Problem-posing education is an active learning strategy where a teacher or student poses a problem and the class collaborates to find answers.
The six key characteristics of problem-posing education (PPE) are:
- Learners are conscious and capable.
- Learning takes place through problem-solving.
- Learning must be practical.
- Students and teachers are co-investigators.
- The teacher learns from the students.
- Learning is a Process of Becoming
PPE was first presented by Christian Socialist and progressive educator Paulo Freire in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It is a progressive-democratic teaching strategy, popular in 21st Century education.
It is juxtaposed to banking education, also theorized by Freire, which involves transmission-style teaching and passive learning.
Key Characteristics of Problem-Posing Education
Six key characteristics of PPE include: (1) Learners are conscious and capable. (2) Learning takes place through problem-solving; (3) Learning must be practical; (4) Students and teachers are co-investigators; (5) The teacher learns from the students; (6) Learning is the process of becoming.
Below is an outline of each key characteristic.
1. Learners are Conscious and Capable
Problem-posing education respects that students are active and agentic learners.
In banking education, learners are considered passive recipients of knowledge. They are not presumed to have any prior knowledge or inherent intelligence. Their job is to simply absorb information that is deposited into their minds by their teacher.
However, from a PPE perspective, Freire argues that learners are in fact conscious and capable. It, therefore, follows that:
- Cognitive Approaches are best: Learning occurs through cognitive processes. In other words, we learn when our minds are exercised and we’re asked to think hard about something.
- Prior Knowledge matters: Students’ prior knowledge and existing intelligence should be used to help them think about new topics.
2. Learning takes place through Problem-Solving
One of the best ways to support students’ learning is by presenting problems to them for them to find ways to solve.
Instead of students being given answers, they are given problems. Once a student is given a problem, they need to use their intelligence and research skills to seek out an answer.
The answer is not given or ‘gifted’ to the student like in the banking approach. Instead, the answer must be discovered by the students alone.
Some key considerations when posing problems include:
- Both the teacher and the student can pose a problem. It is not just the teacher’s role to come up with problems, although they can and do. Sometimes, a student will come to the class with a problem. It is appropriate and encouraged that the class works together to come up with an answer to the problem that was posed.
- The answer is not already known. Sometimes the teacher may have the answer in their mind, sometimes, they may not. But even if the teacher knows the answer, they should not tell the students. The students need to come up with it themselves. Furthermore, the teacher might change their mind after new knowledge is discovered by the students – so, the teacher needs to keep an open mind to the knowledge discovered through the process.
3. Learning must be Practical
Problem Posing Education believes that practical education is more important than theoretical education.
Freire did not like that 20th Century education was so theoretical. Information was presented to students without context or consideration for how it would be used outside of school.
Purely theoretical information can be bad because:
- Students feel like it has no relevance to them and their lives.
- It is hard to remember because students don’t have any lived experiences of using it.
- It may not be of any use to students in the future.
So, Freire argued that all learning should be both theoretical and practical. Any theoretical information that is presented needs to be linked to real life. Students need to know why and how the theoretical information impacts their lives.
Benefits of practical learning include:
- Students can use what they are learning in real life.
- Learning occurs through engagement with the world, the discovery of facts, and trial and error.
- Knowledge is contextualized, making it easier to store and recall.
4. Students and Teacher are Co-investigators
Teachers should not be the authoritative holders of knowledge but rather should be open-minded investigators alongside their students.
Freire argued that the banking model of education separated students and teachers. The teacher was the knowledge giver and the student the knowledge receiver.
This created a power imbalance where the teacher held all the power, and students were unable to exercise any power of their own.
When the teacher has all the power, students:
- Learn to be passive followers.
- Do not learn democratic values.
- Fail to develop critical thinking skills.
Freire argued that the role of the teacher needs to be changed. Teachers should now be seen as co-investigators.
When teachers are co-investigators:
- The teacher does not have to be an expert on every topic.
- The students and teachers work as a team rather than having opposing roles.
- Students are given a chance to exercise agency (the ability to impact the learning process) in the classroom.
5. The Teacher learns from the Students
If teachers are no longer the authoritarian in the classroom, new possibilities emerge.
It would not be possible for the teacher to learn alongside the students.
But Freire takes this future: the teacher might also learn things from the students!
This is because:
- The teacher respects that students have prior knowledge that might be useful in the classroom.
- The teacher doesn’t presume to know all the answers. Answers unfold through the problem solving exercises.
- The teacher should be open to changing their mind when new information is introduced by the students.
As Freire argues:
“The teacher presents the material to the students for their consideration, and re-considers her earlier considerations as the students express their own.” (Freire, 1970, p. 81)
6. Learning is a Process of Becoming
Freire believed that learning is an endless process. Teachers and students combined are constantly learning throughout their lives.
He therefore argued for learning to be considered a ‘process of becoming’. Whenever we learn something new, we change our ideas and even ourselves. We become more knowledgeable, wiser, thoughtful, etc.
Problem-posing education is very beneficial for the process of becoming because the things we learn are directly relevant to the troubles in our lives. We come across a problem and we consider how to overcome it. In the process, we learn new things and ‘become’ more knowledgeable in the process.
Pros and Cons of Problem-Posing Education
Benefits of problem-posing education include:
- Students learn by actively discovering and examining new knowledge rather than passively absorbing information.
- Students and teachers are partners in learning, which gives students a sense of empowerment and ownership over their learning environment.
- Teachers do not feel like they have to know all the answers to the questions students have.
- Students learn about phenomena that have relevance to their everyday lives, and don’t just learn theoretical ideas.
- Students are encouraged to develop problem-solving, creative and critical thinking skills.
- Open communication and social learning are encouraged, helping students build communication skills and learn from one another.
Limitations of problem-posing education include:
- The teacher must relinquish control over the classroom and needs to accept uncertainty about how a lesson will turn out.
- Sometimes theoretical ideas need to be taught, and these ideas may best be presented using direct instruction.
- Learning is more difficult: students need to exercise cognitive strategies, higher-order thinking sills and active learning strategies that require cognitive load.
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Problem Posing vs Banking Education
Problem posing helps educators overcome the damaging practice of banking education and the two are seen as opposites.
The banking approach was widespread in the 20th Century. It involved teacher transmission of information to ‘fill’ students’ minds like they are empty vessels waiting to be loaded up with facts.
In banking education:
- Teachers teach through transmission or dictation.
- Students are passive learners.
- Students must memorize the information given to the students.
- The teacher has all the power, the student has none.
- The teacher is supposed to hold all knowledge and their knowledge is unquestionable.
- The student is seen as unintelligent and having no prior knowledge
Banking education had several harmful effects:
- It denied students the right to freedom of thought, critical thinking or creativity.
- It created a dualism between the teacher as knowledge holder and student as knowledge receiver.
- It denied that students have prior knowledge or innate intellect.
- It prepared students to be compliant workers in capitalist economies.
According to Freire, the way to ‘liberate’ students from this damaging form of education was to change the roles of the teacher and student. Students needed to be empowered to take control of their own learning.
‘Problem posing’ would help achieve student empowerment.
In a Problem-Posing Approach:
- Instead of the teacher being the knowledge holder, no one would be.
- A problem would be presented by someone in the class and the class would have to discover an answer together.
- The student is seen as an active learner capable of reaching conclusions through the use of cognitive skills.
- The teacher is seen as a co-learner.
- The student’s prior knowledge is used to help them understand a topic.
A problem-posing approach would aim to:
- Develop free-thinking students who came to conclusions using logic rather than repeating what their teacher said.
- Create democratic classrooms where the teacher did not domineer and impose their beliefs upon the students.
- Embrace and encourage students’ use of prior knowledge to learn new information.
- Encourage higher-order cognition.
Problem-posing education is an active learning strategy that empowers students in the classroom. It encourages learning that is connected to problems that are relevant and interesting to students’ lives. It requires changing the roles of the teacher and students so the teacher relinquishes authority, embraces uncertainty, and encourages class co-investigation.
PPE was outlined in Chapter 2 of Freire’s book Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Read Chapter 2 online for free here.
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.
Shor, I. (1987). Freire for the classroom: A sourcebook for liberatory teaching. New Hampshire: Heinemann Educational Books
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.