Reflection on "The 'Banking' Concept of Education"
The Entrenched Bank
In "The 'Banking' Concept of Education", Paulo Freire claims that we teach reality as "motionless, static, compartmentalized, and predictable" (Ways 348). He believes that, in many a modern-day classroom, "bank clerk teachers" (351) spend their time "depositing" facts into receptive, unthinking students, for the sole purpose of enabling those students to recall a specified assortment of facts on command. I agree with him on many of the things that he says; the classroom often does seem to be a place where facts are taught, not information. I would say that this situation is not as widespread, at least in my life, as he seems to imply; however, I would also say that it is more common than many people would like to admit. So why is this? Why do we continue to focus on the learning of insignificant facts? I would say that it is because, quite simply, we don't know any better.
Part of the reason that we don't know any better can be seen in how we define education itself. Education is often defined as the transfer of facts from a teacher to a group of students; in essence, to do the very thing that Freire objects to. Learning is often seen as the memorization of facts; therefore, learning how to use those facts is not seen as a topic fit for education. Even the best, the brightest teachers and students can fall into this trap. For example, I recently took a weekend-long course at MIT, with classes taught by teachers and students from that famous institution. I was hoping to gain a better understanding of several topics, including, for example, calculus and quantum mechanics. But instead of a better understanding, I was given pages upon unexplained pages of equations, equations which I could easily solve, but whose solutions I could not use because I didn't understand what they meant. Take, for example, the course on calculus. It was taught in a room with a blackboard that took up an entire wall; that blackboard must have been filled six or seven times over the course of the class, with explanations of how to calculate integrals and differentials, and the like. All right; so I can calculate an integral. So why do I care? This class neglected to answer, with any degree of detail, why one would ever want to use calculus in the first place, nor, for that matter, what calculus is really used for. This is a perfect example of the banking concept of education: "depositing" lists of seemingly arbitrary facts, in this case equations, without enabling the students, including, in this case, me, to understand the purpose and meaning behind those facts.
One has to wonder if this definition of education is not, in fact, one of the tidbits of information deposited in countless students, unwittingly, by teachers themselves. The teachers of today were once students, students who went through the very system that they now manage. Maybe, as students, many teachers never experienced anything but the banking concept; now, they continue to follow the banking model because they don't know any better way. I would sympathize with such people; for many years, I "accept[ed] [my] ignorance as justifying [my] teacher's existence" (Ways 349). I knew that school could not be as dull and mindless as this memorizing of facts, and it was really only quite recently that I realized that it isn't; or, at least, that it needn't be. This realization came as I actually started to encounter courses based on "libertarian education" (349); such courses are few and far between, and they would seem to appear only in the latter half of high school, if one is fortunate enough to encounter them at all.
Part of the reason that the banking concept of education perpetuates itself can be found in the absolute authority given freely to all teachers, over all students. Teachers of today continue to follow the banking model not only because they don't know a better way, but because their teachers, from long ago, encouraged them to. This encouragement was most likely not conscious; it stems from the need of the student to follow the all-knowing teacher. Students, believing that their "teacher knows everything" (349), will imitate their teacher if they don't know what to do. And, because so much authority is given to these teachers, the student may come to believe that their teachers are infallible; if this should come to pass, the students would copy and defend their teacher's method of teaching even when the students themselves have become teachers. Every now and then, I hear of a teacher who staunchly defends the banking concept of education. I often feel sorry for such people, these "well-intentioned bank clerk[s]" (351) who hold on for dear life to the "way it's always been done".
So far, by reading this essay, one might get the impression that I think most, if not all, teachers are devoted followers of the banking concept of education. By way of clarification, I should say that this is by no means the case. I have seen a good number of teachers who much prefer teaching through dialogue, through at least some form of intelligent interaction with their students. In particular, very nearly all of my teachers this year depart from the standard banking method. But in the past, I have had many teachers who do follow quite closely the banking method; we in this school system get taught five years of Algebra I (a one-year course), for example, just to ensure that everyone knows every last nitpicky detail of the thing. "Humanistic, revolutionary educator[s]" (351) do exist, but they seem at times to be spread just a bit too thin.
So far, I have been entirely in agreement with Freire, and his expressed views. I would be falling into the same trap that I just described, however, if I were to avoid the points on which I disagree with Freire. My main point of debate is the degree to which things should change. Freire claims that we should "reject the banking concept in its entirety" (354), replacing it completely with methods designed to induce thought. There is a quote, somewhere: "Thinking is the process of forgetting a difference". I'm not entirely sure where that came from, but I believe I remember it from my past experience in this English class. In any case, how can one forget a difference if one does not know anything to begin with? "Banking education" is the process through which we currently teach facts; "'problem-posing' education" (354) is the alternative suggested by Freire, through which people learn by analyzing situations. But one can't analyze a situation without first understanding all the details of the situation. Before one can analyze a problem, one must have a sizeable deposit of knowledge to draw from, to use as a tool to understand the problem in the first place. The banking and problem-solving forms of education at first seem mutually exclusive, but I believe that they are interdependent.
But even if the banking concept of education is necessary, I still believe that it needs to be carefully controlled. It has the inherent tendency to "control thinking and action", and, by so doing, to increase its own power over the minds of those who practice it. It by definition gives more power to those already in power, the teachers, and power can be very hard to resist for even the most well-intentioned leaders. If the teacher-banker role is necessary for education, it is also necessary that it be used with care, and sparingly, whenever possible.
The process of learning is clearly hindered by forcing students to learn too many facts. But at the same time, it is genuinely hard to effectively teach students how to think without any facts at all. A balance must somehow be reached. But in the short term, I think that it is important that all teachers, all students at least make an attempt to make use of the "problem-solving" theory, so that they know that the banking concept is not the only way of teaching or learning. Doing so, it seems to me, is the only real way to escape the continuing downward spiral caused by the banking concept of education.