I had the opportunity to attend the critical Participatory Action Research (PAR) Institute at CUNY Graduate Center this past week. It was a fantastic workshop, and I met a lot of great teachers, community organizers, and researchers who are heavily involved in PAR work throughout the USA (and even one in Canada). The Institute did bring up a few interesting thoughts and reflections that I thought would be beneficial to share.
If you’re not familiar with PAR, it’s important to note up front that it is not Research on students, but a pedagogical shift in which the students are the researchers (technically, by studying PAR as a teaching method, I am a Participatory Action Research researcher :) ). Throughout a PAR curriculum, it is the students that decide on the topic to research, and then they go through the entire process of forming a meaningful problem statement, designing their methods of inquiry, collecting and analyzing data, forming conclusions, and presenting their conclusions to stakeholders. In some spaces, it is portrayed as a vehicle for social change (more on issues that that raises to come); at the very least, it gets students engaged as active participants in understanding the social reality they face and gives them the tools to rigorously analyze it and challenge the prevailing paradigm.
As I’ve been reflecting on the workshops, the conversations, and also my interactions with the Coop and similar groups, there are a few points that I’d like to highlight to hear your thoughts and comments.
Social Justice Education
While I find the general ideas in PAR education to be more or less components of democratic education, we spent a lot of time talking about the social justice side of PAR that doesn’t often arise in the communities I’m involved that focus on innovative democratic education, including the Coop. I hadn’t really thought about that (absent) aspect recently; to me, social justice education is intimately linked with the education of a democratic populous. It involves seeing through the media facades and walls of (sometimes deliberate) cultural ignorance to get at the roots of the factors that divide our country and promote social stratification. While we talk about seeing through artificial divisions and media facades often as it relates to rote memorization, standardized testing, the student-as-passive-receptacle, and political/media portrayal of teachers, I don’t recall m/any posts talking about using social justice components as effective classroom tools.
Failed Social Action – Is It Just More Defeat?
I was also thinking about what happens when the “possibility for change” fails. Some PAR work is pretty dynamic and powerful. There were several examples, however, of meaningful PAR in which the students focused on a topic involved in their own school system, formulated a rigorous data gathering approach, and presented the conclusions to teachers, administrators, and school boards, and were effectively shut down. In one extreme situation, the principal canceled the public presentation when he found out what the conclusions and recommendations were; in several other, the students were met with hostility from teachers and other stakeholders who denied their data or their credibility. In effect, the folks who had the power to make change, instead of seeing the opportunity to improve their community, tried to shut down those who more clearly quantified the issues.
In such situations, what do you do? To what degree is such a result going to lead to a reinforcement of the students’ sense of powerlessness, of being “mere students” controlled by adults? In the case that the PAR is done in a classroom or as an after school activity, they are, to a certain degree, beholden to the administration that provides them with the facilities and class time. Do you know of a “next step” program – a way to teach Civic Engagement and Social Action, for instance? I’m thinking along the lines of, once the conclusions are drawn and initial recommendations are developed, the teacher can facilitate a meaningful discussion of possible backlash and whether or not the real recommendations should be mollified until the students are in a place in which they can act without fear of reprisal, or by building social force outside of the classroom to push for the necessary change. This was probably the biggest question that I raised during the workshop : now that we have a pretty good pedagogical method to get students to be principle investigators of their own causes, how do we teach the ways to navigate the complex social framework to make those changes actually happen?