Key Contributions of the Popular Education Movement by Jose Rivero

José Rivero

Educación Popular – in Spanish this term means rather more than "popular education" in English or "éducation populaire" in French. It implies an element of emancipation, liberation and self-determination for the oppressed and exploited masses, a process of increasing awareness so that people socially excluded from wealth, education and decision-making, can reflect jointly on their situation, can realise that this will not improved from above, and can understand that they must organise to change the structure of society. Nowhere has adult education clearly devoted to the interests of the poorer sections of the population spread as widely as in Latin America, where it typifies an NGO movement that is more highly developed there than anywhere else. The name of Paulo Freire in particular, to whom most "educadores populares" feel an allegiance, still resounds today.

More than 20 years after the high point of the “Educación Popular” movement, the Latin American Council for Adult Education devoted two issues of its specialist journal (La Piragua 20 and 21) to a critical review of “Educación Popular”, of both its achievements and its failures, and of what parts of its methodological approach are still valid today. We have selected a few contributions that we think are of relevance to the worldwide debate on adult education. Four of the authors are widely known and respected “veterans” of “Educación Popular”, while one paper sheds light on the subject from a committed European standpoint, at a distance, but also with particular hopes and expectations.

José Rivero argued the case for adult education for many years in the UNESCO Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean (OREALC). He is one of those who have helped to overcome the wide gap between the state and the civil society.

Carlos Nuñez headed the Mexican NGO Instituto Mexicano Para El Desarrollo Comunitario (IMDEC) for many years, is former President and now Honorary President of the Latin American Council for Adult Education, and is currently teaching “Educación Popular” at the National Pedagogical University of Guadalajara.

Raúl Léis, writer and communicator, was recently appointed General Secretary of the Latin American Council for Adult Education, having headed the Panamanian NGO Centro de Estudios y Acción Social Panameño (CEASPA) for several decades.

Nydia González argues the need for “Educación Popular” and for people to participate in their own society, through her learning projects – which are at the same time action projects – in Cuba, a country where the state guarantees formal education for all.

Liam Kane is a Scottish educationist at the University of Glasgow, and like many socially committed educationsts in Europe he identifies closely with “Educación Popular” because he feels the lack of such a movement in Europe.

Key Contributions of the Popular Education Movement

1. The Main Contributions of Popular Education over the Years

In the view of many people – a view which I share – the main contributions of the popular education movement are a concern with the relationship between education and poverty and encouragement of a participatory methodology corresponding to a new conception of education in which the opinions and empowerment of the disenfranchised are of particular relevance, and the impact of numerous successful experiences that make greater use of technical instruments of teaching.

Latin American popular education is associated with significant experiments in participatory research, the enabling of grassroots social actors, participatory evaluation, the use of non-conventional means of mass communication, and great educational efforts to counteract hegemonic cultural models.

Popular education has been defined as an attempt to transform politics and education in order to create new social groupings within Latin American societies. Particular reference should be made to three key contributions or essential ingredients which have had an influence for a relatively long time:


  • The inspiration and legacy of Paulo Freire have helped to foster an ethical approach to the exercise of political change.
  • The channel for this political change has fundamentally been educational intervention; practical and theoretical knowledge is regarded as crucial for transforming the situation of the individual, the community and society. The main peculiarity lies in the educational dimension of the activities, which is used to promote the construction of new knowledge based on new ways of interpreting reality in the aim of transforming it.
  • The emphasis on the poor focuses on greater dignity for them as citizens and their gradual exercise of power. Many examples of popular education were in the early stages associated with highly political objectives and national liberation strategies. Popular education sought to strengthen the power of the popular classes in deciding how they should organize, what demands they should make, and how they should struggle to establish new rules of social life.
  • The individual is associated with the construction of the collective as an organization, awareness and the exercise of rights and obligations.
  • The creation of new social groupings in a given society is associated with the commitment to improve the quality of life of its participants. The slogan of strengthening the civil society was adopted, particularly from the 1990s.


2. What Arguments Put Forward by Popular Education are Still Relevant and What Changes Have Been (or Should Be) Made

In the early 1990s, Alain Touraine posed two key questions about the Latin American Region: will Latin America be able to develop by itself? And, is Latin America capable of making technological innovations and productive investment, expanding its internal market and exporting competitively?

Popular education, a Latin American creation, is at the heart of these questions and its achievements have certainly been affected by their implied demands on the region.

New situations and concepts have had an influence on the continuing acknowledgement by popular education of the requirements of reality, even resulting in the danger of its moving in directions quite different from those at the outset. Nowadays, it is rare to find in papers on popular education the original claim by some of its promoters that schools stood purely for the interests of the ruling class, or at another level, that popular education was essentially identified with â€œclass interests seeking their own ideological and political hegemony”.

In terms of concepts, I believe that popular education should pay particular attention to the new thinking of people such as Amartya Sen, winner of the Nobel Prize for economics in 1998. Given current world circumstances, his emphasis on the realization of human potential as the goal of development, and his view that increasing a country’s income is merely a means to an end, while improving the quality of life of current generations should not mean sacrificing the chances of future generations, are indispensable points of reference. We need to be part of a world movement which has chosen a form of human development that expands the horizon of national development beyond rises in Gross Domestic Product and advances in the macroeconomy, and raises questions about the purpose of this process, stressing fair distribution and the creation of successful economic growth without divorcing the economy from society, or production from social solidarity.

I believe that the main priority is the need to turn state schools into the principal popular medium of access to education and to confront the perverse effects of public policies and international requirements on the living conditions of the majority.

In Latin America, mass state education is a relatively recent institution, and we have not become fully aware of the various changes to the pattern of the relationship with knowledge involved in this process. It is customary to compare the current statistics of enrolment in basic education with those of the 1960s and ’70s, and to acknowledge the sometimes extraordinary advances in the educational opportunities open to the very poor. This universal access to basic education has been a sign of greater social democratization and, at the same time, the prelude to the kind of problems that accompany any mass activity. The inequality in the outcomes of learning is a typical symptom of dual, not to say fragmented, societies such as those of Latin America.

During the 1990s, while enrolment rates were rising among the popular classes, the living conditions of a large part of the population deteriorated. The poverty and exclusion of the vast majority, particularly children, became more severe. Of the 220 million people currently classed as poor, more than half (117 million) are children and young people and, worse, over half of these children and young people are now below the poverty line. This trend towards greater exclusion and poverty raises doubts in our countries about the supposed direct relationship that may be established between access to schooling, social justice and democracy.

Popular education can and must develop into a movement that responds politically and educationally to the requirements of this situation.

One of the challenges involved in revising its activities is the difficult relationship with the state, which is constantly under strain in the majority of the countries and should give rise to concern, analysis and, where necessary and possible, to concerted action. Despite the generally poor condition of education systems, and the factors causing this, it is no less certain that circumstances differ widely between countries. An examination of national data and situations suggests that an attempt should be made to expand educational opportunities, or at least that consideration should be given to doing so. In the relationship with the state, the best schemes and options for renewal of education for young people and adults have not always been adopted – although there are some excellent schemes that need to be reinforced. Among other things, there could be grounds for concerted action in the following areas between popular and state education:

a) Renewal of the concept of literacy, incorporating national strategies and particularly addressing literacy for young people and adults, and the urgent need for children in the early years of education to learn integrated communication and information technology skills 
b) The relatively recent incorporation, at the behest of ministries and secretariats of education, of transversal programmes on such topics as the environment and consumerism 
c) The training of teachers in participatory methodologies, and the strengthening of their tutorial function 
d) Monitoring by citizens of fulfilment of international educational commitments made by the state

Similarly, particular consideration deserves to be given to the tenuous relationship between the poor and school: they enrol but they soon drop out or are caught up in a disastrous process of repetition and failure. One democratic advance of the 1990s was a school for the poor, but this suffered from lower educational funding, worse infrastructure and poorly trained teachers with levels of salary that provided little motivation, not to mention corruption in the intermediate organizations. The trend towards segmentation and differentiation worsened, despite significant financial input and attempts to modernize or reform education systems. This situation obliges us to ask how equality of educational opportunities can be made possible and viable in unequal societies. What educational interventions should be supported as being most likely to bring it about? What should be done to make education systems more equal, to counter the inertia which causes them to reproduce the original inequality? The relevance of popular education lies in successfully finding appropriate answers to these and similar questions.

3. Main Considerations in Strengthening a Popular Education Movement in Latin America that Can Contribute to Social Change

Given the situation in the region, which is at the mercy of one-sided globalization, the need to opt collectively for democracy, the educational requirements of the new social context of growing exclusion, the need to invest in children as the option for the future, and the collective need to fulfil international commitments, I would pick out the following factors:


  • Work is now being done with populations facing even greater hardship in the conviction that there can be no democratization under current structural adjustment policies which require payment of unmanageable external debt. Popular education must go on being part of a social movement which confronts these policies and seeks to build fairer schools and societies in which the exercise of rights goes appreciably further than electoral promises and deceptive statistics.
  • The obvious signs of corruption in many countries in the region and the decadence of the political class threaten and restrict the choice of democracy as a form of government. This calls for redoubled efforts so that one of the goals of popular education is to strengthen mechanisms for monitoring by citizens of the exercise of political power, and for support for programmes and methodologies which widen the exercise of democracy in the life of grassroots organizations and strengthen the role of the citizen in our countries. The legacy of Freire still demands solidarity, giving priority to collective participation in the ethical transformation of politics.
  • Popular education must raise the quality of its educational activities so that it serves the most excluded. Good intentions will not be enough if the outcomes – better organizaton and learning – do not match the time invested and the most urgent needs of the participants. Institutional policies and programmes need to have an effective impact on access to education and learning, and actually result in reduced inequality. First, there is still a need for empirical research and firmly based evaluation of institutional policies and educational processes and results. These should receive greater attention through an examination of outstanding tasks and alternative ways of continually improving educational practices and services.
  • Early infancy and development in the first three years of life are recognised as a critical period of human life, a time of risks and dangers, but also of huge potential. Popular education should play an active part in national and regional action to meet this major challenge, by investing in the opportunities which young children need to maximize their potential, and transforming situations which generate discrimination, procrastination and ill-treatment. It will not be possible to overcome poverty or achieve a fairer society of well-being unless attention to early childhood forms the keystone of national educational endeavours. Hence the importance of popular education’s realizing the potential of parents, particularly mothers, so as to reduce infant mortality and the widely observed gender bias in survival rates. Infant survival and the well-being and full development of the child, both emotional and intellectual, will be best guaranteed by educated, motivated mothers.
  • Education for young people and adults, especially in the wake of the Hamburg International Conference and its follow-up in the region, is still the core question. The initiatives of CEAAL and UNESCO – with the support of the Mexican CREFAL and INEA – will make it possible to create a coherent approach, which governments and civil society institutions will still need to revise and


Finally, CEAAL must maintain and, where possible, strengthen its leading role as one of the key institutions in Latin American civil society in following up the agreements and commitments made at the World Education Forum (Dakar, Senegal, 2000). The development of national plans for Education for All with the active involvement of organized civil society is still an unfinished task in most countries in the region.




Document Type: 
International article