Pedagogy of the Oppressed: The Design Theory For Our Future

We need new ways to think about transforming the world. Fortunately, the path was trailblazed half a century ago.

Photo by Jan Huber on Unsplash

Does going to school make you feel empowered?

Think back to the last time you were in a classroom.

We’re not talking about when you walked across the stage, or the few times in your life you used your education at your job. I’m talking about those morose times in a lecture hall, learning about whatever topic you’ll forget at the end of the semester.

Let’s go back. Actively sitting in the seat, listening to a professor, taking quizzes and tests, going to office hours (if you’re that kind of overachiever), Today, sitting in front of the Zoom, How did it make you feel?

Honestly, I haven’t.

Full disclosure: I’ve always been good at school. I don’t get sweaty and anxious during tests. I feel comfortable asking questions and sitting in front of the classroom. If I HAVE to, I can memorize the topics at hand, and I love helping other people through the text they might have missed. But, I have to admit: I’ve never felt empowered by the learning process.

No matter how well I did, school always felt like a circus where I couldn't find the ringmaster. We learned what we were told, we accomplished the assignments, we sat down, shut up, and obeyed. Looking back, I realized I had no role in deciding what — or how — I wanted to learn.

That’s why when I actually entered a class centered around design pedagogy, where we could decide what problems we wanted to solve, I was forever transformed. We can critique so many things about design education — but I have to remember the first time I felt a morsel of control over what I learned — and did — inside a classroom. I’m not the only one: of all the workshops, classes, and consultations I’ve led, the control people have over what they create makes the experience more memorable, more permanent, and more valuable.

I’m not the first person to think about how the fields of design and education make welcome bedfellows. There are countless pedagogical thinkers — both through history and pushing the envelope today — who unpack why design methods have when educating the world: Papert. Simon. Bauhaus. Beckman. Krippendorff. Countless names I’ll fail to remember on any normal research day have shaped the theories of design.

Recently, though. I happened upon a passage that represented the core — the true kernel — of why design is so important not just to education systems, but to what it actually means to be human. And, if you would have learned from the traditionally established design pedagogy canon, it would have completely passed you by.

“There is no such thing as a neutral education process.

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 with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.

— Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Photo by Kelly McCrimmon on Unsplash

This quote radicalized my education.

I first picked up Pedagogy of the Oppressed to better understand how Paulo Friere discusses marginalization, development, and liberation is designed into the world we inhabit. At the time, I was unpacking innovation cultures, histories, and consequences connected to international development, so it made sense to build the foundation. At the time, I was neck-deep in dissertation rewrites, so I didn’t get a chance to process what I’d learned.

Once I could work through the text, I realized how much more work it does- not just for education — but for recognizing and combatting oppression in all its forms. Every designer — even non-teachers — should learn from this classic.

The reason, though, has more to do with the last phrase in that quote, instead of the first:

“…discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

Let’s work through his text together.

“One may well remember …man is the only one to treat not only his actions but his very self as the object of his reflection; this capacity distinguishes him from the animals….[they live] “submerged” in a world to which they can give no meaning, lacking a “tomorrow” and a “today” because they exist in an overwhelming present, animals are ahistorical”…

Animals live out their lives on an atemporal, flat, uniform “prop”; humans exist in a world which they are constantly re-creating and transforming.

Many researchers at the intersection of animal consciousness, intelligence, and understanding might hotly debate these concepts. It’s clear, by working to answer the question “What does it mean to be Human?” Friere decides to adopt a theory of exclusion: we are different because of our ability to remember, relearn, and see the world apart from our primal instincts.

Although generations of research in bioethics, animal consciousness, and other related fields might blur the line he easily drew, what is clear is how humans define ourselves by the concept of legacy. By remembering the past, we use it to craft a future we want to see.

More on that.

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Humans, however, because they are aware of themselves and thus of the world — because they are conscious beings — exist in a dialectical relationship between the determination of limits and their own freedom.

As they separate themselves from the world, which they objectify, as they separate themselves from their own activity, as they locate the seat of their decisions in themselves and in their relations with the world and others, people overcome the situations which limit them: the “limit-situations.”

You catch that? “Limit-situation”.

You know how designers of all types — UX, product, policy, research, entrepreneurial, cooking, literally any type you come across — usually define the process they use as transforming the future. Herbert Simon told the famous definition:

“To design is to devise courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.”

However, that process outlines a boundary we’re trying to cross, a new world we’re trying to reach. Have you heard of anyone actually defining that boundary?

This limit-situation represents the context, in all of its forms, that changemakers are working to break out of. By giving our current situation a name, it offers the power to determine how we address the problems we come across: a limit-situation we’re trying to break.

Sick. Let’s keep on.

…Men and women respond to the challenge with actions which Vieira Pinto calls “limit-acts”: those directed at negating and overcoming, rather than passively accepting, the “given,”

Thus, it is not the limit-situations in and of themselves which create a climate of hopelessness, but rather how they are perceived by women and men at a given historical moment: whether they appear as fetters or as insurmountable barriers…

Photo by Zach Lezniewicz on Unsplash

He discusses how once the limit-situation is crystallized (for others, why problem-framing is so critical to the design process) our work, our body, our soul guides itself to work on addressing it.

Humans create artifacts that work to address the issue (products, services, policies, relationships, exercises in power-building), and by doing so, humans become agents who shaped the world, instead of objects without choice or influence.

Another important point: The limit-situation (no matter how dire) doesn’t cause hope-lessness. What does is how it is perceived by humans. Only by perceiving, reflecting on, and acting on the world, are capabilities like creativity possible. Perspective, huh?

Let’s keep on.

…Persons take equally contradictory positions: some work to maintain the structures, others to change them….

limit-situations imply the existence of persons who are directly or indirectly served by these situations, and of those who are negated and curbed by them.

People are personally drawn either to serve, or change, the system.

At the core, humans have a choice. to transform the world as we see fit: to continue to be served by the ‘limit-situation,’ or to surpass it and the trappings it causes. This philosophy doesn’t just unpack why it is human to transform, it describes the motives that determine what people decide to transform and why: either to supplant the system or to upend it.


Photo by Mike Von on Unsplash

Limit-situations have themes. Though people across the world live different lives, see different problems, and believe in different ways to change the world, there are certain topics that bind us. COVID-19 has made many of the clear: human rights, human decency, the thirst for knowledge and understanding, safety, and countless more. These topics have motivated disciplinary knowledge in countless fields and their intersections, many of which this book remains a classic.

Friere finally links this theory of transformation to the moral purpose of the book as a whole. From Friere’s perspective, what is the theme of humanity’s current limit-situation?

“I consider the fundamental theme of our epoch to be that of domination — which implies its opposite, the theme of liberation, as the objective to be achieved.”

Can you name a single social issue connected to the modern state of humanity that hasn’t been influenced by domination? I can’t.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed should be canon for all designers. Full stop.

Oppression is the quandary of our age.

Collectively, he posited — over fifty years ago — that the collective transformation of society as it’s been designed for millennia — has been either creating structures around — or supporting domination in all its forms.

Fortunately, his lessons reach MUCH broader than just the classroom. The same systems that constructed a socioeconomic hierarchy of exploitation that is slowly strangling the life out of our future — for all of us.

So, how do we proceed? Fortunately, the test offers a broad strategy to increase the power of the subaltern in all fields of learning. Though he created and spread a pedagogy — a theory for learning — for humans under the domination-addicted system, his words should be a guiding light for every designer.

What’s clear: the text isn’t the easiest read. Pressuring a system that robs students of their power isn’t easy to transform. But change is always possible — if we recognize the power within ourselves. Here are some starter questions, to move the process forward:

  • How are you creating fellow humans into ‘objects’, instead of subjects?
  • What’s liberatory about your past creations? What’s oppressive?
  • How would you make your tools different next time?
  • What are you doing to push humankind towards liberation?

Good luck. I’ll be there with you.

You made it! I can’t thank you enough.

I can feel it; you have a lot to say on this topic. My ear is yours. Let’s find a reason to connect.

we think about transformation + liberation.

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