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.