What is Reflect?

Reflect is an innovative approach to adult learning and social change, which fuses the theories of Paulo Freire with the methodologies of participatory rural appraisal. Originally developed in pilot projects in Bangladesh, El Salvador and Uganda between 1993-95, Reflect is now used by over 500 organisations in around 70 countries worldwide.

To illustrate the key elements of Reflect we have created a tree diagram, which is a visualisation technique used in Reflect groups. The structure of roots and branches allow groups to analyse cause and effect or inputs and outputs in different situations. Here we use the roots of the tree to symbolise the key principles of Reflect. The branches show how Reflect has been adapted for use in diverse contexts.

How does Reflect work?

Reflect provides an on-going democratic space for a group of people to meet and discuss issues relevant to them. The participants choose the topics themselves, according to their own priorities and supported by a local facilitator. They also decide where and when to meet.

Underpinning the approach is a huge (and ever expanding) range of participatory methods. Prominent among these are graphics such as calendars, maps, matrices, rivers and trees, which enable participants to communicate their knowledge, experience and feelings without being restricted by literacy and language barriers. Drama, storytelling and songs are also used to identify and analyse social, economic, cultural and political issues. In this process the development of literacy and other communication skills are closely linked to the engagement of people in wider processes of development and social change.

Evolution of Reflect

Reflect began as a fusion of the theories of Paulo Freire and the methods of Participatory Rural Appraisal and was first applied in three pilot projects in Bangladesh, El Salvador and Uganda. Since those beginnings it has expanded, diversified and adapted to the multitude of contexts in which it finds itself practiced.

Just as communication practices and power relations differ between people and situations, so does the evolution and present-day status of Reflect look very different from different perspectives.

We have used a river to show the evolution of Reflect from a global, theoretical perspective only.

The river is a visualisation technique used to analyse events and situations with the benefits of a long-term perspective. Participants in Reflect groups might draw rivers showing key events in their lives, or in their communities. Here we have used the technique to represent key moments in the development of thinking, planning and action around Reflect.


The work of the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (1921-1997) was very influential in the development of Reflect. His thoughts and vision help us to clarify many complicated questions related to life, learning and liberation. The central premise of Freire’s theory is that no education is neutral – it can be used for domestication or liberation. Fundamental to Freire’s educational philosophy is the notion of collective action and continuing struggle on the part of the oppressed to liberate themselves from all forms of domination.  The oppressed are active subjects in their own struggle.

Freire criticised what he termed “banking education” in which students learnt by rote and were seen as empty vessels to be filled with learning. He called for a liberating education based on dialogue between teachers and learners – a learning process that respected people as active and creative subjects. Rather than seeing the teaching of literacy as a technical transfer of skills, Freire argued, “Learners must see the need for writing one’s life and reading one’s reality”.

There are various criticisms of Freire. Some focus on the limitations of his writings (for example his failure to address gender issues in his earlier work, or that at times he appears to respect non-literate people and regard them as knowledgeable, while at others he portrays them as powerless and ignorant). Others highlight the fact that while many groups claim to work with his methods most use primers (with bland phrases replaced by more socially-based words) and many struggle with the idea of dialogue.

Reflect builds on the theoretical framework of Freire working with participatory methodologies; encompassing a broad conception of literacy as one of many communication practices; and focusing explicitly on power analysis. 

Core principles

Reflect is based on a series of core principles, derived both from the theoretical foundations of Freire and Participatory Rural Appraisal and through practical experience.

… power and voice

Reflect is a process that aims to strengthen people’s capacity to communicate by whatever means are most relevant to them. Although part of the process may be about learning new communication skills, the focus is on using these in a meaningful way. It is through focusing on the practical use that real learning takes place.

… a political process

Reflect is premised on the recognition that achieving social change and greater social justice is a fundamentally political process. Reflect is not a neutral approach. It seeks to help people in the struggle to assert their rights, challenge injustice and change their position in society. As such it requires us to explicitly align ourselves with the poorest and most marginalised. It involves working with people rather than for them.

… a democratic space

Reflect involves creating a democratic space – one in which everyone’s voice is given equal weight. This needs to be actively constructed, as it does not naturally exist. As such it is counter-cultural – challenging the power relationships and stratification that have created inequality. It is never easy and may never be perfectly achieved, but it should be a constant focus.

… an intensive and extensive process

Reflect is rarely a short or one-off process. Groups usually meet for about two years, and sometimes continue indefinitely. Often they meet three times a week – sometimes up to six times a week and rarely less than once a week. Each meeting may take about two hours. This intensity of contact on an ongoing basis is one of the fundamental ingredients for a process that seeks to achieve serious social or political change.

… grounded in existing knowledge

Reflect begins with respecting and valuing people’s existing knowledge and experiences. However this does not mean accepting opinions or prejudices without challenge. Whatsmore, there will always be a part of the process in which participants are enabled to access new information and ideas from new sources. The key is to give people control.

… linking reflection and action

Reflect involves a continual cycle of reflection and action. It is not about reflection or learning for the sake of it, but rather reflection for the purpose of change. Neither is it about action isolated from reflection, as pure activism rapidly loses direction. It is the fusion of these elements, and it can start with either.

… using participatory tools

A wide range of participatory tools is used within a Reflect process to help create an open, democratic environment in which everyone is able to contribute. Visualisation approaches are of particular importance (calendars, diagrams, maps, etc…) and can provide a structure for the process. However, many other participatory methods and processes are also used, including theatre, role-play, song, dance, video or photography.

… power awareness

All participatory tools can be distorted, manipulated or used in exploitative ways if they are not linked to an awareness of power relationships. Reflect is a political process in which the multiple dimensions of power and stratification are always the focus of reflection, and actions are oriented towards changing inequitable power relationships whatever their basis. A structural analysis is needed to ensure that issues are not dealt with at a superficial level. Only through such analysis can effective strategic actions be determined.

… coherence and self-organisation

Reflect needs to be used systematically. The same principles and processes that apply to the participants also apply to us, within our own institutions and even our personal lives. It is important that the facilitator engage in the process alongside the participants, subjecting her/his behaviour, experiences and opinions to the same analysis, rather than standing outside as teacher and judge. Ideally, the focus of the process should be towards self-organisation, so that groups are self-managed where possible rather than being facilitated by, or dependent on, outsiders.

Gender analysis


Graphic depicting men and women's daily routines
Graphic depicting men and women’s daily routines

Gender refers to the social relations created between men and women, boys and girls. However gender cannot be discussed in isolation – gender relations are context specific. A gender analysis looks at how gender interacts with other types of oppression such as class, race, caste, age, religion and sexual orientation. Gender relations differ according to the specific cultural, economic, political and social context. While no power analysis is complete without looking at gender, no gender analysis is complete without examining how gender interacts with other dimensions of power.

Why is gender so important? Analysing power imbalances and empowering marginalised people is central to Reflect. Exploring gender inequalities is an essential aspect when looking at power. Gender relations and gender oppression were often sidelined in early Reflect projects and in other popular education programmes. Crucial questions about: power; access to, and control of resources; gender violence; and the sexual division of labour were overlooked. However, individual transformation is as important collective transformation, and this is particularly true when looking at gender.

Gender in Reflect: Fundamental to a gender approach in Reflect is the need to be context specific, given the multiple manifestations of gender oppression. This approach recognises the fact that different types of oppression are present in the Reflect circle, hence one cannot assume a false similarity of experience and unity if it does not exist. Oppression and power must not be simplified, but rather made more specific so as to understand their complexity. Although a gender approach points to the importance of locating oppression contextually, it is crucial not to lose sight of the broader picture, the wider structures of society which create the specific oppression.

Power differences and stratifications are present in all communities, however invisible they may seem. It is essential to examine the sources of power, rather than in pretending that they do not exist, It is particularly important with regards to gender oppression to focus on the ‘private’ sphere in addition to ‘public issues’

Many Reflect programmes have designed new PRA tools to examine the private sphere A gender analysis, however, can be applied to existing ‘community’ focused PRA tools as well. A discussion on gender might lead to a ‘Gender Action’. This could mean a change in attitude or awareness, something intangible and difficult to evaluate, but which is often just as important as concrete ‘community actions’.

Distinct gender approaches are suitable for different contexts.  Reflect participants and facilitators decide what type of gender focus and method is best suited to their situation. This flexibility is at the heart of Reflect. Gender is an implicit part of the Reflect process at all levels. The Reflect facilitators, along with the staff of the funding or implementing agency, need to understand and internalise the implications of a gender analysis.

Communication practices

There are many different ways to communicate, through reading, writing, speaking, listening, visual means, technology, the media, numeracy.  In fact, communication practices include all ways of ensuring that your voice is heard – by different people, in different languages, at different levels, in different contexts and at different times.  Each is important, and different means have relatively different effectiveness and importance in different contexts.

Why communication practices? Traditionally adult education classes have focused on literacy, and the ability to read and write is key if people are to be able to communicate in certain contexts.  However, other ways of communicating are equally important in different situations. In the time of ‘knowledge economies’ a conventional definition of literacy is simply not sufficient.  People need the capacity to articulate their own experience and perspective, they need to be able to communicate and engage with an ‘external world’ (whether this is a public space or within the private sphere) – this is at the essence of real democratisation.  People’s capacity to communicate is fundamental to equitable relationships, whether between men and women or adults and children. 

In March 2000 members of CIRAC (the International Reflect Circle) agreed that: ‘a central concern of all Reflect programmes is to enhance peoples capacity to have their voice heard – by whatever communication means necessary’. For this reason we talk about Reflect as being about communication practices. 

Two way communication: Communication is not unidirectional – it is both transmitted and received.  Further, no communication is neutral – the capacity to communicate and be heard is determined by power relationships that need to be analysed.  Being unable to communicate is both a cause and effect of inequitable power relationships – and those who are subjected to inequitable power relations exist in a culture of silence when they no longer feel that they have the right to communicate.  The key challenge for Reflect is to enable people to use all the different types of communication, rather than being used by them.  Reflect, therefore, is about dealing with ‘texts’ (chunks of communication) – critically reading those external texts that have power, then actively developing, reproducing and using alternative texts.  In this way ‘communication practices’ become a way of altering power relations.

How can Reflect improve people’s ability to communicate?
Reflect focuses on:

  • Asserting people’s right to communicate (individually and collectively)
  • Giving people space for analysis and reflection so that they can decide what to communicate
  • Developing people’s capacity to communicate (‘crack the codes’)
  • Enabling access to appropriate ‘instruments’ of communication

These aspects are all crucial if power relations are to be challenged and people are to be able to communicate effectively. 


The most important aspect of Reflect and Reflect ESOL is its philosophy. This takes its inspiration  from the philosophy of Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator whose ideas have subsequently influenced many other academic disciplines.

What follows are some key points of this philosophy. It is not exhaustive, there is much more to read! Freire concerned himself with literacy learning by which he meant reading and writing. However, for Reflect and other transformative models of learning, literacy can have a wider meaning to include acquiring and communicating information through speaking, listening, ICT, numeracy, pictures, diagrams, visuals and other creative ways.

Freire can seem very revolutionary and political and the following has remained faithful to his convictions. Reflect internationally and Reflect ESOL in the United Kingdom have adapted and interpreted his ideas to support their contexts. However, we suggest constant reflection on why any ideas are adopted or rejected as all good educators do with their practice. 

Freire philosophy begins from a deep respect and humility before poor and oppressed people and a respect for their understanding of the world they inhabit. It considers their contributions no less important than the knowledge of dominant groups (Freire called them the oppressors). This respect and humility fosters a condition of trust and communication between teacher (who also learns) and learner (who also teaches). Education becomes a collective activity, a dialogue between participants rather than a ‘top-down’ one-way lecture from one person for the benefit of the other.

Saying this, Freirian philosophy doesn’t mean to create conditions where learners’ knowledge, feelings and understanding should go unchallenged or for the teacher to step back as a mere facilitator. Freire saw the teacher having authority without being an authoritarian. The teacher is not neutral but intervenes in order to help the learner reflect on aspects of his or her cultural, social and gender constructs, and to help learners to think critically.

To achieve this, Freire saw a situation where teachers listen to and affirm the experiences of the learners without legitimising or validating their content. All experiences including the teachers – are analysed in order to lay bare their ideological assumptions and ideas.

Freire gave names to concepts which supported his ideas – the first focuses on his criticism around traditional or prevailing models of education:

Banking education

In this form of education it is the job of the teacher to deposit in the minds of the learners, considered to be empty or ignorant, bits of information or knowledge, much like we deposit money in a [empty] bank account. This is why Freire called this model of education ‘banking education’. Freire criticized this model of education because he believed it made students into passive objects to be acted upon by the teacher. He argued that the goal of ‘banking education’ is to demobilise the people within the existing establishment of power by conditioning them to accept the cultural, social, political status quo of the dominant culture. In the banking education model knowledge/education is seen as a gift given to the student by the teacher who considers the learner as marginal, ignorant and resource-less. Freire saw this as false generosity from the dominant group (oppressors) and a way of dominating and controlling the people (the oppressed) to improve or maintain their own interests.

Some of the tools a banking education model might use include a pre-prescribed curriculum, syllabus or course book, which either takes no account or makes assumptions of learners’ views or knowledge of the world. Freire called these pre-prescribed plans and course books primers.

A problem-posing model

To challenge the banking education model, Freire proposed a problem-posing model of education. In this model, the teacher and learner discuss and analyse their experiences, feelings and knowledge of the world together. Instead of the belief that learners’ and teacher’s situation in the world is fixed, as the banking model suggests, the problem-posing model explores problems or realities people find themselves in as something which can be transformed.

It is not the job of the teacher to provide answers to the problems, but to help the learners achieve a form of critical thinking about the situation (Freire called this conscientization). This makes it possible to understand that the world or society is not fixed and is potentially open to transformation. It becomes possible to imagine a new and different reality.

In order to undertake this process successfully, the people (oppressed) must challenge their own perception of the dominant group (oppressor). Freire argued that the oppressed think of themselves as ‘less than’ or something lacking. He suggested that they have been conditioned to view the practices and behaviours of the dominant groups as complete, whole and correct. To become whole complete and correct means to simulate the practices of the dominant culture. To counter this perception means engaging the learner is a process of dis-identification with dominant culture/oppressor and to help the learner to imagine a new being and a new life according to their own rationality.

Learning circles

The learning circle is a non-hierarchal ‘class’ model where participants can discuss generative themes which have significance within the context of their lives. This involves creating a democratic space where every ones’ voice has equal weight. The conditions needed for this have to be actively created as it does not often occur naturally. This can mean challenging cultural, gender and other status related power relationships and stratifications.

Generative themes and codifications

Participants explore generative themes which are of interest to them. A generative theme is a cultural or political topic of great concern or importance to participants, from which discussion can be generated. These generative themes are then represented in the form of ‘codifications’ (either represented by a word or short phrase or a visual representation – a picture or photograph). Participants are able to step back from these visual representations of their ideas or history and decode or explore them critically by regarding them objectively rather than simply experiencing them. This makes it possible for the participants to intervene and initiate change in society.

Freire initially concerned himself with literacy learning. The codifications (visuals) prompted discussion, phrases and words which learners would use to develop their skills.

This method of learning literacy through meaningful discussions generated from ‘codifications’ has been very successful. However, Freire emphasises that the process should not be carried out mechanically but through creatively “awakening [the] consciousness” of the learner – For Freire literacy was a “self-transformation producing a stance of intervention” (Freire 1988, p.404).

Praxis (action / intervention)

Freire put forward the notion that authoritarian forms of education such as banking education prevented learners from ‘knowing’ the world and seeing it as something which can be changed. He believed that authoritarian forms of education inhibited the liberation and freedom of the oppressed. Freire argued that change could come through a process of dialogue and reflection leading on to change through action or intervention and or political change. Freire called this process Praxis.

“The act of knowing involves a dialectical movement that goes from action to reflection and from reflection upon action to a new action.” (Freire 1972).

In summary of Freire with regards to learning, literacy and praxis:

“If learning to read and write is to constitute an act of knowing the learners must assume from the beginning the role of creative subjects. It is not a matter of memorising and repeating given syllables, words and phrases but rather, reflecting critically on the process of reading and writing itself and on the profound significance of language” (Freire 1985)

Adapted from:

1. http://education.stateuniversity.com/pages/1998/Freire-Paulo-1921-1997.html

2. Reflect Mother Manual

3. Communication & Power

4. Freire, Paulo. 1988. “The Adult Literacy Process as Cultural Action for Freedom and Education and Conscientizacao.” In Perspectives on Literacy, ed. Eugene R. Kintgen, Barry M. Kroll, and Mike Rose, pp. 398-409. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

5. Article by David Archer on Freire’s death in 1997.


Reflect participatory learning and action works through a series of stages to develop and move discussion beyond participants’ experiences or world-views to a situation of analysis and reflection and then ultimately onto action. This is achieved through a problem posing question techniques and tasks given to the learners using the Reflect tools. In Reflect ESOL situations, ‘action’ can have a wide definition ranging from direct action to having the opportunity to think about something in a different light.

 The following diagram is based on David Kolb’s experiential learning cycle, whose model on stages of learning and learning styles has been much explored and critiqued (see here). The diagram also demonstrates Friere’s philosophy where action leads to experience, reflection and then ultimately action once more. It is the model most closely followed by Reflect ESOL.

‘The act of knowing involves a dialectical movement that goes from action to reflection and from reflection upon action to a new action (Freire 1972).

Visions and Values

Reflect ESOL network Vision

Our vision is of a society where ESOL can play its full role, not only in language learning, but in personal growth, shared wealth and solidarity. We believe ESOL classes provide a forum where networks, trust and friendships can be built, where people can exchange ideas in a safe environment. But more than this, we believe we have much to learn from our students. Together we can explore those factors which contribute to poverty, unemployment and injustice in our communities, both local and global and work together for a fairer and more sustainable world.

Reflect ESOL Values and Philosophy

Most important to Reflect ESOL is its philosophy. Inspired by Paulo Freire’s critical approach to learning and Reflect projects from around the world, the Reflect ESOL team has set down some bite-sized reminders to think about when embarking on a participatory learning approach in ESOL. Read on to find out what strategies ESOL teachers used to achieve these values and check out the case studies for examples.

Reflect aims to:

  1. foster a deep respect for participants and their understanding of the world they inhabit and to understand that all participants’ contributions are important and valid.
  2. create and build on the trust and real communication existing between teacher and learner, and learner and learner so that learning becomes a collective activity, a dialogue between participants.
  3. allow participants to communicate their experiences, ideas and feelings not only through speaking and writing, but through ICT, numeracy, pictures, diagrams, visuals, drama and other creative ways.
  4. give participants the space, time and tools they need to express what they want to say.
  5. create a democratic space where every ones’ voice has equal weight regardless of cultural, gender and other status related power relationships and stratifications.
  6. allow teachers to have authority without being authoritarian – to listen to and affirm the experiences of learners without judging or legitimising their content.
  7. create opportunities (using different tools and the process as support) for participants to critique and challenge ideas, views and opinions of each other and even those of the teacher.
  8. understand situations, behaviours, events etc that we experience through critical analysis and reflection in order to determine our own views, regardless of what established or minority culture or society dicatates.
  9. find answers, change opinions, research knowledge and find strategies to transform problems, remembering that this is not the role of the teacher but achieved through a collective process of dialogue and reflection leading to action and change.

This list is an ongoing collaborative discussion. Please contribute below if you have any comments or suggestions.

 Ways ESOL practitioners have practically addressed/encompassed these values (Not unique to Reflect ESOL classes of course!)

  • Stepping back more in class -giving students space and time to discuss what is important to them generally and at that moment.
  • Giving the time for discussions and tasks to run their course.
  • Not being afraid of silences.
  • Sharing something about themselves
  • Admitting they don’t know or don’t understand.
  • Giving greater focus on listening rather than talking.
  • Being explicit about the Reflect process
  • Being explicit about the language learning process (see Language and literacy)
  • Spending more time getting to know their students – their lives, thoughts, ideas and concerns.
  • Using the tools to explore contributions and silences in the class – who contributes the most and least and why.
  • Using the tools to explore power structures and feelings of disempowerment in and outside the class.
  • Using problem-posing question techniques to encourage deeper analysis of a situation.
  • Making space and using the tools to discuss potential actions to problems.
  • Finding activities and strategies to ‘build a class community’ trusts, networks and friendships.
  • Trusting the process.
  • Developing facilitation, active listening and mediation skills.
  • Actively listening (‘between the lines’) to what really concerns the learners and using this as a basis for discussion and language work.
  • Having a laugh – balancing fun and light discussions and activities with other heavier topics/issues/ concerns.
  • Discovering and taking pleasure in each others’ achievements.
  • Collaboratively choosing, organising and going on interesting enrichment activities.
  • Being kind, not judging if learners are late, tired or demotivated in class. Finding out what the reason is- validating peoples’ experiences and difficulities. Empathising.
  • Exploring ideas of personal responsibility in relation to attending class, arriving on time and different aspects of learning.

 (taken from teachers’ suggestions during the initial pilot project, hub meetings and discussions)

Below is a quote comes from Elsa Auerbach, Professor of Bilingual/ESL studies at the University of Massachusettes. Elsa is a strong proponent of Paulo Friere and participatory learning and her ideas are well worth a read. If you have a spare £10.00, buy her book, it has got loads of practical advice and is an easy read (details at end).

In a participatory approach, the teacher is always on the look-out for hot topics that emerge spontaneously when they are least expected. This kind of active listening between the lines is probably the most powerful way of finding students’ concerns. This means being tuned into the conversations that occur before and after class, the changes in mood (when students appear distracted, unusually quiet, sad, or nervous), their reasons for absences, and the times when students suddenly switch to their first language. Casual questions, like, “What made it hard for you to come to class last week? yesterday? today?” can elicit information about problems that students are struggling with. Acknowledging these problems and validating the issues that distract students form the work at hand can draw students back into the circle of the class, and increase their engagement and their motivation to participate”

(Auerbach E, 1992 Making Meaning, Making Change. Delta Systems USA – ISBN 0-93-735479-1)