Expressive Prose and Freire’s Problem-Posing Education

In the third edition of Bean and Melzer’s seminal text Engaging Ideas, they posit that students are learning to critically think when they are “active, involved, consulting and arguing with each other, and responsible for their own learning” (Bean and Melzer 4). This mode of thinking may be distinguished from what the Brazilian thinker Paulo Freire terms the “‘banking’ concept of education” (Freire 72). 

The banking concept of education takes learning to be a kind of value-depositing process: the teacher takes the valuable thing that they own (a piece of knowledge) and they deposit a copy in the mind of their student. Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1967) argues that the banking concept of education is misleading because it treats students as if they are not subjects (i.e., human beings) but rather objects (i.e., banks that must be filled with facts or skills). For Freire, inquiry (or what we might today call critical thinking) is fundamental for being a free human being because it allows us to relate to each other and the world in a kind of “dialectical” (or feedback-loop) manner. In other words, inquiry captures the phenomenon of human beings intellectually confronting challenges and in confronting them being shaped anew. Once shaped anew, new problems or challenges present themselves, to which human beings must intellectually adapt. Freire explains: “apart from inquiry…individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing hopeful inquiry that human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other” (Freire 72). 

The issue with the banking concept of education is that in “projecting an absolute ignorance onto others” it makes it seem as if knowledge and education are not inherently “dialectical,” relational processes of inquiry (Freire 72). Freire thinks this leads to a contradiction in the teacher-student relationship. On the one hand you have the know-all teacher who has no need for inquiry because they “have” knowledge. On the other hand, you have the know-nothing student who has no capacity for inquiry because they don’t “have” knowledge. This contradiction precludes inquiry (read: humanness) altogether. As an antidote, Freire suggests what he calls “problem-posing education,” which is enacted through dissolving the binary contradiction between teacher and student through “dialogue” (Freire 93). He explains: 

Problem-posing education, which breaks with the vertical patterns characteristic of banking education, can fulfill its function as the practice of freedom only if it can overcome the above contradiction. Through dialogue, the teacher-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teachers cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-student with students-teachers. The teacher is no longer merely the one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach. They become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow […] [Here], people teach each other, mediated by the world, by the cognizable objects which in banking education are “owned” by the teacher (Freire 80).

One may remain agnostic on the political implications of Pedagogy of the Oppressed while still appreciating Freire’s method for teaching critical thinking: teachers must use what he calls “dialogue” to treat ourselves as “horizontal[ly]” learning in tandem with our students, and thereby enable all of us (teacher-student and students-teachers) to enter into education as inquirers, as “critical co-investigators” rather than all-knowing messiahs or empty vessels for knowledge to fill (Freire 92, 91, 81). Freire thinks that non-hierarchical dialogue between student and teacher both requires critical thinking and generates critical thinking (Freire 92). 

Advocates of Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) celebrate writing as a form of critical thinking. Indeed, one of the tenets of WAC is that writing is not simply a “communication skill,” nor is it simply an end-product of critical thought, but that writing itself is critical thinking (Bean and Melzer 3). One question a WAC-advocate might have for Freire is: How should the “teacher” position themselves in regards to the “student” when assigning writing? Practical questions include: How can we keep students on task (and not overwhelmed) with complex writing projects without being problematically paternalistic? How much struggling is too much struggling when it comes to student learning? How should teachers manage their own feelings when student writing does not meet their expectations? 

Freire would start answering these questions by noting that true non-hierarchical dialogue (the kind that begets inquiry) is not possible without love, humility, and faith (Freire 91). Learners cannot enter into dialogue without a love of other human beings (and therefore a commitment to non-hierarchical learning in communion with other human beings). We cannot enter into dialogue without proper humility, where we understand ourselves to be limited knowers and others as having things to teach us. And finally, we cannot enter into dialogue without a faith in the potential of humankind to be good partners in dialogue. Even if someone’s power to inquire is impaired or malnourished, which it can of course be, Freire argues that we must always have faith in its tendency to be reborn and nourished (Freire 91). Thus: “Founding itself upon love, humility, and faith, dialogue becomes a horizontal relationship of which mutual trust between the dialoguers is the logical consequence” (Freire 91). 

I think those practical questions italicized above spring out of a lack of trust, humility, faith, and an attachment to the banking theory of education. Below, I suggest that assigning, and importantly, academically valuing, something James Britton calls expressive prose will be fruitful in establishing Freire-ian dialogue with our students, and will consequently attend to the practical questions above. 

Expressive prose is described as “writing that is close to the self,” and is championed as a method to encourage student “voice” (Bean and Melzer 84): 

One of [expressive prose’s] main functions is to help the individual assimilate new ideas by creating personal contexts that link new, unfamiliar material to what one knows or has experienced. It is writing to discover and explore, mull over, ruminate on, raise questions about, personalize. It is often fragmentary and disorganized, like talking to oneself on paper. Although intended for the self, it seems to be the seedbed for ideas that later emerge in products written for others. Britton and others noticed how frequently professional writers explore ideas in notebooks, journals, daybooks, memoranda to themselves, and letters to colleagues about ideas in progress. They further noticed how extensively expert writers revise their ideas through multiple drafts in which the earliest drafts have the characteristic inchoateness of expressive writing.”(Bean and Melzer 84)

With expressive writing (in the form of journals, in class freewriting, letters to classmates or others, blogs, personal reflections, etc.) what is produced is not something which is easily measured against the knowledge that the teacher “has”. This means that expressive writing need not be graded in a merit-based way (it may be graded pass/fail: Did the student take the assignment seriously or not?) Expressive writing is about students writing for themselves (thereby practicing being inquirers), tackling a disciplinary issue in the world that they find challenging, and showing how the issue is impacting them as a thinker. The goal of an expressive assignment is not to please the teacher or to show that some fact has been memorized or some skill successfully acquired. Thus, the only expectation the teacher should have is that the student seriously engages in expressive-prose writing. Moreover, empirical work mentioned in Engaging Ideas points to teachers really enjoying reading exploratory pieces (Bean and Melzer 96).

Since the goal of the assignment is simply to strengthen and share the student’s process of inquiry, whatever struggling is occurring is perfectly appropriate (and there’s no need for the teacher to intervene). And as for helping students with feelings of overwhelm, the point of expressive prose is to meet students where they are in their thinking processes. Thus, expressive writing shouldn’t be any more overwhelming than their own thoughts. The only thorny question still remaining is how to keep students on task without being paternalistic. In this context, the question becomes: How can we ensure students take expressive prose assignments seriously? I think Freire would tell us that students taking expressive assignments seriously requires a relationship of mutual trust, and trust cannot be built without dialogue, which in turn requires hope, humility, and faith. If trust isn’t there, and students aren’t taking these sorts of assignments seriously, Freire wouldn’t advocate forcing students to do them, since this undermines them as independent and free inquirers. Rather, I’d guess that he would advocate tending to other areas of the student-teacher dynamic and letting your students know that you retain (a) faith in their capacities as inquirers (b) hope in the potential of expressive prose to lead to critical thinking and (c) belief in the value of critical thinking. 

I’m working on a “Writing Intensive” syllabus as part of my WAC fellowship at New York City College of Technology. In the past I’ve played with assigning my students expressive prose in the form of journal entries: one at the beginning of the semester, and one at the end of the semester, for students to reflect on their learning. In an effort to ensure academic rigor, the prompts I released for these exploratory assignments were lengthy, full of academic jargon, and made specific demands of students (e.g., minimum word limits, requests that they mention at least three sources, etc.). In return, I’ve sometimes received disappointing work from students that didn’t reveal genuine inquiry but rather showed their attempts to fit the constraints I set them. In learning more about Freire and expressive prose, I’ve been reflecting on how this otherwise interesting and fun teaching experience has been marred by worries around versions of the practical questions outlined above. 

During my WAC fellowship I plan on working on my expressive prose assignment prompts, so that they better embody Freire’s “humanizing pedagogy” where “the method ceases to be an instrument” which I may evaluate or judge how much knowledge students show  (Freire 69). Instead, I am inspired to view these types of assignments as notes to students’ selves, as parts of their own repertoires of critical thinking, rather than to notes to me as the know-all teacher. I will aspire to appreciate expressive assignments as “express[ing] the consciousness of the students themselves,”  and of being an opportunity for me to learn something from my students, for us to engage in dialogue together, and for us to built relationships of trust that are so fundamental to inquiry (Freire 69). 



Bean, John C., and Dan Melzer. Engaging Ideas. 3rd Editio, Jossey Bass, 2021.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Bloomsbury Academic, 2000.


One Reply to “Expressive Prose and Freire’s Problem-Posing Education”

  1. I really appreciated Michael’s post on Freire and his notion of problem-posing education, which is inherently non-hierarchical. As I reflect on my experiences as a student through college and graduate school, the classes that I remember as the most interesting and enlightening were the ones that did not have a hierarchy – where the professor engaged us in dialogue as junior colleagues, and the classroom became an opportunity for us all (the professor included) to work together in understanding, interpreting, and challenging the topic material. In contrast, the classes which were lecture-based and asked for rote memorization of facts (a la Freire’s banking concept of education) I remember as uninspiring, monotonous, and difficult to learn in. From a student perspective, I can definitely see how problem-posing and open dialogue facilitates learning more than a banking approach to education.

    Interestingly, many of the lecture and fact-based classes that I remember were of the hard sciences, such as organic chemistry or biology, whereas the seminar and non-hierarchical classes were generally in the humanities, such as English. However, though some disciplines may lend themselves more easily to the hierarchical or non-hierarchical formats, it is ultimately up to the instructor to decide how to teach the course. For instance, one of my most enjoyable classes in college was a neurobiology course where we would read different journal articles every week, and the professor would actively encourage us to express our opinions and question how she approached the readings. As WAC pedagogy states explicitly, writing and reading can be used to facilitate critical thinking across all disciplines, even if some courses would require some creative thinking to do so.

    I also appreciate how Freire emphasizes humility as an important quality for educators wishing to engage in problem-posing education. I agree with Michael that we cannot teach in a non-hierarchical manner if we do not have humility. If as instructors, we believe that we have nothing to learn and that our knowledge is complete, then our approach to teaching can only be one that is transactional, a depositing of information to our students with ourselves as the indisputable experts. However, if we understand that all of us have room to improve, we can invite our students to challenge us, to question and actively look for fallacies in what we say, and thereby engage in a true dialogue. I have always appreciated professors (such as my neurobiology professor) who are willing to admit they do not know everything and can make mistakes. Further, being transparent to our students also models for them how to be a professional in our respective fields, showing them that no one is impervious to error and that even experts will engage in dialogue and debate to learn and grow.

    The other quality that stands out to me is faith in the potential of others to be partners in dialogue. As instructors, we must believe our students are able to be effective thinkers and express this faith to them. We all learn best with consistent encouragement, when we are able to see our improvement and are rewarded for it. In practice, this may apply most to the way that we grade assignments. Highlighting strengths and pointing out what our students did well shows them that they are able to be effective writers and thinkers. And as with any skill, the more our students see that they are able to do something, the more motivated that might be to continue trying.

    Michael also discusses the challenges of student engagement, and how to manage when students do not meet our expectations. I entirely agree with Michael’s conclusion that we shouldn’t force students to do assignments but rather should express our faith in them and reiterate the value of critical thinking. To take it one step further, I also think that as teachers, we should manage our expectations of how much effort students can or will put into class. Our role should be to provide the space and opportunity to engage with us, fellow students, and the topic material, but not necessarily to ensure that every student uses that opportunity. Inevitably, some students will decide not to take that opportunity (for any number of reasons, which are likely outside of our control) and we should respect the choice they have made as individuals. As the adage goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink. As long as we are transparent with our expectations for the course and have explained our assignments and grading policy, we shouldn’t take it personally if students choose not to engage.

    Thanks Michael for sharing this interesting and relevant perspective!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.