'Les Choristes': The power of a dialogical teaching approach
‘Les Choristes’ contends that the good of education is in its transformational ability. The film is set in 1949 rural France and follows music teacher, Clément Mathieu, in his new teaching role at a boarding school for young boys with behavioural problems. From the start it is clear that the students display both disobedience and violence towards the teaching staff. Through Mathieu’s pedagogical approach, the children begin to develop a critical conscience, which opens their minds to the potential of education and leads to a change in their lives.
I'm going to be looking at the film’s presentation of education as a transformational force in relation to Paulo Freire’s idea of dialogic pedagogy.
Headmaster's 'banking' approach
In Freire’s critique of traditional pedagogy, he refers to the “banking concept of education”. This is very apparent in the school’s approach, where students are viewed as passive objects within which to deposit information. Attempted enforcement of this approach is enabled by the Headmaster’s autocratic ‘action-reaction’ policy. The result is a constant power struggle between student and teacher, where education is seen as a practice of dominance.
This anti-dialogical approach speaks to the Headmaster’s view of a teacher’s role being one of simply management. For Freire, to be fully human is to be capable of acting and changing the world. However we can only pursue our vocation of becoming more human by engaging in dialogue with others. The Headmaster clearly does not view his students as being capable of this, and he partakes in a process of dehumanisation by suppressing dialogue. In this school, the role of a student is to follow rules and to listen, in silence, to those more educated than them.
As Freire would contend, this suppression of dialogue is a tool of oppression. It is evident that this approach does nothing to improve student behaviour or to improve academic ability. It is therefore unsurprising that the students don’t engage positively with this environment. The school’s approach devalues and marginalises them and, as such, they engage in acts of resistance and withdraw their assent from schooling altogether.
Mathieu's dialogical approach
This autocratic style is juxtaposed with Mathieu’s dialogic approach to teaching. Dialogue is crucial because, without it, students can come to lose their transformative capacities by accepting that the current status is how things are meant to be. For Mathieu, Music is the lesson but humanity is the objective. It is through dialogue with each other that both Mathieu and his students continue to humanise themselves. As Freire says educators “must be partners of the students”. Mathieu does not subscribe to the ‘action-reaction’ policy of the school, instead he engages in dialogue with the students to understand their individual needs and contexts. As a result, the students’ attitudes and behaviours improve vastly over the course of the film, as they become critical co-participants in dialogue with Mathieu.
We see the good that can come from this approach embodied in Morange, a student who is written-off as incompetent and disobedient by the other staff.
Mathieu takes the time to discover the context of Morange’s life outside the classroom and the cause of this behaviour. Through forming a choir and developing the curriculum, in partnership with the students, Morange is facilitated to discover his great vocal talent. We learn that he ultimately goes on to become a world-renowned conductor, something that likely would not have happened had he not become an active participant in his own education.
It’s evident that this educational experience is transformative for many of the student’s lives, as we see them grow up to transcend their prior social standings in the world. Mathieu’s dialogic pedagogy is transformative to them because it empowers them to find the motivation, courage and tools necessary for transformation. Freire’s vision of a teacher is one in which their mission is to facilitate students to move from their weakened status. By that belief, the purpose of teaching is very much one of facilitating transformation.
Can teaching really be transformational?
There is a danger that portraying teachers as possessing great transformational capabilities, such as in ‘Les Choristes’, is discouraging for real-world educators. It is only when Mathieu goes against existing structures that he starts to enact positive change in his students. Only when the Headmaster is fired and the school is burnt down, does the place become one where dialogic pedagogy is fully used. With the previous structures completely removed, Mathieu is able to build the school from scratch, with the right structures in place to facilitate this approach.
This gives the message that good teaching is a pursuit that cannot take place within the normal framework of the schoolteacher’s work. Freire considers teachers to be promoters of emancipatory education, whereby they can lead this process of change in the school system. However, as is evident in ‘Les Choristes’, teachers may not be able to truly transform their students until the structures themselves are transformed.
Adopting a dialogical approach in the classroom
I believe it is important for teachers to be cognisant that we ourselves can be taught through dialogue with our students. As we see in ‘Les Choristes’, it is not only Mathieu’s students that are transformed, but Mathieu himself. By being a partner of our students we can take advantage of their current knowledge when planning lessons. In providing classes that are relevant to our students’ cultural and societal contexts, we ensure that we do not resort to banking education where we are interpreting on behalf of our students.
I adhere to Freire’s belief that education is the practice of freedom, instead of one of dominance. Students cannot transform in an environment of dominance, and it is the role of a teacher to facilitate this freedom instead of trying to adapt students to be a better fit for current structures. With this, it is not enough just to look at our students in isolation. We need to critically examine the structures around them. As Freire says, “if the structure does not permit dialogue, the structure must be changed”.
Reference list Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the oppressed. London: Sheed & Ward. Galloway, S. (2012). Reconsidering emancipatory education: Staging a conversation between Paulo Freire and Jacques Rancière. Educational Theory, 62(2), pp.163–184. Les Choristes. (2004). [Film] France: Pathé. McInerney, P. (2009). Toward a critical pedagogy of engagement for alienated youth: insights from Freire and school‐based research. Critical Studies in Education, 50(1), pp.23–35. Roberts, P. (1998). Knowledge, Dialogue, and Humanization: The Moral Philosophy of Paulo Freire. The Journal of Educational Thought (JET) / Revue de la Pensée Éducative, [online] 32(2), pp.95–117. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/23767458. Schwarz-Franco, O. (2016). Teachers in Film: Inspiration for Autonomous and Transformative Teaching or a Warning against It? Universal Journal of Educational Research, 4(5), pp.994–1002. Tan, C. (2017). To be more fully human: Freire and Confucius. Oxford Review of Education, 44(3), pp.370–382.