Daniel Schugurensky, Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)

AEC 3131H

Popular Education: 
Comparative and International Perspectives

Winter 2010

Wed. 5:00 pm - 8:00 p.m

Room 4-410

Instructor: Daniel Schugurensky. Send me an e-mail!

Office: OISE 7-119

Telephone: (416) 978-0812

Office hours: Wed. 4-5 p.m. or by appointment



Popular Education: A Snapshot




Arguably the key element of popular education is its commitment to promoting social justice. Although it includes a range of practices and ideological approaches, it often includes four features:

   1. a rejection of the neutrality of adult education, which implies a recognition of the relations between knowledge and power and between structure and agency, and the acknowledgment that adult education can play a role to reinforce but also to challenge oppressive social relations.

   2. an explicit political commitment to work with the poor and the marginalized, and to assist social movements in fostering progressive social and economic change.

   3. a participatory and dialogical pedagogy that focuses on the collective, departs from people’s daily lived experiences and promotes an integration of popular and systematized (scientific) knowledge.


4. an attempt to constantly relate education and social action, linking critical reflection with research, mobilization and organization strategies.


Schugurensky, Daniel (2000). Adult education and social transformation: On Gramsci, Freire and the challenge of comparing comparisons. (Essay Review), Comparative Education Review 44(4), 515-522.



Popular education is characterized by four basic elements:


   1. horizontal relationships between facilitators and participants.

   2. response to a need expressed by an organized group.

   3. group involvement in planning the training and political action.

   4. acknowledgement that the community is the source of knowledge.


Hamilton, Edwin and Phyllis M. Cunningham (1989). Community-Based Adult Education. In Sharon B. Merriam and Phyllis M. Cunningham (Eds.), Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education (pp. 439-450). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.




Popular education is characterized by six features:


   1. it is rooted in the real interests and struggles of ordinary people.

   2. it is overtly political and critical of the status quo.

   3. it is committed to progressive social and political change.

   4. its curriculum comes out of the concrete experience and material interests of people in communities of resistance and struggle.

   5. its pedagogy is collective, primarily focused on group rather than individual learning and development.

   6. it attempts to forge a direct link between education and social action.


Crowther, Jim, Ian Martin and Mae Shaw (1999). Popular education and social movements in Scotland today. Leicester: NIACE.




Popular education involves an inherently self-reflective, reflexive and non-dogmatic approach. It works to make space for the collective production of knowledge and insight, and builds on what emerges from the experiences of those actively participating. The richness of the approach lies, therefore in the thought and implicit analysis that has gone into the design of the specific educational events or programs, and in the spontaneous, sometimes serendipitous, process it unfolds at a particular moment, yielding even more challenges and possibilities.

Walters, S. and Manicom, L. (eds.) (1996) Gender in Popular Education. Methods for empowerment, London: Zed Books.  




Popular education is a democratic practice of education rooted in social and economic justice struggle and intended to make social change. “Pop-ed” is sometimes thought of as simply a “bag of tricks” that promote conversation and reflection in a more “fun” way than conventional means – it’s not seen as being as serious and purposeful. However, popular education (both the tools and the theory) is a radical means of analyzing power, oppression and resistance and collectively learning in the context of community organizing.

Catalyst Centre, Toronto




Popular education is an education where we relearn co-operation and responsibility, that is critically reflective but creatively looks forward- an education that is popular, of and from the people. Popular, liberatory or radical education aims at getting people to understand their world around them, so they can take back control collectively, understand their world, intervene in it, and transform it. There are many examples of groups that can organize their own worlds without experts and professionals, challenge their enemies and build movements for change. Trapese has identified 6 characteristics of popular education:


1. A commitment to transformation and freedom - At the heart of popular education is a desire not just to understand the world, but to empower people so they can change it.


2. Learning our own histories not his-story. Although there is always at least two sides to every story, the vast majority of official history is exactly that his-story, written by the literate educated few, mainly men, not by peasants, workers, fighters, or women. We are taught about leaders of world wars and histories of great scientists, but not much about the silent millions who struggled daily for justice. These are the ordinary people doing extra-ordinary things who are the invisible makers of history.


3. Starting from daily realities - Looking at how problems and issues affect people in their daily lives


4. Learning together as equals and showing solidarity - Popular education aims to break down the relationship between teachers/ students and educators and participants.


5. Getting out of the classroom - Learning can take place everywhere and anywhere


6. Inspiring social change - enabling particpants to feel connected to wider issues and to be take action on the issues that concern them.




The methods and approach of Trapese aim to:

    * Developing a critical awareness about the world we live in

    * Promoting social and environmental justice -over economic gain

    * Valuing creative, emotional knowledge rather than just facts


In practice, this involves:

* Getting to know the group and its context beforehand and adopting our sessions to meet their needs.

* Working with existing experiences and knowledge within groups in a non-hierarchical way

* Stimulating debate and free thinking rather than dictating facts.

* Helping with future action plans, looking at local opportunities for organising, networking contacts for training, etc.

Trapese (Taking Radical Action through Popular Education and Sustainable Everything!)  http://trapese.org




Popular education is the term applied to a series of principles that have their roots in the theories of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. community educators, classroom teachers, trade-union educators and many others have been inspired by Freire’s theories. There are other terms that are sometimes used including liberatory education and critical pedagogy, but essentially all these terms denote education that is working toward the helping people analyze their reality and work toward the transformation of society.


There are many times in your practice where you will see the principles of popular education intertwined with the methodological aspects. Although you never want to reduce popular education to a series of techniques, it is good to know that some of the methods that people use come from these principles. The belief that all people have the capacity to become critical thinkers and to work to solve their own problems lies at the heart of popular education methodology. Participants in a popular education setting are active subjects, not passive objects. Taking an active role helps people learn better.  It helps them care more about what they are learning. A facilitator who works this way becomes a co-learner with the participants. Indeed, the facilitator should take guidance from the participants throughout the planning and workshop process. Whenever possible the facilitator should incorporate the personal experiences of the participants into the work.


In our view the best way to help to strengthen the movement for social change is to help create leaders who are critical thinkers. But it is important to note that we work to develop leadership from within the communities we work with. Why is critical consciousness so important? We believe that for people to begin to work to change the relationship between the oppressed and the oppressors, they need to be able to analyze the world around them in order to see beyond hegemonic forces. For this reason, we spend a lot of time helping people learn analytical tools that they can apply in a variety of situations. But because we are working within the context of social change, analysis is connected to action.


Mary Zerkel, ed. (2001). Excerpts from Economics Education: Building a Movement for Global Economic Justice. American Friends Service Committee: 6-9.




“Education as social practice is focused specifically on production, circulation and transmission of specified knowledge, norms and behavior. As a social practice it is not neutral: it is rooted within the perspectives of a given model of social organization. In this context, popular education is defined as a social practice that clearly is at the service of popular groups and their interests. Historically, popular education has been characterized by dealing with this knowledge, those norms and behaviors within projects that are more or less explicit in social transformation.

These projects can take on characteristics and forms that are absolutely dissimilar, ranging from small activities to form groups in small communities to the vast mobilizations against international organisms. As an educational process it deals with content and method. The contents refer to social struggle analysis and strategies. The methodology of popular education, in a specific manner, has dealt with active and participatory modalities, where the action of the entire group, educators and learners, occurs horizontally and democratically, without reproducing forms of domination and individualism. It is also within its perspective, as educational work, that social groups gain autonomy for learning as a methodology to promote the independence of social players.


Haddad, Sergio (2003). The World Social Forum As A Place of Learning. Convergence, Volume XXXVI, Numbers 2-3, p. 57.



The idea of popular education (often described as “education for critical consciousness”) as a teaching methodology came from a Brazilian educator and writer named Paulo Freire, who was writing in the context of literacy education for poor and politically disempowered people in his country. It’s different from formal education (in schools, for example) and informal education (learning by living) in that it is a process which aims to empower people who feel marginalized socially and politically to take control of their own learning and to effect social change.


Popular education is a collective effort in which a high degree of participation is expected from everybody. Teachers and learners aren’t two distinct groups; rather, everyone teaches and everyone learns! Learners should be able to make decisions about what they are learning, and how the learning process takes place. A facilitator is needed to make sure that new ideas arise, progress, and don’t get repetitive, but this isn’t at all the same thing as a teacher. In popular education, then, we can’t teach another person, but we can facilitate another’s learning and help each other as we learn.


In popular education, the learning process starts with identifying and describing everyone’s own personal experience, and that knowledge is built upon through various activities done in groups. After the activity, a debriefing process allows us to analyse our situation together; seeing links between our own experience and historical and global processes in order to get the “big picture”. Through the generation of this new knowledge, we’re able to reflect more profoundly about ourselves and how we fit into the world. This new understanding of society is a preparation to actively work towards social change. In fact, in popular education, the education process isn’t considered to be complete without action on what is learned; whether it be on a personal or political level.


Bob Hale Youth College for Social Justice: Participants’ Handbook. Peace and Environment Resource Centre   





This type of education is often initiated from outside and requires an external agent such as an animateur, popular educator, social mediator. Programs begin with an attempt to identify the problems, expectations and daily needs of [the community] and have a commitment to help them. The main goal of the popular educator should be to help the people reclaim their collective history so that they can bring about the structural changes that ensure the fulfilling of their needs and wishes, both in their daily lives and on a broader cultural level. This is the building up of popular power.


Cadena, Felix (1984). "Popular Adult Education and Peasant Movements for Social Change." Convergence 17, no. 3.




Popular education claims to be an alternative educational approach directed toward the promotion of social change, rather than social stability, and toward the organization of certain educational activities. Theses are activities that contribute to liberation from the existing social order and to transformation; not mere social and economic reforms but structural changes that make it possible to overcome the prevailing unjust situation. Advocates of popular education do not over-emphasize the role of education in the process.


Since social transformation is a very complex phenomenon made up of social-economic and political variables, education must be integrated into a more general social effort. The specific task of education is related to the need for the transformation process to be assumed by the people as a ‘historic program’ which offers the concrete opportunity for them to become the subject of their own lives. To achieve this, the people need to reach new and better levels of collective action, each time more organized, wider and more critical. One of the most relevant efforts is the education of popular groups that are potentially able to act as conscious agents of the process of social change. Thus, popular education is a tool for developing critical social consciousness among the transformation agents in order to create specific dynamics in the action/reflection relationship.


Vio Grossi, Francisco (1981). Convergence, Volume XIV, No.2, 1981




Adult education will become an agency of progress if its short-term goal of self-improvement can be made compatible with a long-term, experimental but resolute policy of changing the social order.

Eduard Lindeman, The Meaning of Adult Education (1926).



What distinguishes popular education from 'adult, 'nonformal' or 'permanent' education, for example, is the belief that in the context of social injustice, education can nver be politically neutral; if it does not side with the poorest and marginalized sectors -the 'oppressed'- in an attempt to transform society, then it necessarily sides with the 'oppressors' in maintaining the structures of oppresion, even if by default.

Liam Kane, Popular Education and Social Change in Latin America




Fundamental to the concept of popular education is an a priori political commitment in favour of the 'popular classes' in which the role of education is to help people to overcome oppresion and injustice.

Liam Kane, Popular Education and Social Change in Latin America




The essential characteristic of popular education is that it is defined by its conception of class, class commitment and its organic link with the popular movement

Carlos Nuñez



It is useful for the adult educator to be able to work with all forms of oppression simultaneously, facilitating the exploration of differences.

Shirley Walters, Gender and Adult Education (1996)



It would be a mistake to think of popular education as an ideological battleground between left and right, where the aims is to supplant, in the mind of the learner, one set of (albeit progessive) ideas for another. Treating learners as passive recipients of information -if not propaganda- would be the antithesis of adult education, a process which places high value on the knowledge already possessed by the 'popular classes' and on the active process of learning and the development of capacity for critical thought.

Liam Kane, Popular Education and Social Change in Latin America



By popular education we mean a collective process through which the popular sectors manage to become historical subjects, directors and protagonists of a liberatory project in their own class interests

Mario Peresson



The technique was discovered by facing the actual situation and planning a way by which the people of eastern Canada could be mobilized to think, to study, and to get enlightenment. We found the discussion circle. This did not involve any teachers. It was in line with our whole co-operative idea. We would make people come together by themselves and discuss their problems.

Moses Coady, The Antigonish Way (1943)




Liberation is a praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it.

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed




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 women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed




Every social action group should at the same time be an adult education group, and I go even as far as to believe that all successful adult education groups sooner or later become social action groups.

Eduard Lindeman, The Sociology of Adult Education (1945)





Go to the people. Learn from them. Live with them.  Start with what they know.  Build with what they have.  But the best of leaders when the job is done, when the task is accomplished, the people will say we have done it ourselves.

Lao Tzu, 604 B.C.




The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.

Steve Biko. Speech in Cape Town, 1971



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