Monday, January 09, 2023


 Popular education is about power. It is also about love. And both power and love are difficult to define. And so is popular education.

The popular educator Myles Horton said education should percolate, not drip-down. Perhaps popular education, in a nutshell, can be framed as a democratic process of questioning/challenging power.

Any attempt to define popular education is bound to leave something out.  Popular education has many aspects which are necessary to look at in order to settle on a definition. The six articles in this document are each attempts to define popular education. You will see a great deal of overlap and some differences though none of these definitions contradict each other.

Depending on how popular education is encountered and used it can be seen as a practice, a method, a methodology or set of techniques, a theory, a philosophy, a history, a social movement. None of these aspects is free of contradictions. Popular education seeks to unite theory with action and action with theory and is, therefore, always changing. Some people reduce popular education to a bag of tricks that any facilitator can use to make events more fun and participatory. But popular education was forged in revolutionary contexts in order to resist unjust power and to struggle collectively for a better world. Popular education is a demanding practice that takes time and commitment. As different social movements  have taken up popular education they have transformed it. This is especially notable with respect to feminist, trade union and anti-racist  movements. More recently, anti-globalization activism and queer activism has been influencing popular education.

Popular education is a theory/practice that is always growing and changing. As long as forces that benefit from the unjust concentration of power in our world continue to develop new ways to sustain this injustice anyone practicing popular education must rigorously reflect on their action and change and develop their practice accordingly.

The relationship of theory and action in popular education is a particular challenge in a world that privileges institutions like universities as the sites for official theory-making. The excerpts that follow all contribute to a theory of popular education.  Terry Eagleton, an English literary theorist, has written the following about theory and action that can be helpful in reflecting on the importance of theory to action.

Theory is just a practice forced into a new form of self-reflectiveness on account of certain grievous problems it has encountered. Like small lumps on the neck, it is a symptom that all is not well.

Whether and when this actually happens to a human practice is a highly variable matter. A long time ago, for example, people used simply to drop things from time to time. But nowadays we have physicists to inform us of the laws of gravity by which objects fall; philosophers to doubt whether there are really any discrete objects to be dropped at all; sociologists to explain how all this dropping is really the consequence of urban pressures; psychologists to suggest that we are really trying to drop our parents; poets to write about how all this dropping is symbolic of death; and critics to argue that it is a sign of the poet's castration anxiety. Now dropping can never be the same again. We can never return to the happy garden where we simply wandered around dropping things all day without a care in the world. What has happened, rather, is that the practice has been forced to take itself as its own object of enquiry. Theory is just human activity bending back upon itself, constrained into a new kind of self-reflexivity. And in absorbing this self-reflexivity, the activity itself will be transformed, as the production of literature is altered by the existence of literary criticism.

This, however, would seem to involve a curious paradox. For one of the effects of rendering our practices self-conscious in this way, of formalizing the tacit understandings by which they operate, may well be to disable them. Perhaps we only did what we did because we were not conscious of the problematical assumptions underlying out conduct. Indeed many theorists, from Friedrich Nietzsche to Sigmund Freud and Louis Althusser, have claimed that such amnesia or oblivion is an essential condition for any purposive action whatsoever. To objectify a procedure is to turn it into a potential object of contestation, which is why it is always safer for a ruling order to follow the English path and not do anything as vulgar and perilous as actually committing its constitution to paper. If you think too hard about how to kiss someone you are bound to make a mess of it. 

Theory, then, potentially destabilizes social life; but I have said already that it is also a conservative force, It is conservative in so far as it often seeks to supply us with new rationales for what we do, ordering and formalizing our meanings; but it cannot do this without making us freshly conscious of what we do, and this may always raise the possibility that we should do something else for a change. (The Significance of Theory, Terry Eagleton; Basil Blackwell, London, 1990; pp.26-27)


  1. What is Popular Education? From : Counting Our Victories by Denise Nadeau pp. 4-5
  2. What is Popular Education? From Popular Education for Peoples Empowerment -
  3. Popular Educators’ Declaration From Popular Education for Peoples Empowerment -
  4. Key Features of People’s Education: A Summary From: People’s Education: An examination of the concept, Glenda Jruss, UWC, p.19
  5. Definitions? From: Education Action 12, Action Aid, 2000.
  6. Popular Education: Concept and Implications From Convergence XIV:2 1981, International Council for Adult Education, pp. 70-72

1. What is Popular Education?

From : Counting Our Victories by Denise Nadeau pp. 4-5

Popular education is education of, for, and by the people. The term is a translation from Spanish, where “people” refers to the marginalized and exploited sectors – which in South and Central America is the majority of the population. Fundamental to popular education is a commitment to improving the conditions of the poor and oppressed.

Popular education is an approach that critically examines and learns from the lessons of past struggles, and from concrete everyday situations in the present. It is a deeply democratic process, equipping communities to themselves name and create the vision of the alternatives they are struggling for.

Popular education values and respects people as their own experts, and challenges the notion that the educator or organizer’s roles is as an expert who works “for” the people. It is based on the belief that people themselves have sufficient knowledge and that they can work out the solutions to their own problems.

Popular education is carried out within a political vision that sees women and men at  the community and grassroots level as the primary agents for social change. It equips people to define their own struggles and to make their voices heard. It involves a process whereby a group collectively analyses its problems and works collectively to solve them, including identifying the resources and skills they need. Popular education develops within this process the consciousness of and commitment to the interests of the most marginalized as part of the struggle.

Our commitment to popular education has been influenced by our experience working with women at a grassroots level in Canada, and by our involvement with popular educators from Central America and in the international women’s movement.

Popular education brings ongoing “consciousness-raising” to organizing. It shifts the emphasis from organizing for single events to organizing a group of isolated individuals into a collective of people committed to acting together for justice.  As the Filipino popular educator Ed de las Torre wanred, “if organizing includes  only mobilizing for rallies, demos and protests, then when the space for  organizing is again constricted, there’s not enough strength of conviction, clarity, and unity among the people. Because the issues never sank deeper, people join another power  (often right-wing forces) when the power of the protest movement wanes.”

The recent  “popularity” of popular education brings with it the risk that it will be reduced to group dynamics and participatory training techniques. This is a misuse and a misreading of what popular education is about. Popular education is part of the wider process of organizing for social change and movement building.

2. What is Popular Education?

From Popular Education for Peoples Empowerment -

“Popular education is a never-ending process. It is as open ended as the process of popular empowerment. There are no preset limits to people's consciousness, just as there are no fixed boundaries to the growth of people's power and dreams." 

--1986 PEPE Consultation

Popular Education is both old and new. It has always been there — guiding people, helping them give sense and meaning to their lives, aiding them in their struggles. And yet it's quite new: people are still beginning to explore its dimensions and possibilities. 

For PEPE, Pop-Ed means liberative education. It is relevant. It is needed. An education that exposes and then breaks the cultural and structural bonds hindering people's enlightenment and empowerment. Pop-Ed is education for social change. 

It challenges the traditional way of "teaching" people, an 'education' that makes them passive learners; one that silences them and makes them conform. It challenges attitudes and social structures that oppress people. 

Popular Education takes a political stand on the side of the marginalized people everywhere. It aims to empower the poor and those who had been kept out of decision-making structures. It does this by helping them become aware of their own oppression. Pop-Ed conscientizes people. It is about collective learning towards action for change. 

According to Mr. Edicio de la Torre, a well-known Filipino educator, there are at least three connotations of the word 'popular' in popular education. The most immediate is that it is accessible, not elitist and is closely connected to the idea of popularization, or propagating to a broader public what would otherwise be specialized or restricted knowledge. It has a connotation, both good and bad, of simplification. Another related idea is that pop-ed is not boring. 

The second connotation is standpoint: education for the people, in the service of the people. Liberating, empowering. This has tended to emphasize content: whatever is considered 'true' and 'correct.' 

The third connotation is of people creatively expressing themselves. Not necessarily 'correct' at every point of the process, but nevertheless authentic. Compared to the second connotation, the bias here would be for methods of participation and facilitation that are both evocative and provocative. People as subjects, speaking their word. They may have learned the words from many sources, but they have appropriated them, made them their own. 

We believe that Pop-Ed is about collective learning, that everyone has a stake in the generation and sharing of knowledge. Learners are not passive recipients of knowledge created elsewhere. Learning is generative and experiential. It evolves. Pop-ed blurs the distinction between teacher and student. It recognizes the enormous potential of group cognitive activity, enabling us to manipulate symbols and language, helping us play with the power of tales. Because everyone gives, everyone ultimately receives knowledge richer and more in-tune with reality. 

Pop-Ed helps us learn from our experiences. More, it helps us understand and make sense of our world, our life, our reality. Only when we truly understand our reality can we change it. 

Pop-Ed critiques and challenges unequal power relations. It takes the side of the weak. Disempowerment happens everywhere and on every scale: at the factory, the office, or the classroom, at the global level and even between lovers. Pop-Ed's task is to unmask unequal relations of power in order to change them. 

In a nutshell, Pop-Ed... 

  • critiques conventional modes of thinking; 
  • opens itself to critique; 
  • restores people's dignity and humanity; 
  • poses questions about our very existence; 
  • is a venue for "intersubjectivity"; 
  • recognizes the equal importance of the non-rational; 
  • engages the intellectual as well as the other spheres of being human; 
  • is creative and reflective; and, 
  • is averse to any totalizing framework. 

We can't delve deeply on all these points here, but suffice it to say that defining pop-ed is an ongoing process which, so far, has raised more questions than it can answer. In any case, pop-ed is a dynamic presence that is here to stay. 


3. Popular Educators’ Declaration 

GSP Ating Tahanan National Program and Training Center - Baguio City, Philippines

From Popular Education for Peoples Empowerment -

 We, popular educators, coming from different areas, backgrounds and fields of civil society, gathered this November 12, 1999 in Baguio City to participate in the 3rd Daupan Popular Educators Festival to celebrate and reflect on our work in popular education. After four days of intensive plenary discussions, workshop exercises and reflection sessions, we have reached a consensus on the following concerns that bear upon the future of popular education in the Philippines.

We unite on the following principles of POPULAR EDUCATION

  • Popular education encompasses all concerns relating to people empowerment – community organizing, cooperatives development, cultural work, environment, gender, grassroots leadership formation, governance, human rights, indigenous peoples, and other vital sectors – and recognizes the diversity of the frameworks used by various organizations in addressing these concerns. 
  • Popular education prioritizes the poor, marginalized, deprived and oppressed. 
  • It also cuts deep into our hearts; it is not only related to our work but affects our feelings, thoughts, actions and relations. 
  • Popular education is a continuous process of learning and unlearning. It is always self-critical. 
  • It recognizes, accepts and respects the distinctness, uniqueness and validity of each one’s context, and the diversity and plurality of their world views. It fosters active interchanges among the different rationalities. 
  • Popular education enables people to articulate their own stories, ask their own questions, seek their own answers and define their own directions. 
  • Popular education advocates participatory learning processes. It fosters a “sense of ownership” in people for their learning and recognizes them as partners in learning. 
  • As popular education is innovative, creative and optimizes resources present in the community, it is also sensitive to culture, gender, class, ethnic, ideological and other differences (including the physically-challenged) and recognizes these factors as built-in features of the learning environment. 
  • Popular education democratizes the creation of, access to, and the dissemination of information. 
  • Popular education strives to reach the greatest number of people and the different segments of society. 
  • Popular education motivates people to action towards social change and is transformative. 
  • Popular education locates itself within, not outside of, people’s operative frameworks. 

We view the following as essential qualities of a popular educator

  • The popular educator constantly develops his/her capacities and potentials and continuously engages in self-examination/reflection. He/She is both rigorous and creative and strives to balance both in his/her quest to develop his/her personal theory and practice in popular education. 
  • The popular educator espouses openness and respect for plurality. 
  • The popular educator regards passion and commitment as necessary elements of his/her work. 

The Context of Popular Education at the Turn of the Millennium

  • Popular education is situated within a world suffering from grave equity, sustainability and dehumanizing problems. 
  • The onset of the new millennium marks a time of rapid growth in information and communication technology, when society is shaped by the rapid generation and transmission of information. However, certain fields of knowledge remain controlled by a few. 
  • On the one hand, globalization imposes cultural homogenization, economic inequity and environmental destruction. On the other, it has potentials for promoting people-to-people solidarities and wider access to information. 
  • Prevailing policies on intellectual property rights (IPR) are often used to exploit indigenous resources and knowledge. 
  • Popular education coexists with and critically complements the various education efforts, and structures present in society, including formal ones. While formal education has its limitations, we need to appreciate and build on the in-roads that have been made within the formal educational system. 
  • The current appreciation of popular education is inclined towards simplification of concepts and training for education methods and skills development. 
  • There is a tendency for training programs to be funding-driven and limited by organizational structures and priorities. 
  • Popular education practice has achieved certain successes in various fields (i.e., environment, community development, etc.) and has evolved from initially being a tool for advancing political agenda into its present, multi-dimensional and integrated approach to holistic learning. 

We have identified the following challenges to popular educators and seek to respond to these

  • Popular educators should be able to develop and enhance participatory planning, monitoring and evaluation indicators to gauge their impact. 
  • Popular educators need to enrich the popular education discourse further, develop its practices and transform them into various media 
  • The popular educators’ community needs to ensure the continuity of the pop-education tradition through cultivating networks and partnerships and developing new educators. 
  • Popular educators need to be open to the positive influences of the fast-changing world while remaining firmly rooted in local realities. 
  • Popular educators need to advocate the development of the full human potential as the ultimate goal of popular education. 
  • Popular educators need to participate in the protection of indigenous knowledge and resources from exploitation and the effects of globalization. 
  • Popular educators need to pursue further theorizing on popular education to complement skills and method training. 
  • Popular educators need to firm up strategic directions for their work and not be constrained by funding and organizational demands.  


4. Key Features of People’s Education: A Summary

From: People’s Education: An examination of the concept, Glenda Jruss, Univ. of the Western Cape, p.19

To sum up the key features of People’s Education as formulated at the two conferences, by March 1986:

  1. Based on decades of education resistance, People’s Education is a rejection of Apartheid Education, which is education for domination.
  2. It has an underlying assumption that education and politics are linked and, consequently, that the struggle for an alternative education system can not be separated  from the struggle for a non-racial democratic South Africa.
  3. “People’s Education for People’s Power” is thus at the same time an educational strategy and a political strategy. Through People’s Education, people will be mobilized and organized towards the goal of a non-racial democratic South Africa; but at the same time through People’s Education, people are beginning to develop a future education system.
  4. Central to the success of People’s Education is organization of all sectors of the people, to take control of education and their lives. Students, teachers and parents need to build democratic organization in their own sectors, as well as establish strong working alliances and mutual understanding.
  5. People’s Education as an education system must be controlled by and advance the interest of the mass of the people.
  6. Arising out of the education crisis, People’s Education initially addressed itself to formal, school-based education. People’s Education is intended to educate and empower asll, not only school students.
  7. It must instil democratic values such as co-operative work and active participation – in opposition to current authoritarian and individualistic values dominant in schools.
  8. It must stimulate creativity and critical thinking to equip students for the future.
  9. Educational practices implementing the principles have to be developed particularly by teachers.
  10. People’s Education is in process – it can only be fully achieved when apartheid is abolished. In the meantime, it will be shaped and dveloped according to these guidelines. It is thus constantly changing and dynamic.

5. Definitions?

From: Education Action 12, Action Aid, 2000.

Reflect is an innovative approach to adult learning and social change which fuses the theories of Paulo Freire with the methodology of participatory rural appraisal. Reflect is one of many processes practiced around the world that are part of the worldwide movement of popular education. The following is a brainstormed list of definitions of Reflect from staff and participants in a Reflecft project in La Cuculmeca.

  • It is a blank page. It is not a law or a set of laws but something in the permanent process of construction
  • It is a pre-text. The techniques are pre-texts to promote communication and egagement
  • It is the creation of spaces so people can take responsibility
  • It is a means to put people in the centre rather than on the margins of their own development
  • It is a way of living not a set of methods
  • It is the internalisation of a participatory philosophy
  • It is about humanity and power
  • It is an internal process – internal to ourselves and internal to communities
  • It is about giving power for a change rather than taking it or using it
  • It is dangerous: it provokes crisis because it forces us all to change
  • It is a new way to pull together many elements of popular education
  • It is feeling power and enabling people to have the power to communicate
  • It is generating new hope, new horizontal revolutions
  • It is the use of techniques as an organic part of people’s own process
  • It is not a recipe, it is an open and evolving concept which needs to be interpreted
  • It is in permanent construction
  • It is a way of generating new energy to change ourselves and our organisations
  • It is about creating a new sense of self as an active agent of change
  • People who use Reflect and think they know it should be reminded that day by day you need to reflect and change your way of being


6. Popular Education: Concept and Implications

From Convergence XIV:2 1981, International Council for Adult Education, pp. 70-72

The term ‘popular’ suggests, at first, that this relatively new concept tries to differentiate itself from other ‘non-popular’ educational approaches… It is recognized that education in any society is organized mainly for transferring the prevailing norms and patterns of behaviour and, accordingly, for reproducing the existing order. But, at the same time, it is accepted that education by itself contributes to social transformation. Education is both a  process of renewal and a process  for maintaining the status quo; a process of homogenization of the people and also of differentiation, since it is directed toward the creation of specialists…

An Alternative Educational Approach

Popular education claims to be an alternative educational approach directed toward the promotion of social change,  rather than social stability, and toward the organization of certain educational activities. These are activities that contribute to liberation from the existing social order and to transformation; not merely social and economic reforms but structural changes that make it possible to overcome the prevailing unjust situation.

Advocate of popular education do not over-emphasize the role of education in this process. Since social transformation is a very complex phenomenon made up of social-economic and political variables, education must be integrated into a more general social effort. The specific task of education is related to the need for the transformation process to be assumed by the people as a ‘historic programme’ which offers the concrete opportunity fr them to become the subjects of their own lives. To achieve this, the people need to reach new and better levels of collective action, each time more organized, wider and more critical. One of the most relevant efforts is the education of popular groups that are potentially able to act as conscious agents of the process of social change.

Thus, popular education is a tool for developing critical social consciousness among the transformation agents in order to create specific dynamics in the action/reflection relationship. This process may be summarized, for clarification, as following this sequence:

  • Critique of the existing social reality;
  • Collective mobilization for social transformation;
  • Critical review of the action carried out;
  • Replanning of future action;
  • Re-evaluation of the previous diagnosis of social reality.

Characteristics Of Popular Education

Popular education is both a theory and a practice of social action that is geared toward development of the capacity for organization, communication and critical reflection on processes and social relationships by the most  depriced sectors of the population. It is a collective learning process and is implemented on the basis of a certain commitment to the popular sectors by those who take part. Consequently, popular education is also based on the participation of the popular sectors in the planning and implementation of new actions. These actions are conducted so that people can reach new levels of consciousness through the process of solving actual needs.

In Latin America, popular education has been generally carried out by non-government agencies. Its most relevant characteristics are:

  • The starting point is concrete. Popular education works within the actual world of the popular sectors. It starts from the popular culture. However, we know that popular culture has not developed in a social vacuum. It contains important elements of the dominant culture that have been transferred to the people through ‘non-popular’ education (among other means) in a way that exerts ideological control from within. To pay too much respect to the culture of the people may thus lead to the reinforcement of domination rather than to the promotion of liberation. The key to solving this apparent contradiction is to develop a critical ability by which people can detach the liberating forces of their culture from the oppressive ones.
  • Popular education is active. Like any popular activity, popular education is directed toward action, but not any action. It gives priority to the Greek concept of praxis; the type of action that makes possible the transformation of reality.
  • Popular education avoids manipulation. It attempts to be an educational system which is consistent in style with the new order that will arise in the future. This style is dialogical, horizontal and articipative in the sense that all those who intervene in the learning process are also engaged in the search for new knowledge.
  • Popular education is a collective effort. In most Third World countries, individualism is not only promoted but is even imposed. Solidarity and cooperation – basic pre-requisites for social organizations – are discouraged. Popular education, on the contrary, energetically stresses  the need for approaching the learning process, and subsequent action, in a way that promotes cooperation and common action.
  • Popular education is a flexible educational process of lifelong learning that continually adapts  to the changing historical and local conditions of the participants.

In Conclusion

Popular education is an adult education activity and, what is more, it is a specific response of adult education   to the endeavour of social transformation in Third World countries. Most of the methodologies of popular education are also principles of adult education. The intent of popular education is to detach itself from the educational efforts that are directed   to maintaining a social system that has been accused of being unjust and oppressive. Its appeal is for building an alternative education approach in Third World countries that is more consistent  with justice and freedom.

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