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Part One: A pluriverse of conversations

Education needs a 'new story' urgently!

Timothy Ireland

This is an extract from the Keynote Speech, ‘Promoting literacy for a world in transition: Building the foundation for sustainable and peaceful societies,’ delivered at the Conference to celebrate International Literacy Day, held at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, on 8th September 2023, by Timothy Ireland.


The author begins:

“Decades ago, Ivan Illich argued that to change the existing understanding of education required elaborating a new narrative “a new powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story.” (Springer, 2016, p.2) In a world in transition, the weaving of a new narrative for education and literacy is a fundamental part of the challenge. This challenge involves a process of learning – understanding the roots of the problem, learning to unlearn – long-established beliefs which are proven not to be valid, and relearning – recognising the existence of other epistemologies, other ways of knowing besides the dominant western epistemologies. Paulo Freire’s seminal work, in Brazil, in the 1950s and 60s is an eloquent example of this search for a new narrative, in which literacy is part of a broad understanding of education and culture. Freire’s intention was not to create a new literacy method but a new all-embracing epistemology.


Timothy then references significant global education initiatives, which register the impact of the awareness of existential threats to humanity posed by climate change, pollution, and the loss of biodiversity. He notes that the UN Report Transforming Education: An urgent political imperative for our collective future states, “In a world that is experiencing a fourth industrial revolution, nearly half of all students do not complete secondary school and 763 million young people and adults are illiterate, the majority of whom are women” (UN, 2023 p.1.) The same report recognises that education remains in “deep crisis”, a “crisis of equity, quality, and relevance” (UN, 2023, p. 3). In other words, it is not sufficient to propose more of the same.


The author identifies 5 characteristics for education which is moving from one reality to another:

1. From an anthropocentric vision of the world to a biocentric vision of the world. From a world in which humans are at the centre, to a holistic vision of the world in which humans and nature or more-than-humans, are embodied as part of an integrated and interdependent system.

2. From an education dominated by a humanitarian charter (notion of human exceptionalism) to one of ecological justice.

3. A shift from learning about the world to learning with the world

4. A re-dimensioning of what constitutes humanity in relation to more-than-humanity.

5. The transition from universality (one size fits all) to pluriversality - universalism more than any other tenet has been the cause of eliminating diversity, which constitutes the essence of life.


He identifies the parlous state of adult literacy due to the pandemic and underinvestment, with 763 million persons who do not know how to read and write. The large majority of these are poor, dispossessed, and oppressed living in the global South. He critiques the deficit model of literacy which defines people by what they lack not by the capabilities that they do have and know. He argues that consistent evidence exists to show the strong correlations between literacy and expressions of inequality and other forms of vulnerability and poverty. Illiteracy as an expression of inequality and poverty needs to be treated as part of a complex articulation of social policies related to health, housing, basic sanitation, work, and environment. Literacy as the foundation of education is integral to food security, health and well-being, gender equality, economic growth, etc. 


He reminds us that Paulo Freire constantly repeated his understanding that reading the world always precedes reading the word, and reading the word implies continually reading the world. (Freire & Macedo, 1987) The challenge of learning to read is intricately embedded in our search to understand the reality in which we live. The challenges with which literacy was faced in the 1960s when Freire developed his praxis are qualitatively different from the challenges we face today - climate change, pollution, and the loss of biodiversity - but the need to read the world continues to be a priority. After centuries in which the enlighteners declared the absolute domination of nature as the main task of man, and scientists and engineers literally declared war on nature, we are now faced with a new challenge. James Lovelock (2016) describes earth as more than just a home; it’s a living system and we are part of it. As Amitav Ghosh (2021) convincingly argues, the dynamics of climate change are rooted in a centuries-old geopolitical order constructed by Western colonialism.


The author then asks:

How then do we reconnect to nature and what is literacy’s role in that process?


Firstly, we need to recognise that there are many ways, and not just one way, of knowing the world and that the predominant path we have chosen has led to a negation of an interdependent understanding of the planet as an integrated system. Amongst the alternative epistemological strategies, the concept of good living – ‘buen vivir’ in Spanish, provides a vital example. Secondly, this way of knowing the world has recently been integrated within the educational strategy in which Freire’s approach to literacy was embedded, popular education. 


It is only relatively recently that western science has recognised that Indigenous knowledges and other ancient place-based knowledge are something more than exotic practices to be studied by anthropologists. 

‘Good living’ should not be reduced or confused with the western notion of well-being or even that of prosperity. As Hessel and Morin (2011, p.24) point out, the notion of well-being has dwindled in contemporary civilization to the strictly material sense that implies comfort, wealth, and ownership. Implicit in ‘good living’ is a different way of reading the world and one which seeks to redefine the relationship not only between humans and nature but how human beings relate amongst themselves. Humans are not the ‘lords and masters of nature’ nor is nature an externality to human history (Dávalos, 2008, np). The way in which knowledge was and is produced takes as its premise this relationship between humanity and nature, which represents two parts of the same unity.


‘Good living’, with its cosmological roots in the original peoples of the continent, has exercised a growing influence over the practice of Popular Education. For Freire, popular education is an antidote to oppression, “directed at the transformation of society, taking as its starting point the concrete/lived experience (…)” (Paludo, 2015, p.178). It constitutes an education, which defines the well-being and collective happiness of its subjects as the goal of education. Education is not limited to transmitting but, above all, to producing knowledge as a constituent element of the practice of liberty. Whilst intending to emancipate, education takes dialogue as its starting point and pedagogical instrument. Equally, education and learning are understood as processes, which are an integral part of our whole life span – life-wide and life-deep. Hence the pertinence of the concept of lifelong learning and education. In Freire’s words (2001, p. 52) “The world is not finished. It is always in the process of becoming”.


Faced by the recognition that, “We as human beings are making our very home uninhabitable” Fernandez concludes that Popular Education’s historical concern with transformation and social emancipation, can benefit greatly from incorporating ethical, aesthetic, political, pedagogical, and epistemological dimensions of ‘good living’ (…)” (2016, p.31). Just as popular education understands that human beings are the subjects and protagonists of their own education, so in the concept of ‘good living’ the natural environment becomes a subject with rights and not an object to be exploited for human ends.


The elaboration of a new narrative for literacy as part of the educational process requires an understanding of the root causes of the crisis. Hence, the relevance of Freire’s insistence that reading the world should precede reading the word. There exists a growing body of evidence to suggest that the divorce between humanity and nature plays a significant role in this process of climate change. Centuries of western domination has tended to impose a univocal epistemological understanding of the world and, thereby, ‘muting’ other forms of knowing the world. Thus, the urgency to elaborate a new narrative for literacy, which incorporates pluriversal readings of reality in which humans and nature are not opposing forces and in which the planet is recognised as the common home of all forms of life. 

In this context, literacy will be concerned with a re-reading of the human and more-than-human worlds, which will provide both the content and the grammar necessary for the new relationship.  ‘Good living’ and Popular Education offer alternative paradigms on which to build new narratives of education in which both humans and nature are co-protagonists. Paul Bélanger’s alert at the end of CONFINTEA VI, in Belém, in 2009 that: “The planet will only survive if it becomes a learning planet” (UNESCO, 2010) is complemented by Latour’s warning that despite the urgency of the challenge it is necessary to go very slowly: ‘il faut aller très lentement, parce que le défi est très urgent’ (Wildermeersch, 2023).


About the Author

Timothy D. Ireland is a former professor at the Federal University of Paraiba, in João Pessoa, Brazil where he has lived and worked since 1979. He was National Director of Youth and Adult Education at SECAD/Ministry of Education (MEC), from 2004-2007 and focal point for the organization of CONFINTEA VI (2009) at the UNESCO representation in Brasilia from 2008-2011. He currently coordinates the UNESCO Chair for Youth and Adult Education and is Vice-President for Latin America of the International Council on Adult Education (ICAE) and member of the Advocacy Group on Education Policy (GIPE) of CEAAL. 



Davalos, P. (2008). “Reflexiones sobre el Sumak Kawsay (El Buen Vivir) y las teorías del desarrollo”. Copyleft -Eutsi-Pagina de izquierda Antiautoritaria, n. 6.

Fernandez, B. F. (2016). Educación Popular y “Buen Vivir”: Interacciones en lo pedagógico. In: Revista Internacional sobre Investigación en Educación Global e para el desarrollo. No.10, set. 2016. Pp.29-42.

Freire, P. (2001). Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage. Maryland: Rowman & Co.  Littlefield Publishers.

Freire, P. & Macedo, D. (1987). Literacy: Reading the Word and the World. South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey.

Ghosh, A. (2021). The Nutmeg’s Curse. Parables for a Planet in Crisis. Penguin Random House.

Hessel, S. & Morin, E. (2011). The Path to Hope. New York: Other Press.


Lovelock, James. (2016). Gaia: A new look at life on Earth. Oxford Landmark Science.


Paludo, C. (2015). Educación Popular. In: Streck, D., R.; Redin E; Zitkoski, J. J. (eds.) Diccionario Paulo Freire. Lima: CEAAL, 5, pp.176-178.

Springer, S. (2016). The discourse of neoliberalism: An anatomy of a powerful idea. London: Rowman & Littlefield International


UNESCO (2010). Confintea VI: Final Report. Hamburg: UIL.

UNITED NATIONS (2023).  Transforming Education: An urgent political imperative for our collective future. Report on the Transforming Education Summit 2022.


Wildermeersch. D. (2023). The power of imagination: Reconsidering Emancipation in Adult Education. Keynote Speech at 1st Conference of the Transformative and Emancipatory Adult Education (TEAE) Network, Patras, Greece.


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