Empowerment Education

Empowerment Education in Facilitation

This post is from early in my consulting practice.  Empowerment Education is, in my mind an essential facilitation skill.  While I have not edited this post, I beleive it is still current and relevant.

Raise you hand if in the last three months you have sat in a meeting that was dominated by process model of information presentation ==> discussion ==> and decision; followed by information presentation ==> discussion ==> and decision, in a pattern that was repeated until the end of the meeting?  Unfortunately hierarchical meeting structures are still all too common in meetings today.  You can put your hand down.  In my last post I discussed the shift of group interaction away from hierarchical, government thinking towards governance as a dominant facilitation model.  In this new facilitation environment the old framework where the facilitator imparts and the group members receive, memorize, and repeat is wholly inadequate in meeting the challenges of facilitating for governance. My contention is that governance thinking requires the re-discovery of community organizing tools and methodologies and constructivist learning theories.  One place where the theories of community organizing and constructivism meet is in the framework of empowerment education.

The father of empowerment education is Paulo Freire and I encourage all facilitators to read deeply of his work.  There are a three  principles that I would like to briefly discuss as touchstones of Freire’s work. These three principles, in my view, are integral to informing the skill-set of any contemporary facilitator.

Conscientization: The first touchstone is that Freire’s believed that all learning is political. Conscientization, as he described the concept, was that education had the function of developing a critical awareness about the social, political, and economic contradictions and realities so that individuals would take action against the oppressive elements of reality.  Transferring this concept to facilitation, it forces the facilitator to see that facilitation is not simply the process of information presentation ==> discussion ==> and decision.  Facilitation becomes the process of making the connections between the internal context and external context to not only create change but also open the possibility for sea change.  In another post I wrote extensively about facilitating for community engagement, which serves as the basic process for a conscientization approach to facilitation.

Constructivism: The second touchstone of Freire’s pedagogy is that learning is not a process of transmitting of information and imposing decision-making from the top-down.  In the hierarchical model, the experts are on top and the majority of the group (below) are passive receptacles in the process. Constructivism purports that learning is an active process of construction on the part of all learners that involves making meaning out of a multiple perspectives and data.  Constructivism requires a facilitator to move beyond simple brainstorming, sorting and prioritizing exercises and engages groups in such authentic tasks as creating, designing, analyzing and deciding (a topic for further exploration in  a follow-up post).

Praxis: A third touchstone of Freire’s thinking is the concept of praxis. Freire believed that local transformation is the product of praxis at the collective level.  Together, groups need to move from theory to practice.  In application, praxis becomes an iterative process of theory, application, evaluation, reflection, and then back to theory.   Learner driven experimentation is the basis for true system’s change and performance improvement and the facilitator’s role is to create the dynamics of iteration.  One approach to engage learners in iterative learning is to use strategies of rapid cycle testing (such as the Plan, Do, Study, Act model). Additionally, the concept of praxis also implies learning over time and that creates for a facilitator the need to think in terms of the long view.

Empowerment education is a critical theory that serves well as one of the foundation stones of facilitation.  A facilitator needs to understand the experiences and world views of the group in order to successfully foster change and further the learning process. Moreover, strong facilitation uses empowerment and critical reflection to not only solve the pressing and immediate need but also seeks to equip groups to applying such thinking to future problems.

~ Mark

Photo Credit: Andrew Martin

Freire, P. (1972) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Freire, P. (1995) Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York: Continuum.


Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.