Literacy – Learning to Question

About literacy – opinion by Marco Antonio del Rio Anabalon (Dianova Chile)

One should not discuss literacy without quoting Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire who directly influenced generations of educators both in Latin America and worldwide. According to Freire – who used to live in Chile for a number of years – “We should learn to question, as opposed to teaching answers”. Indeed, regular school tends to inhibit curiosity and to undermine the ability children have to question questions, which is a source for learning.

There is a fundamental gap in the learning process, from kindergarten to elementary school. The first stage encompasses exploration and questioning abilities which reinforce and trigger learning processes. In the second stage however, most educators demand responses and the right ones. In addition, such responses are subject to course-evaluation while questions are left aside.

This gap is prone to having medium and long term consequences in individuals, and for that reason, we ought to remember another, relevant quote by Freire: “My view of literacy goes much beyond he ABC’s; the literacy process demands a critical comprehension of the political and social reality in which learners reside”. Exactly. Teaching implies to foster comprehension capacities and to do so, one must also promote a questioning capacity as well as a facilitating learning environment.

Our interventions, both in substance abuse prevention and educational support and social skills programs, are developed under the latter assumptions. They generate among our beneficiaries an affective and effective climate which allows the emergence of reflection and critical thinking. Our experience with clients in drug treatment programs has been especially relevant in that our patients find much satisfaction in their therapeutic process. In addition, this process is supported by schooling and by the emphasis given to what we have termed “Life abilities”.

Similarly, with the same view of pedagogy or andragogy in this case, this is the process that we carry out with workers in the field of drug prevention. Even though this is no novelty, what is important is the praxis. In addition, one should remember Carl Rogers’ views in this respect. In the 60’s, this eminent American psychologist and humanist argued that: “The actualizing tendency is a drive to self-actualization, it is a biological tendency inherent to human beings and a source of motivation”.

Rogers added:“The self-actulizing tendency is an innate drive that pushes the person to fulfill his potentials, however the person will be capable of doing so within an environment of respect and social acceptance only. In this regard, if we are able to create such environment for educational purposes, learners will find a way to express themselves freely and accordingly, become self-reliant.”

A number of the latter principles have nurtured our work, this is the reason why we do agree with Paolo Freire that literacy goes much beyond learning vowels and the alphabet. Literacy is about reinforcing people’s identity, generating critical thinking in an environment made of love, acceptance and legitimacy, in which one can learn and teach.

It also implies to generate autonomy; as once again Freire puts it: “Teaching also implies a respect for the learner’s knowledge; teaching demands that words be embodied through examples.” This is consistent with the approaches that sustain and reinforce our work, associated with epistemological foundations such as the reflexive approach which reminds us that we still are Homo sapiens sapiens.

If we accept this, we must also be able to develop and embody a praxis, to quote Freire, while stopping occasionally to consider our thoughts and actions. This involves understanding the result of the previous process of literacy understood as a process which goes beyond the simple fact of combining letters and making words. In addition, we would like to mention the appreciative approach that involves using the strengths of the individual or group, in other words, the acceptance, that is, to paraphrase Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana, the fact "of accepting the other as an interlocutor and give him a legitimate place among us".

To summarize, the work we do, whether in schools and with teachers, parents and students, or our educational work with our users, is grounded on the epistemological foundation and theoretical thinking of the experts mentioned above. Certainly, the fact of working for vulnerable populations, and more specifically in vulnerable schools, requires a comprehensive view of the human being, which according to Freire is based on a literacy process in the broad sense of the term, that we apply to each accompanying process.

It is the same thing with the psycho-educational vision developed among workers during prevention activities, the genesis of literacy that Freire was implementing in Brazilian favelas or among the working class in Chile. We must also mention that our generative approach is also on the same line, in the sense that our concern is, among others to develop capabilities, processes, models, and to deliver ultimately a "product or service" which fosters a sense of ownership among students, teachers or workers, while empowering themselves and developing/enhancing their own creativity in an ongoing improvement process.

In light of the celebration of International Literacy Day, it is important to designate the latter as an ongoing empowerment process for people, towards their cognitive, social and ethical development. Finally, it is important to emphasize that if well understood, it is necessary to maintain it over time so as to ensure its ongoing presence and continued practice beyond any international day.