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Learning at its Best

Reflecting on the Cuny cPAR Institute

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?


6 thoughts on “Reflecting on the Cuny cPAR Institute

  1. Excellent insights & shares, Kevin –

    I think there’s a broad notion of social justice at work here in that what we promote is democratic, inquiry-driven, sane and healthy education for all students – not just those of privileged backgrounds or those in need of the most urgent interventions in their schooling. However, you’re right in that we haven’t collected a large repository of social justice posts. Carol’s “Three Cups of Fiction” and Greg’s work on the Disruption Department come to mind as posts about social justice, though they are not about social justice as a lever in student work or PAR.

    If I may be so bold as to summarize our theory of action, I think we want to inspire teachers to do the right thing by students and student-driven education in their own contexts. Nevertheless, there’s big overlap there with social justice, and I wonder how we might more explicitly address issues of social justice on the Coöp – this is a good place from which to reflect and recruit, I’d say. I’m curious about what other readers and contributors think about your assertion.

    In situations where adults stifle students’ social advocacy, I’d encourage the kids to find the adults subverting the system and to work with them on growing out their ideas laterally with such teachers – perhaps through the foundation of a student union or publication of PAR research on sites like the Coöp that haven’t yet recruited the numbers of students the’d would like to have blogging.

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | July 12, 2011, 5:54 pm
  2. I’d argue that much of what I’ve written and much of what I do with students (murals, service, challenging authority, ethnic/cultural/racial reconciliation) are a part of social justice. So, when I read a post like this, it’s like a breath of fresh air. Sometimes in the ed tech echo chamber, we forget about social justice and the role in democratic education. Thanks for this type of reminder.

    Posted by johntspencer | July 12, 2011, 11:17 pm
  3. i appreciate your comments – i think my response would be way too long….but i’m going to address the institute in a blog post of my own regarding celebrating bias in the classroom…i’ll fwd you the link when i get around to writing it

    Posted by Brian @iteach4change | July 13, 2011, 2:54 pm
  4. Thanks for the comments and responses. Also thanks for the link back to “Three Cups,” as I had passed over it before.

    I agree that a lot of what we are doing here at the Coop overlaps with social justice education in some ways, but there are plenty of ways in which it is distinct, and those are some of its most important elements. You are absolutely right about the Disruption Department (as today’s post also reflects), but I feel there is still more that could be said and more voices to be heard. I love the Coop and think we are having important discussions and conversations that rarely are heard in mainstream media. At the same time, I would like to hear more experiences, thoughts, and methods regarding social justice education.

    I feel it is somewhat distinct form democratic education or inquiry-based education because it is, hopefully, an education to prevent the need to continue teaching itself. I’m being idealistic of course, but if we could be truly effective for a generation in giving all students a socially just education – to the degree in which they reconstruct society associally just – we won’t need to continue that education any more.

    That’s not true of the other educational models we talk about a lot, and social justice is, at times, at odds with some of them. If we take the extreme of inquiry-based education, we have students in a place where they teach themselves, collaborate, and follow their passions to be experts on what interests them. This will be informed by their background, their home life, their friends, and their inner fire, and will all too frequently neglect the things that are unspoken, unsaid, or impolite to talk about in our cultures and society.

    I yearn for more discussion and more tools from the community on how to address privilege, seeing cultural differences as strengths, and becoming aware from the cultural/gender/sexual preconceptions that we bring into the classrooms.

    Posted by Kevin Crouse | July 14, 2011, 9:26 am
    • Points taken & appreciated – the more kids we engage with all of these kinds of work, the more they will find their way into teaching one another about themselves. I hear your call and encourage us to answer it.


      Posted by Chad Sansing | July 14, 2011, 10:42 am
  5. A couple resources (total self promotion but right in line with what you are doing):
    1) Look at Transforming School Climate and Learning from Corwin Press. It details a process for collaborative action research in schools where kids are the researcher/leaders on their own school improvement efforts.
    2) We have a model for Problem Based Service Learning (PBSL) and a field guide we use with higher ed faculty for a process of engaging college students in problem based learning that is of service to community needs. This is not just about studying a topic but in taking action. I can share examples from this in terms of action.

    Rick Gordon

    Posted by Rick Gordon | August 7, 2011, 4:10 pm

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