048. Codificação/decodificação em Paulo Freire

Reproduzo artigo que resume minha investigação no mestrado em tecnologia educacional, San Diego State University, 1984. Em Pesquisa Avançada em Educação, Rafaela Santa Cruz, minha amiga e professora exigia que escrevêssemos sínteses de nossas pesquisas para envio a revistas de educação. A exigência era mais um treino. No geral, os artigos não eram enviados para julgamento por painéis de especialistas nos journals reconhecidamente de 1º time. Rafa me incentivou a enviar o meu. Não pude aceitar a sugestão, pois achava que meu texto em inglês não tinha qualidade. Meu domínio do inglês era, e ainda é, problemático. Isso fica evidenciado quando falo ou escrevo no dito idioma.

Agora, muitos anos depois de cometido o tal artigo, divulgo-o neste Boteco. Ele tem valor de registro de um estudo que fiz seguindo rigorosas normas de pesquisa experimental. Além do inglês bambo, a linguagem empregada é muito acadêmica. Mas, para quem quiser conhecer um trabalho que fiz com muito prazer, aqui está uma síntese da minha principal investigação feita nos tempos de mestrado.





(San Diego State University, San Diego)


This research investigated the nature of the interpretations of Freirean codifications. Participants were forty students at SDSU. An adapted form of codifications for the concept of culture (Freire, 1973a) was utilized as material asking subject to classify possible responses to the represented situations. Significant differences were found between groups confirming hypothesized higher performance on abstraction and lower performance on description among subjects receiving some hint about the nature of the conceptual representations. In addition, within groups, analyses revealed predominance of descriptive interpretations in everyday life situations. Implications for the Freirean method and suggestions for further research are presented.



Although widely utilized in several Third World regions and, in small scale, in some developed countries, the adult education method developed by Paulo Freire has hardly been studied through the major research methodologies. Explanations for this lack of scientific investigation of the Brazilian educator model are usually linked to the political aims and philosophical foundations, which characterize its theory and practice. Freire followers frequently state that the only way to comprehend and use the cited method is accepting it as a whole, which necessarily includes the political, philosophical, and instructional dimensions (Van de Poel, 1981; Brandão, 1982). For this reason, they allege, a strictly instructional approach of Freire’s ideas is at least incorrect (Jannuzzi, 1979). And so is any attempt to experimentally assess his instructional prescriptions (Paiva, 1980).

Contrary to the common assumptions about Freire’s educational thought, this study finds that it is feasible to analyze that widely utilized method using strictly experimental research procedures. The only condition to do that is finding researchable instructional theories which can function as conceptual bridges between the Freirean pedagogy and experimental requirements.

Focusing on the nature of the interpretations (decodifications) to Freirean codifications, this investigation was developed to explore one of the possible alternatives to overcome the experimental constraints posed by the method of the Brazilian educator. Schema theory was assumed as an appropriate medium for an experimental assessment of the concepts of codification and decodification. These two concepts were defined according to schema theory; the experimental conditions were based on former studies dealing with codification/decodification related concepts and using schema related ideas as theoretical background.


The Freire’s original motivation to create a new adult education method was political (Paiva, 1980). Since its beginning the method was thought of as a tool to liberate people under oppressive situations (Freire, 1973a). The increasing involvement of the author with the political dimensions of education in the undeveloped countries reinforced this trace of his theory (Freire, 1973b and 1974). For this reason he does not accept any application of his method without previously establishing the political arena where instruction will be delivered (Freire, 1983).

The word most closely associated with Freire’s political position is conscientization. He understands conscientization as the process in which human beings, not as recipients, but as knowing subjects, reach a deepening awareness both of the social-cultural reality which shapes their lives and of their capacity to transform that reality (Lloyd, 1972). The final aim of this process, in Freirean terms, is social change (Goulet, 1973). To operate needed social changes, oppressed people, among other conditions, should overcome their magical and naive consciousness (Freire, 1974). This concern with levels of knowledge leads the Brazilian educator to stress the necessity of identifying the epistemological foundations of any instructional proposal.

Freire criticizes the majority of adult education methods. He thinks that those methods are only content oriented. They do not consider previous knowledge of the target population and take instruction content as something to be deposited in the learns’ minds by means of imposition (Freire, 1970). On the other hand, he claims that his method is based on an epistemology which considers both objective (data, information or content) and subjective (knowledge processing) dimensions of knowledge (Freire, 1970).

The use of codifications and decodifications as instructional devices is presented as evidence that the Brazilian educator proposes instructional paths which take in to account a dialectical epistemology (Van der Poel, 1981; Gerhardt, 1983). Codification is defined as knowledge representation based on people praxis and as a conceptual structure which can account for a large number of existential situations experienced by the target population (INODEP, 1980). This knowledge representation structure can be conveyed by symbolic means such as language, drawings, and pictures (Freire, 1973a, 1974, and 1983). Decodification is the process of interpretation of codifications as they appear in instructional formats (Freire, 1973a).

When used for instructional purposes, codifications have to be selected after: 1) a research of the existential themes of the perspective learners, 2) selection of the most significant themes, 3) determination of the constituent subthemes for each theme, 4) organization of the themes and subthemes in an ordered sequence from the least to the most complex, 5) choice of the media most adequate to convey the related codifications for the themes and sub-themes, 6) organization of the agendas of probable ways the learners will use to interpret the codifications, 7) organization of agendas of the new information to be introduced (Freire, 1973a). Condifications are supposed to represent existentially significant themes to the perspective learners; in other word, they are supposed to symbolically convey part of the learners’ repertoire related with the new information to be introduced. Thus, when decoded, they reveal to the learners their ability to build knowledge upon their personal experiences or praxis (Gerhardt, 1983). Besides its role as an instrument to systematize learners’ previous knowledge content and processing, decodification helps to get new information by producing more abstract codifications based on their previous world knowledge (Freire, 1983).

In Freire, knowledge representation (codification) and interpretation (decodification) are not mere instructional strategies but expressions of an educational stance based on the belief that the instructional process operates in a double direction. Both teachers and students learn and teach at the same time (Freire, 1970, 1973a, and 1983).

Since its creation in the early 60’s, the Freirian method was characterized as a revolutionary proposal for adult education viewed as social process (Griffith, 1972; Boston, 1972). This social-political motivation surrounding the model of the Brazilian educator was assumed to be his most important contribution to educational theory (Lloyd, 1972). For this reason the majority of the studies of Freire are political in nature. Few studies, all of them case studies, deal specifically with the instructional aspects of the Freirean thought (Kekkonen, 1977; Ewert, 1981; Van der Poel, 1981; and Gerhardt, 1983). All these studies restate Freire’s ideas and have limited utility to answer the major questions about the method’s theory and practice.

Given that Freire’s works and the related literature do not offer clear directions for experimental research treatments, a complementary frame of reference is needed if one attempts to study concepts such as codification and decodification. Schema theory seems to fit this intermediation role.

Schema theory basically deals with knowledge representation. It proposes that knowledge can be described as a set of nodes and relationships (Norman and Rumelhart, 1975). Nodes represent objects, events, sequence of events, situations, and sequence of situations (Rumelhart, 1980). Each node, depending on the knowledge application, can be a specific schema by its own right. Relationships are propositions about the constituent nodes (Rumelhart and Ortony, 1977; Dansereau, 1978; Gentner, 1983).

Schemata can account for both objective (data information) and subjective (knowledge processing) dimensions of knowledge (Rumelhart and Ortony, 1977). They relate to specific situations by means of instantiation, a process which involves mapping the specific characteristics of a given datum into the abstract structure of the correspondent schema (Norman and Rumelhart, 1975). A major feature of schemata is flexibility. These conceptual structures can account for a large range of instances to the extent that attributes or nodes of these instances can handle the internal relationships which sustain the network of the respective schema. In summary, nodes and attributes can vary to the extent that the schematic relationships are maintained (Rumelhart and Ortony, 1977).

According to Rumelhart and Ortony (1977), schema processing probably follows two directions. One is described as bottom up processing (going from the constituent parts to the predominant schema). The other is described as top down processing (going from the predominant schema to its constituent parts).  The first can also be defined as data driven processing or descriptive interpretation. The second can be defined as conceptual driven processing or abstract interpretation. Use determines schema creation, modification, and cancellation. In broad terms new schema production can be described as specialization or generalization. Schema specialization occurs when part of an old schema is fixed to generate a new schematic network which can account for a particular set of situations. Schema generalization occurs when a more abstract schema is created to account for a larger range of situations which were handled before by two or more schemata.

In the last ten years a significant number of studies based on schema theory and related ideas have been developed. Some of them approach problems parallel to the Freirean concepts of codification and decodification: Rumelhart and Abrahamson (1973), Royer and Cable (1976), Sternberg (1977), Gick and Holyak (1980 and 1983), and Perfetto, Bransford and Franks (1983). All these studies indicate that new knowledge production depends on subjects’ previous knowledge. Some of them stress that generation of more abstract schemata is related to previous information about the nature of the required conceptual task. On the other hand, they indicate that spontaneous interpretations of schema representations are generally descriptive.

Two investigations (Norman and Rumelhart, 1975; and Palmer, 1975) show that schemata are metalinguistic knowledge representation. Although language plays an important role in knowledge representation, processing and storage, it is not a determinant factor (Ortony and associates, 1978).

Summary comparison:

codification/decodification and schema theory

Although based on different reference sources, schema theory and the Freirean method share some common traits such as:

1)      A representational format for knowledge which can account for both objective and subjective dimensions of knowledge.

2)      A knowledge structure which includes attributes and relationships.

3)      A proposal of conceptual representations which can handle a large number of situations or instances.

4)      The suggestion that conceptual representations can occur at different levels of abstraction.

5)      The suggestion that knowledge processing can occur in different directions.

6)      The statement that production of new knowledge is based on previous knowledge.

Schema theory obviously is more detailed than the Freirean approach to knowledge. For this reason it can shed light on some aspects not well developed by Freire. Using schema as a reference in this sense, the following suggestions for research codification/decodification can be established here:

1)      Conceptual representation interpretations (decodifications) depend on the kind of previous information subjects have about the expected outcome.

2)      Abstract interpretations of codifications can be viewed as a kind of top down schema processing and descriptive interpretations of codifications, as bottom up schema processing

3)      Conceptual representation interpretations are related with schema use.


Freire asserts that in the first step of codification interpretations the learners’ responses will be descriptive. This prediction is based on the argument that in everyday life situations descriptive interpretations of knowledge representations are predominant. Such view fails to consider different stimula which can affect the nature of the responses to knowledge representations. In a formal manner, this question posed by the Freirean instructional prescriptions can be formulated as follows:

It is possible that the expectation of predominantly descriptive responses in the first step of the decodification process can be explained as a consequence of the stimulus prompting subjects’ interpretation of the presented conceptual representations. Probably a new starting form for this process – providing some indirect information about the nature of the conceptual representations, for example – will modify the traditionally expected response pattern.

To assess the above problem in an experimental way the following hypotheses were formulated:

Hypothesis 1: In the decodification process, the subjects receiving previous information about the nature of the conceptual representation (codification) will score higher on abstract responses and lower on descriptive responses than the subjects receiving the traditionally prescribed treatment.

Hypothesis 2: The subjects receiving the traditionally prescribed treatment will get higher mean scores on descriptive responses than on abstract responses.

Hypothesis 3: The subjects receiving previous information about the nature of the conceptual representation will get higher mean scores on abstract responses, than on descriptive responses.


This study was designed in a control/experimental group format with an available sample and randomized assignment of treatments. The control group was informed about its task according to the traditional prescriptions of the Freirean method: 1) presentation of the codifications without any hint about their nature, and 2) use of the statement “this drawing shows” as the introductory suggestion to the required task. On the other hand, the experimental group received indirect information about the nature of the nature of the codifications and was introduced to the required task by the statement “this drawing means”.


Participants were forty graduate students of two Spring classes at SDSU College of Education. This sample included 26 females and 14 males. The mean age of subjects was 35 with a range from 26 to 52.


Subjects were asked to decode the drawings (codifications) designed by V. Abreu to represent situations related with the concept of culture (Freire, 1973a). This material was specially adapted to experimental purposes. In the process of adaptation two original drawings depicting Brazilian situations were eliminated. The eight selected drawings were tried in a pilot group of 15 Linguistic students who were asked to find as many titles as they could for each drawing. The titles proposed by the pilot group were classified as abstract, descriptive, or other by three independent judges. From a final list of titles unanimously labeled as abstract or descriptive by all judges, four titles (two abstract and two descriptive) were selected for each drawing. The final form of the instrument was set up in a questionnaire format asking subjects to classify the four titles for each drawing as MORE or LESS adequate in a five point Likert scale.

The experimental task was presented as a classification exercise about some unnamed drawings. The orders of presentation of the drawings as well as the order of the titles for each drawing were randomly assigned to avoid any solution clue about the actual nature of the experiment.


Participants were randomly assigned to one of the treatments and took the test in a classroom setting. Nineteen students were tested on a Monday evening and twenty-one, on a Wednesday afternoon. In order to guarantee full cooperation of subjects a ten dollar prize was offered for a wining participant in each class.

The questionnaire was administered as a self-explanatory instrument. Subjects were given as much time as they needed to finish their task. In the applications reported here the average time to classify all thirty two titles was about ten minutes.


The dependent variables were individual scores on abstract and descriptive responses. Scoring was determined by reversing  the values of the original scale. A maximum of 80 points could be reached in each decodification type. A higher score on each decodification type would mean, respectively, greater abstract or descriptive interpretations to conceptual representations (Freirean codifications).


Independent and dependent t-tests were utilized to compare the performances of the two groups. The result summary is presented in Table 1.

Table 1

Comparative summary of two student groups performance on abstract and descriptive interpretations to conceptual representations.



Control group mean

Experimental group mean

Independent   t-tests













Dependent t-test



2-tail p



Improvement on abstraction and inhibition on description

The results supported hypothesis 1. The treatment, as hypothesized, significantly improves subjects’ performances on abstract interpretations. The calculated statistic (independent t-test = 2.91) indicated that the experimental group mean score on abstraction (X = 48.00) was significantly higher (p <. 05) than the control group mean score on the same response type (X = 41.47).

The obtained statistic for performances on descriptive interpretations (independent t-test = -2,07) also confirmed hypothesis 1. The mean score of the experimental group (X = 49.78) was significantly lower (p < .05) than the mean score of the control group (X = 56.12) showing that the treatment inhibited production of descriptive responses to conceptual representations.

Internal effects

A possible way to describe Freire’s approach to the nature of the responses in the process of decodification was stated in hypothesis 2. According to this hypothesis the control group would perform significantly higher on descriptive interpretations than on abstract interpretations. On the other hand, it was expected (hypothesis 3) that the informational approach would cause an inverse effect than that suggested by Freire: the experimental group would perform significantly higher on abstract interpretations than on descriptive interpretations.

The results fully supported hypothesis 2. The calculated statistic (dependent t-test = 6.20) showed that the description responses mean score on description (X=49.78) and its mean score on abstraction (X=48.00) was not significant (p >.05).


Given the characteristics of the sample, an available group of graduate students, possible inferences based on this study have to be considered with caution. In addition, the Freirean method, an educational strategy to teach poor people of undeveloped countries, demands a great deal of adaptation if one intends to apply it in contexts other than Third World areas.

Regardless of the limitations surrounding the conditions of this investigation and the specificity of the Freirean method, the obtained results suggest some partial conclusions which will be summarized in the next section.


The between groups comparison shows that interpretation types are strongly affected by information or lack of information about the nature of conceptual representations. The role played by previous information to the decodification process indicates that the production of abstract or descriptive responses is not only a function of levels of consciousness (individual difference) as Freire points out but also a function of the stimula prompting the codification interpretation.

The Freirean assertion about the predominance of descriptive interpretations to conceptual representation is appropriate if one considers spontaneous responses to codifications. In addition, it appears that even informed subjects tend to maintain descriptive interpretations at a high level. Freire’s instructional prescriptions seem to suggest that this evident predominance of descriptive interpretations in everyday live situations should be replicate in instructional settings. This study, although finding strong evidence to Freire’s assertion in the analysis of data related with hypotheses 2 and 3, suggests that this replication is not the only possible solution. Educators, depending on the desired kind of response to codifications, can choose at least between spontaneous responses (the traditional Freirian prescription) and informed responses (the alternative proposed by this study).

This study as a whole indicates that it is possible to assess Freire’s ideas through experimental research procedures. Particularly, it suggests that schema theory can function as a fruitful reference to refine the Freirean concepts of codification and decodification.


The lack of experimental studies of Freire offers an almost fresh field for further investigations. In this sense, a research agenda about the Freirean method would be quite extensive. Such an agenda, however, would demand establishing various links between the model of the Brazilian educator and related theories. This requirement goes beyond the scope of this study. Considering the mediation theory utilized here, schema theory, and the particular aspect approached by the investigation, codification and decodification, the following studies are proposed for further research:

Replication of this study. Given the sampling limitations, it is wise to suggest a replication of this experiment with a randomly selected sample.

Extended form of this investigation. The particular aspect investigated here, the nature of the interpretations in the interpretations in the first step of the decodification process, does not provide enough information about the final outcome. A comprehensive study of the entire process of codification is needed if one intends to determine the possible effects of each concept interpretation type – abstract or descriptive – on learners’ achievement.

Analogies and metaphors. The high frequency of analogies and metaphors in the first phase of the Freirian method (research of the thematic universe) and the use of these figures of language in experiments suggest a final recommendation. These verbal representations of knowledge can be utilized as codifications (as instructional devices) in future investigations on the Freirean method.



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