ABCs of pedagogy: F is for freedom

Welcome to the sixth post in the (slow) ABCs of Pedagogy. The aim of this blog series is to provide university teachers with the theoretical language to describe their teaching practice. This is useful for the purposes of reflection, scholarship of learning and teaching, career progression and recognition such as teaching awards and fellowships.

Do you have the scholarly language to describe your higher education learning and teaching practice?

The subtitle of Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks (1994), the pen name of Gloria Jean Watkins, is “education as the practice of freedom” – an approach also known as emancipatory pedagogy or liberatory education.

Teaching to Transgress is a work of teacher reflexivity or teacher positionality. hooks (the lower case was an intentional choice to shift attention from her identity to her ideas) uses words such as nurturing, joy, ecstasy, pleasure, love and danger to describe her early schooling, then obedience, racism and politics to describe schooling under ‘racial integration’ in 1950s/60s America. She describes her experience as the difference “between education as the practice of freedom and education that merely strives to reinforce domination” (p 4).

What words would you use to describe your experiences of schooling? What lessons did your early learning teach you?

As an undergraduate at university, she writes: “It surprised and shocked me to sit in classes where professors were not excited by teaching, where they did not seem to have a clue that education was about the practice of freedom. During college, the primary lesson was reinforced: we were to learn obedience to authority” (p 4).

Do your students describe you as excited by teaching?

At university, hooks learned about “the kind of teacher I did not want to become” (1994, p 5). Instead, hooks wanted her classroom to be exciting, fun, spontaneous, communal, and valuing of individuals.

What kind of teacher do you not want to be? What words would you use to describe the classroom you want?

hooks’ references to domination and freedom were inspired by one of the most well-cited books on education: Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

A ground-breaking work of critical pedagogy, Freire’s approach to teaching is based on dialogue in which students and teachers learn alongside one another. Students’ prior experience is recognised (see E is for experiential learning) and they become co-creators in their own teaching. Education is understood to happen everywhere and has an impact beyond the classroom as a tool to change societies and transform ways of living (more when we reach T is for transformation).

According to Freire:

“Liberating education consists in acts of cognition, not transferals of information … Through dialogue, the teacher-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teacher 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” (1970, p 80).

Educating for freedom is an explicitly political and activist approach. Freire understood education as a decolonising force. Teaching and learning in this way disrupts power relations, discourses and practices of exclusion, locations of knowledge and constructions of subjectivity (see D is for diversity).

hooks writes:

“The academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom” (1994, p 207).

Ask yourself: how do you recognise Indigenous knowledges, social justice, inclusion, diversity and accessibility in the classroom?

If the ideas in this post resonate, you might describe yourself as having a social reform perspective on teaching. Your focus is on the collective good, challenging taken-for-granted assumptions, questioning knowledge and encouraging students to take a critical and active approach to learning in order to create a better world. The Teaching Perspectives Inventory – a 45-item instrument that explores your orientation to teaching – is a helpful tool for articulating your approach.


Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated from Portuguese by Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum Press.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to Transgress. London: Routledge.

Acknowledgement: In developing this series on the ABCs of Pedagogy, I would like to acknowledge the teaching and scholarship of current and former Macquarie University staff members including Vanessa Fredericks, Marina Harvey, Mathew Hillier, Olga Kozar, Danny Liu, Karina Luzia, Margot McNeil, Anna Rowe, Cathy Rytmeister, Theresa Winchester-Seeto and others.

Previous posts in the series

A is for androgogy

B is for blended or hybrid teaching

C is for constructivism

D is for diversity

E is for experiential learning

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