What do the SSEC Global Goals Guides have in common with Paulo Freire’s Empowerment Education?

So often we are told to put students at the center of the learning process and encourage them to be critical thinkers. But what does this mean in practice? Probably every educator has struggled with this aspiration. We know the idea of critical thinking is important, but the question that remains is how can we use education to develop critical thinking skills?

As a Brazilian student, I have a very clear example that I look up to: Paulo Freire. His revolutionary methodology is a useful tool for teachers from around to world who want to contribute to social empowerment     

In fact, during my time as an SSEC Global Goals intern, I noticed how Freire’s ideals have a lot in common with the SSEC's mission to transform education in collaboration with communities across the globe. Particularly, I could see the Freirian approaches in the Smithsonian Science for Global Goals community research guides.

This blog will explore why Paulo Freire is so important for education, discover some of his main ideas, and explore how the Smithsonian Science for Global Goals community research guides enact Freireian ideals.


Paulo Freire (1921-1986) was born in a poor region of Brazil. He pursued a Bachelor's degree in Law, but he preferred to work as a teacher in adult education, mainly adult literacy. He developed a literacy method that would not only allow the students to read texts but also to develop a critical comprehension of their reality. Freire was known worldwide and taught many places, including Harvard University.

''Pedagogy of the Oppressed” is Freire’s best-selling book, the third most-cited book publication in the social sciences.


  1. The "banking" concept of education: In traditional schools, students are considered to know nothing. So, the teacher, who knows everything, needs to “deposit” knowledge on the students, to “fill” them. This knowledge is decontextualized, apart from the students’ reality. After receiving those deposits, students memorize and repeat, not reflecting on what they are learning. Freire says that this method ignores and diminishes the students’ creativity and agency. 
  2. Problem-posing education: Freire proposes a practice of education that presents real problems that are present in the students' reality. Usually, the problems explored and themes of the class are developed by the students. So the curriculum is developed with the students, not for the students. Through this problem-posing education, students are challenged to reflect and understand the world around them. Education becomes liberating as students develop a critical consciousness of problems in the systems around them.
  3. Dialogue: Through dialogue, education can be a process where both student and teacher learn and grow together. In this process, students are not just listeners. Since they also know things, they can and must contribute to the development of knowledge. Educators also can teach and be taught at simultaneously.

When we understand some of the pillars of Freire’s concept of education, we notice that those ideas and approaches are very similar to ones that are embedded within the Smithsonian Science for Global Goals community research guides. 

To use one guide as an example, on Environmental Justice!, we see that it supports the ideas of: 

  1. Local and Contextualized Knowledge: The community research guides invite young people to explore the themes of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) within their local communities using STEM (and social science) as a tool. As they explore the issues through the lens of their own realities, young people are encouraged to recognize the value of their existing knowledge about their localities and to express themselves creatively. In Environmental Justice!, youth begin their work by recognizing what they already know about themselves and their community. Then, they are invited to use their local knowledge along with STEM to investigate environmental injustices in their own communities.
  2. Problem-posing Education: The very real problems highlighted through the SDGs provide a perfect opportunity for young people to notice and work on problems that will impact their local and global spaces. They engage in critical systems and future thinking to not only identify the natural and human systems that are causing the issues they notice, but also to envision how human-created systems could be reimagined to create a more equitable, sustainable future. In the Environmental Justice! guide, for example, students identify systemic causes for environmental injustices and they are invited to analyze the role of different shareholders involved to reach environmental justice.
  3. No Banking Education!: The Smithsonian Science for Global Goals community research guides are student-facing. Rather than cast the educator as the knowledge holder and “depositor,” the guides focus on the co-creation of knowledge through investigations and dialogue. Sustainable solutions are solutions that include multiple perspectives. Young people using the guides are given frequent opportunities to explore these perspectives through dialogue with each other, with other researchers, with authority figures, and with members of their community. This sense of dialogue is very present in the Environmental Justice! guide as youth engage in dialogue with specialists, their community, and their classmates to explore different points of view and determine how they would like to act to make the future more environmentally just.

The object of Freirian education is a reality in which all people can critically examine their surroundings and make choices about the need to keep or modify the systems that create the problems they identify. Similarly, the Smithsonian Science for Global Goals guides supports young people in discovering, understanding, and acting on critical global issues to create a shared, transformative future.

All in all, Freire’s ideas and SSEC Global Goals guides play the same important role: using students’ protagonism to empower and develop critical thinking.

About the Author

Ana Carolina Alves

Ana Carolina Alves is currently pursuing her BSc in Chemical Education in Brazil. She was a fall 2021 and winter 2022 intern for the Smithsonian Science for Global Goals team, working on the production of the Environmental Justice! guide. She aims to contribute to improving science communication and literacy, especially for minorities.