only rather than in more overtly politically-oriented projects to foster older adults’ self-efficacy. This critical educational approach, derivative of a Freirean stance, requires older adults to assume more active construction of their own knowledge and to collectively decide what needs changing in their physical, social and political environments to improve the quality of their lives. In this scenario, adult educators need to exercise great sensitivity and disclose their own agendas to achieve the trust and credibility from older people. On the other hand, Freire does not argue against intervention per se but he advocates the kind which will eventually leave older co-investigators as more autonomous and self-reliant once the educator withdraws from the situation.

Concluding Remarks

The purpose of this article has been to link Freirean philosophy and pedagogy to the emerging field of educational gerontology, a sub-field of adult education. It is argued that many of Freire’s concepts and principles have direct applicability to the work of adult educators working alongside older adults or for older adult learners who take on their own leadership for social purposes. In particular, Freire’s ideas fit comfortably within a critical educational gerontology approach as they challenge prevailing orthodoxies and provide a robust analytical framework from which radical educators can work.

The current characteristics of conventional educational provision for older adults have been elaborated to identify their primarily liberal or conservative traditions. Given the heterogeneity of older adults, there are many who have previously been disenfranchised from formal education opportunities and continue to be marginalized, even in the non-formal education arena.3 It is in this kind of scenario that Freire has so much relevance for educators, whether as invited experts or as leaders emergent from the actual members of marginalized groups. While middle-class inventions, for instance, the University of the Third Age, point to some operating principles espoused by liberal adult educators such as Knowles et al. (1984) and Mezirow (1991), they are simply unsuitable for working class people who have usually not benefited from any adult education provision let alone appropriate for increasing numbers of older people in Western societies’ underclass. Indeed, marginalized older people are quite justifiably suspicious of any patronizing professionals who unthinkingly bestow ‘wisdom’ upon them.

In Freire’s pedagogy, adult educators with a strong social justice ethic can see ways forward where working as co-investigators of older people’s limit situations they can problematize realities and help older people to reconstruct educational opportunities. Effective responses from governments to marginalized older people’s educational needs are unlikely to eventuate—they are scarce and often ideologically based on Moody’s first two treatment patterns. Such orthodox approaches serve to reinforce the status quo and maintain a hegemonic state. Therefore, the independent tradition of adult education, epitomized by Paulo Freire, provides the potential for a more satisfactory response based on self-determined curriculum related to real issues faced by older people. This approach, based on a pedagogy of hope, has the potential to transform the quality of some older people’s lives.


See, Kane 2001, for further discussion on Freire’s influence on adult education in Latin America.


The author is currently engaged in a research project funded by the West of Scotland Wider Access Forum to investigate the engagement of older adults in further and higher education in the West of Scotland, primarily from the perspective of the older students.


See Findsen 2006, for an explanation for the reproduction of social inequalities amid older adults in both non-formal and informal learning environments.


Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007