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What We Learned from Piloting a High School Youth Participatory Action Research Course

December 20, 2023

This article was written by Erin JanulisMary Rauner, and Bradley Quarles from WestEd and KnowledgeWorks consultant and former Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives Eric Toshalis, EdD.
Educators and learners stand together posing for a photo

When looking to collaborate with students and educators to pilot a Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) course, KnowledgeWorks and WestEd staff were drawn to the Springfield International Charter School (SICS) in Springfield, Massachusetts.

In addition to their equity outcomes, the school was undergoing significant institutional changes as it transitioned away from traditional “skill-and-drill” methods of instruction to a project-based approach. The SICS principal and faculty were eager to pilot the yearlong YPAR course we had designed, given the curricular alignment with the school’s new approach to teaching and learning.  

To help others interested in using YPAR in their schools, we offer three insights and one recommendation arising from our collaboration with YPAR students and educators. 

Insight #1: the importance of establishing an equity-minded community of students and educators 

The students and educators we worked with at SICS stressed the importance of early lessons in community-building. The time we spent to better understand how everyone’s backgrounds and experiences influence their research efforts – what we called “positionality,” based on Rich Milner’s work – and to develop a shared understanding of equity and its connection to their research helped to establish a strong foundation of connection, mutuality and curiosity. 

One teacher reported that during a year-end presentation to the parents, the students credited “those early-on curriculum pieces to describe how they developed a community, learned about each other and then learned where we see inequity from our own background.” While these lessons did not directly address the nuts and bolts of conducting research, they encouraged students to bring their full selves to their inquiries and to probe for the insights and biases that positionalities bring to their collaborative work. Doing this up front helped students and teachers to forge trusting relationships, enabling them to leverage each other’s strengths and recognize when others needed additional support.  

Insight #2: the necessity to teach specific research skills 

One of our most enlightening experiences occurred during a mid-year visit to the YPAR class. Despite maintaining frequent communication with the educators, this visit marked our first opportunity to observe the class in session. The skilled educators adeptly guided students through the course content, but the YPAR training and curriculum materials did not equip them with the deep knowledge of seasoned researchers. It became evident that both students and teachers would benefit from more targeted guidance about how to conduct an investigation using specific methods.

During our visit, we offered students strategies for efficient data collection, directed them to adaptable survey resources and encouraged them to explore alternative methodologies that better aligned with their research question. We anticipated that the distributed expertise across the teachers, students, administrators and external researchers would allow for powerful synergies, but we underestimated the level of support that was needed. Students reported that our visit came at a good time because “we struggled a bit trying to get a solution for that second part (of the data gathering and analysis). And, I feel like having someone who is more experienced in that field to help guide us in right direction is majorly helpful.” This dynamic informed some structural revisions to the YPAR curriculum and underscored the value of having YPAR students and educators collaborate with a research partner.

Many Voices, One Goal

The class was a diverse group of people and we learned how to work together to reach a common goal, which will be useful in whatever we do in the future.
YPAR 22-23 Student Springfield International Charter School

Insight #3: YPAR is for everyone 

Regardless of their learning approaches and previous success or challenges in specific subjects, the students eagerly engaged in course activities and spoke passionately about their academic and personal growth. In addition to learning research skills, students also emphasized the importance of teamwork. One student explained that “the class was a diverse group of people and we learned how to work together to reach a common goal, which will be useful in whatever we do in the future.”

Others highlighted the importance of learning how to communicate with each other, participate actively in class and speak publicly. “We had to speak professionally to a lot of people, different ages, different grades,” one student explained, “and that’s different from our other classes. It’s a unique skillset that we learned.”

Other students appreciated the opportunity to participate in a class where they learned independence and perseverance. “That sense of trying again when something doesn’t work the first time and not giving up has been a valuable lesson to learn that will be useful in life,” a student reflected.

Importantly, students also felt empowered. As one student explained, “honestly, if we had more time, we could definitely change a lot more for the school.”

The two educators who facilitated the YPAR class had quite different professional backgrounds, but each found the course fulfilling. One was a veteran mathematics teacher with years of experience in a teacher-directed classroom, and the other was a newer social studies teacher with primarily online teaching experience due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite their differences, both initially hesitated to facilitate student-directed activities and investigations but ultimately reported success in implementing YPAR instructional techniques. 

The shift from direct instruction to student-centered facilitation demonstrated to each educator the kinds of insight and leadership students are capable of if given proper supports and opportunities. These two teachers observed that previously timid students became comfortable speaking in the YPAR class and assumed leadership roles they had not taken before. One of the teachers highlighted a dramatic transformation with a YPAR student she had in a previous class, during which she reported not hearing him speak more than a handful of times the whole year. When he took on a leadership role in the YPAR class, he “kind of went with it. It was amazing to see how comfortable he was to talk to strangers about their research project so proudly.”

Activating Student Agency

Honestly, if we had more time, we could definitely change a lot more for the school.
YPAR 22-23 Student Springfield International Charter School

Facilitating the YPAR course provided teachers with an opportunity to embrace new student-centered pedagogies and solidified their commitment to power-sharing within their classrooms. One reported, “It’s changed my day-to-day teaching too. I put more on the students themselves and with some scaffolding… allow them to navigate things on their own.” The other teacher explained that, “I’ve seen it carry over into my other courses too.” 

The positive impact of the YPAR course extended far beyond that one class. Teachers who were not involved in the YPAR course noted how one of the students became more self-assured and communicative in their classes. Students shared how the practical experience gained in survey analysis enabled them to impart lessons learned in their statistics class. Parents remarked this class was the first in years that their students were eager to discuss with them.  

Further evidence of the YPAR students’ acclaim for their experiences in the course came when we accompanied them to the annual American Education Research Association conference in Chicago. They participated in poster sessions with other youth researchers, attended panel discussions and attended the keynote presentation. They were amazed that so many people conducted educational research as their jobs and were proud that these professional researchers were asking questions similar to those that they posed in their own investigations.  

One student remarked, “I was inspired to see the researchers from all walks of life who were so enthusiastic about their work and our research project that we talked to them about.”  

“Seeing other examples of research really got our kids thinking and inspired them,” reflected one of the teachers.  

Recommendation: Consider YPAR for your school. 

The experience of implementing this yearlong course showed us the tremendous potential of YPAR for high school students and the educators, leaders and parents who support them. Though not all YPAR work has to manifest as yearlong courses, the benefits of an August-to-June YPAR class are quite compelling. We highly recommend YPAR to educators and school leaders who are invested in boosting student engagement and performance, informing school improvement efforts, elevating student voice and contribution, and achieving equity. As one student explained, when reflecting on his experience, “I actually found this class pretty solid. I’m not gonna lie.”

This article describes reflections from a collaboration between a group of adult researchers,  school-based educators and students who piloted a yearlong high school class dedicated to Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR). The course was part of a larger multi-state research project called REMIQS: Robust and Equitable Measures to Inspire Quality Schools (see the REMIQS Research Guidebook here) that was designed to identify and understand the practices of high schools that demonstrate consistently strong outcomes for historically resilient and marginalized students. As part of REMIQS, KnowledgeWorks and WestEd designed and supported a YPAR course during the 2022/23 school year during which students constructed research projects to identify trends in their learning environment and make positive changes in their school.

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