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Apps for the oppressed?

By Memrise Blog

In “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” Paulo Freire‘s blunt assessment of the world of formal education is that it actively undermines human development, and that it is therefore an instrument of oppression.

Teaching, he says, is inevitably narrative-making (a point Stephen Heppell explored at the LWF conference on Tuesday). To teach, we tell stories, whether they be about chemicals, humans, French words or vegetables. But Freire thinks the narratives have got sick. Real story-telling got lost somewhere in the evolution of our schools.

The problem specifically is that educational narratives tend to be chosen, owned, disseminated and enforced by the teacher (or rather, the State via the teacher), and the pupil doesn’t really get a look-in. The chart below summarizes his view of the roles of teacher and pupil in institutional education:

Since pupils can’t and don’t relate their experience to what they’re being taught; since it therefore seems irrelevant and empty; since the world they are taught is a lifeless and static one, for all these reasons the possible magic of learning is compromised. It’s worth noting that from what I heard from the teachers and thinkers at Learning Without Frontiers the education profession is well aware of these flaws to typical schooling, and are actively seeking out and inventing a form of learning-experience that will take advantage of mobile, connected devices to allow for something like the following improvement:


But would Freire think of the connected e-learner of the future, the one to whom Memrise aspires to give a home, as the solution to education’s current oppressiveness? Unfortunately not. Freire stresses above all else the merits of action in learning, and how vital it is that pupils are brought to a consciousness of the structures of their world, and how those structures might be transformed. According to Freire, Education is to be ruthlessly focused on the possible transformation of the very world that it helps students perceive and understand. Perception and action go hand in hand. Until you can act on or with something, you’re not really seeing it as it is: as a part of your world that is in question, something that is therefore interesting and alive, rather than static and immovable.

Sounds pretty good, you have to admit. The problem is that it’s a bit obscure most of the time how exactly you engage a group of inner-city kids, for instance, in a creative process of world-transformation. Where do you even begin? With silence? Take them protesting, as these disciples of Freire did? Involve them in Hegelian dialectic?

For a long time I have been in the (large) camp of educators who see Freire’s vision of how stuff should be as excellent but not really doable. And that’s why I’m still hopping in excitement at having encountered Apps for Good at Learning Without Frontiers.

Apps for Good is an almost perfect example of teaching people about the world by expecting them to transform it. In this free program, inner-city kids are invited to go through a kind of entrepreneurial process whereby they identify what is wrong with their world before designing a way of fixing it with a mobile App. The process almost exactly mirrors that of Paul Graham’s advice on creating a start-up:look around you, see what sucks, and create something that makes it suck less.

How does life suck for the young of South London? In lots of ways. One is that they are constantly and unjustly harassed by the police. It’s been quite well documented how Police have taken to using Anti-terror laws to stop and search young people on the street and in their cars, most of the time without justification. For many young people in South London, this is obviously an alienating, unpleasant experience. There were 144,000 stop-and-search instances last year, with only 0.01% of those searched turning out to be guilty of any wrongdoing.

So a team of young people attending Apps for Good designed a mobile app to sort this out. It’s called Stop and Search. The app tells people their rights when they’re being searched, it has a system for logging and aggregating the nature of the stop and search event -the gender, race, the reasons for the stop and search- and it has a system for making complaints. In one stroke, this app creates a source of advice, a feeling of community and a pool of information- all of which battle the alienation and sense of injustice of being unnecessarily hassled by the police.

It’s an interesting idea that education might gradually come to assume something like this form: learning by experimental action aimed at transforming your life. There’s no doubt that it would be highly motivational. And it’s difficult to imagine that the world wouldn’t get much better, to boot.