Educating for Freedom

In an earlier post, I encourage my readers to explicitly name the great virtues they would like their students to have. It is important that we (educators) ask ourselves these important questions to find and give meaning to the work we do with children and youth. For me, education was (and still is today) the way to freedom; the necessary tool to empower others and create a better future. Paulo Freire, one of the founders of critical pedagogy, believed that all education (in the broadest sense) was part of a project of freedom, a preparation for a self-managed life. In this post, I want to offer an “SEL perspective” on Freire’s work and identify the social and emotional competencies we need to teach and practice in order to fulfill Freire’s dream: to develop self-determined citizens that engage in civic life and critically contribute to society.



Freire believed that literacy was preparation for a self-managed life. This self-management could only occur when people have fulfilled three goals of education:

First goal – Self-reflection: knowing ourselves and understanding the world in which we live, in its economic, political and psychological dimension.

Self-reflection starts, simply, with the “self”. Being aware of the ways in which we respond to challenges, the things that excite and disgust us, the talents we bring to school are elements of who we are as people that, often, don’t get discussed or explored in classrooms. Being reflective is something that may come naturally to some students, but not all; so it is important to create a time during the day when students are asked to think about themselves (as learners, as friends, as problem-solvers) in a guided way. This self-awareness builds the foundation to understand others and will enable making connections to the world around us. To start developing your students’ self-awareness, try these 3 steps.

Second goal – Awareness of the forces that have hitherto ruled our lives and especially shaped our consciousness.

Engaging in this second goal asks that teachers and students develop a “critical eye”. It means reflecting on the privileges (or lack of) we may experience due to our identity markers (gender, race, class, sexual orientation or physical ability) and check what kind of biases we bring to the table. Critical thinking is developed when students are encouraged to question the normal order of things and offered a chance to solve problems creatively. Building on the first goal, this awareness opens the door to possibilities. That is to say, when we know the lenses we use to understand the world we can choose to accept, reject or change those worldviews. Realizing that we have choices, the keystone to self-management, is the next frontier; the skill that allows us to respond, instead of react, and make informed and responsible decisions. To get started, read this great article on race for educators, and help students differentiate between fact, feeling, and argument.

Third goal – Help set the conditions for producing a new life, that is imagining and creating a future that will not merely reproduce the present.

What a wonderful goal! In a way, this is about giving students the keys to their own future… It requires trust from both parties, students to teachers and teachers to students, and the belief that things can be different and better if we work together to make it happen. From an SEL perspective, trust is possible when we are able to connect and show care for each other; it’s about relationship skills and the ability to show empathy. The Dalai Lama writes “the more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes. Cultivating a close, warm-hearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. This helps remove whatever fears or insecurities we may have and gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we encounter. It is the ultimate source of success in life.” To get started, watch this fantastic video on empathy by Brené Brown and browse this list of activities to do in your classroom. What are your students take-aways from this work? What actions can they take to improve the world around them?

Education must not only prepare students for the job market, but most importantly equip students with the skills and attitudes to become responsible citizens in society. For Freire, it meant developing critical thinkers that would help build a more just, compassionate, and equitable world. SEL supports this ambitious goal by developing students that know themselves and seek to understand the world around them, explore their biases to make better choices, connect with others and show empathy, and are creative problem-solvers. SEL provides practical tools to prepare for a self-managed life.

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