THROUGHOUT the past 30 years, Brazilian educationist Paulo Freire has been the world's most influential figure in adult education. Though his ideas grew out of the non-formal, adult education sector in the ''Third World'', they have been taken up by many activists working in the ''Third World within the First World'' as well. In Scotland, for example, the famous Adult Learning Project in Edinburgh is driven by a meticulous study of Freire's seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Community activists in Easterhouse, Glasgow, are studying how Freirian ideas can engage more residents in social action, and a recent initiative to build a ''popular education movement'' in Scotland owes much to Freire's inspiration.

Working in the early 1960s with marginalised groups in north-eastern Brazil, Freire concluded that there could be no such thing as politically neutral education: traditional education promoted the values of the dominant classes, ignored the real-life knowledge and experience of the ''oppressed'', and maintained a social order in which the oppressed came to blame themselves for their poverty.

He argued for an education which would ''liberate'' rather than ''domesticate,'' which would enable poor people to understand the structures of oppression and do something about them, a process famously known as ''conscientisation.'' The oppressed themselves - not revolutionary vanguards - must be the principal agents of change and education should contribute towards this collective ''empowerment.''

Freire's great contribution was to have developed a pedagogical methodology for putting these ideas into practice. The educator's role is not to deposit knowledge into empty minds (a concept he called ''banking education''), but to enter into dialogue with learners, respecting what they know of their own reality but provoking a deeper analysis.

The educator does not provide solutions but poses problems, asks open-ended questions, helps learners take a step back and look objectively at their own everyday experience. Typically, learners would analyse photographs depicting important issues in their lives (poor housing, unemployment, for example), the photographs being carefully prepared beforehand and sufficiently vague as to invite various interpretations and promote discussion). Crucially, the educator will encourage learners to consider what they might do to bring about change, the action taken then being the focus of subsequent educational enquiry.

While Freire is best knows for applying his methodology to the teaching of literacy, he helped unleash a popular education movement which produced a plethora of dynamic, imaginative techniques for any educational scenario. Two points worthy of note: Freire was as critical of left-wing educators practising banking education - albeit with a different message - as he was of right-wing traditionalists; and to his consternation, conservative groups have often attempted to ''co-opt'' Freire, making use of his methodology but rejecting the political foundation on which it was based.

Freire was jailed and exiled from Brazil after the military coup in 1964 and only returned in 1980. He became a founder member of the Workers Party and was secretary for education in Sao Paulo from 1990-1991. He died of a heart attack, aged 75, on Friday May 2.nDepartment of Adult and Continuing Education, University of Glasgow.