Youth Participatory Action Research: Lessons For Out of Eden Learn?

I teach a course called Introduction to Qualitative Research here at the Harvard Ed School. It is a fun course to teach: it is designed to offer students a sense of the terrain of qualitative research – which, broadly speaking, is research that seeks to understand how people experience or make sense of the world. (Qualitative research approaches are often contrasted with quantitative ones, which typically involve measuring phenomena or developing causal models.) As a class we explore some of the tools and approaches available to researchers in the field of education, and develop a feel for the overall process of conducting qualitative research.

This week we focused on Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR). My colleague Gretchen Brion-Meisels visited the class to talk about her experiences of using this research method to collaborate with local youth to improve youth support systems. You can read a feature article about this project here. Recent Harvard College graduate Nicolas Jofre also visited: his senior thesis and current work around student representation within Boston Public Schools also involves YPAR.

In a nutshell, YPAR involves working collectively with youth to address a social or political issue – with the aim of empowering them to effect transformational change. Crucially, research participants are taught to become researchers, able to ask questions and find answers for themselves on a more or less equal footing with the adult researcher(s): there is a strong pedagogic aspect to YPAR. YPAR typically engages marginalized youth and strives to advance social justice. Some educators, notably Beth Rubin of Rutgers University, advocate incorporating YPAR principles into classroom practice: Making Citizens: Transforming Civic Learning For Diverse Social Studies Classrooms.

I have been pondering the ways in which Out of Eden Learn is both similar and different to YPAR – and, more significantly, how elements of YPAR theory and practice might inform our work on this project moving forward. Here are some of my emerging thoughts:

Creating a space for student voices

A key premise of Out of Eden Learn is that we are trying to provide opportunities for young people to develop and express their opinions about the world, as well as to explore their own identities and position within a larger, unfolding human story (see an earlier blog post FELLOW TRAVELERS ON LIFE’S JOURNEY). I have a personal interest in making school curricula (and particularly history and social studies curricula) of greater personal relevance for young people and to encourage them to make connections between their own lived experiences and their learning. While Out of Eden Learn is not designed to promote specific social actions or to support young people to better their lives in concrete ways, I hope that our learning community can nevertheless be empowering for learners – for example, by inviting them to choose how they want to position themselves within the world or to express their emerging beliefs or thoughts to an international audience. Moving forward, I hope to clarify the ways in which our online community might be empowering for individuals – and to what effect. For instance, how might new understandings of the world precede or promote particular kinds of civic action?

Encouraging students to situate themselves within wider systems

One of the goals of YPAR is to help marginalized young people understand their own life circumstances within a broader historical and political context, thereby giving them tools to mobilize and push for change. YPAR is particularly informed by Critical Race Theory (and other theories) that focus on structural inequalities in society. Out of Eden Learn does not have the same intellectual heritage – nor are we pushing for particular learning outcomes of this kind. However, we may have something to learn from YPAR in terms of how it can help young people to situate their own lives and present day problems within the context of a bigger human story – which is one of the main goals of our project.

Encouraging students to become budding researchers

Paul is a reporter, not an academic researcher. But some of Paul’s dispositions as a reporter echo those of careful qualitative researchers: he immerses himself in local environments; he listens carefully to people’s points of view and ways of thinking about the world; he seeks out multiple perspectives and corroborates his evidence. In getting students to emulate Paul – for example, by observing their surroundings carefully or seeking out other people’s stories – we are arguably inviting them to become researchers in their own right. In particular, we want to support students to ask questions of the world. I will return to this issue in a future blog post but for now I want to give a shout out to The Right Question Institute, whose thought-provoking book I highly recommend: Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions. I also recommend their recent blog post which links to a wonderful cartoon by Kostas Kiriakakis.

Looking ahead we will be asking students to conceive of and put into action their own Out of Eden Walk-related projects, which we hope will involve asking questions that are important to them and relevant to their specific local contexts. While we may not be putting students on an equal footing with the adults in this project, Out of Eden Learn is not intended to be an adult-controlled space. Rather, we want it to be a space that honors young people’s capacities to interrogate and understand the world and to take control of their own learning.

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