Souto-Manning – Freire, Teaching, and Learning: Culture Circles Across Contexts

Background/ Context:

Author Mariana Souto-Manning approaches Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy f the Oppressed from a place of lived experience and knowledge. Being steeped in Brazilian education both as a student and educator and having attended workshops with Freire, she says “critical pedagogy has long been a reality for me” (1). As a former teacher and current teacher educator who has worked in educational institutions in both Brazil and the United States, Souto-Manning is able to theorize based on data from her own professional experiences in a variety of contexts and speak with fellow educators.

Purpose/Objective/Research Questions/Focus of Study:

In Freire, Teaching, and Learning: Culture Circles Across Contexts, Mariana Souto-Manning breaks down the theory behind Paulo Freire’s culture circles, first designed by Freire as a means to promote adult literacy in Brazil, and demonstrates how they work in practice and can be used to bring about democratic education in a multitude of contexts. In her introduction, she states her purpose is to make the process of implementing culture circles clearer and more real and applicable particularly for teachers and teacher educators. Souto-Manning seeks to arm educators with “theory-informed examples” of Freirian culture circles and problem-posing techniques across a variety of educational so that they can recreate culture circles in their own contexts thereby promoting critical, transformational, and democratic education.


Souto-Manning takes her data from several different settings and groups of people in Brazil and the United States – an American first-grade classroom, a Brazilian adult education program, an American university group of pre-sevice early childhood education teachers, a group of American public school elementary school teachers, and a lead teacher and teaching assistant in an American university college of education. Souto-Manning offers adaptations of culture circles in and out of Brazilian contexts in order to show the portability of Freirian critical pedagogy theories and methods.

Research Design: 

Souto-Manning presents five case studies of culture circles enacted in different contexts. The data were collected from ethnographic observations. At times Souto-Manning used a combination of Critical Discourse Analysis and Conversational Narrative Analysis in order to employ Critical Narrative Analysis (Souto-Manning, 2005). “Critical Narrative Analysis mirrors the process whereby teachers engage in questioning their generative stories and locations in society” (134).


From the beginning Souto-Manning is clear that education is not culturally or politically neutral. Thus, critical pedagogy is necessary in order to honor the humanity of all students and their cultural backgrounds, but this is particularly important for the oppressed. One way that critical pedagogy honors the oppressed is by focusing on generative themes that are significant to those who have been marginalized instead of the information or “deposits” from the oppressors. Culture circles, Souto-Manning says, “are based on two basic tenets: the political nature of education (Feitosa, 1999a; Freire, 1985) and dialogue in the process of educating” (18) emphasis mine. Culture circles, first conceptualized by Freire in the 1950s, are fueled by dialogue and the generative themes that come from the participants in the process:

By documenting the most urgent struggles experiences by many of the participants of a culture circle and codifying those experiences in a generative theme (e.g., a case, story, photo, drawing, document), facilitators open up opportunities for students to name, problematize and deconstruct issues which are paramount in their lives (31).

The five phases to the critical cycle in culture circles are:

  • generative themes
  • problem (or question) posing
  • dialogue
  • problem solving
  • action (32).

While this cycle alone serves to disrupt hierarchies  found in traditional classrooms, other features, such as circular seating further goes against the banking concept of education and promotes dialogue.

In addition to codifying and decodifying specific challenges faced by participants in culture circles, participants also become more aware of how their social realities are constructed. Souto-Manning says, “this process of identifying and deconstructing institutional discourses within personal narratives (Souto-Manning, 2007) makes social interaction a space for norms to be challenged and changed” (41). She gives an example of this challenge/ change and how it can translate into individual and collective agency in chapter six on culture circles in in-service teacher education. Souto-Manning shows elementary school teacher, Shante, sharing the influence of the culture circle/ teacher study group: “Something needs to change, but I can’t be the one responsible, you know. Maybe I’ll leave. But then… I had a renewed sense of purpose… We knew that we could change anything if we stuck together” (136).

On Praxis…

Souto-Manning embodies praxis; reflection and action upon the world with the goal of transformation (Freire, 1970) in Freire, Teaching, and Learning by integrating theory, her practices and observations, and the reflections of her culture circle participants. Although Souto-Manning mainly gives examples that feature childhood education and teacher education, educators across geographic locations, institutions, and disciplines are prompted and given a road map to  enact liberatory pedagogies by incorporating culture circles.

We must ask ourselves whether schools geared to preparing loyal subjects or obedient workers also build thinking, literate, active, fully developed and morally sensitive citizens who carry out their democratic responsibilities to one another, to their communities, to the earth – William Ayers, “Afterword” (194).