Last month, the two of us (along with our mentor, Dr. Ernest Morrell) celebrated the release of our book, Doing Youth Participatory Action Research: Transforming Inquiry with Researchers, Educators, and Youth. The book tells the story of the UCLA Council of Youth Research (YPAR), a long-running youth participatory action research program that mentors young people from South and East Los Angeles to develop research questions about the educational and social challenges they recognize in their communities and then conduct rigorous inquiry into those questions for the purposes of fostering empowerment and action for social justice.
We drew on our membership in the Council community to detail one year in the life of the program and use this portrait as a lens through which to explore YPAR as a radical vision of knowledge production that can transform how educational researchers approach their work — particularly those in the connected learning community. While the central activity of YPAR — providing young people with the support and resources needed to develop, conduct, and share research projects of their choosing — occurs across many settings (schools, after-school programs, public health initiatives, etc.), YPAR is an umbrella acronym to describe a mode of scholarly inquiry that pushes back on traditional understandings of the key actors (youth), processes (participatory), and purposes (action) of research.
As our DML community so often focuses on the role of participatory culture, collaborative design and research with youth and educators, and the possibilities of digital technologies within contexts of equity-driven education, we believe that the foundational work of YPAR points to design and research pathways for researchers of connected learning in both formal and informal learning contexts. YPAR is inspired by ideas about knowledge that have been reflected for decades in movements for social justice, from Paulo Freire’s work in Brazil to the Freedom Schools of the American Civil Rights Movement. As active participants in meaning making and theory building, youth and adults alike must consider how the work we do continues to work toward liberatory engagement in contemporary society. YPAR has much to teach us today as we consider what research means and what it is for in an ever more connected (and sadly, ever more divided) world.
The remainder of this post explores the 5 “Ws” and “How” of contemporary research: if we are to take the work of youth and our work alongside them seriously, we must question the foundational premises of educational research in the 21st century.
What is research?
The traditional assumption of what we believe research looks like is something occurring far away in the Ivory Tower of higher education. However, we want the Connected Learning community to consider how research is made in the moment-to-moment interactions that emerged throughout the Council Of Youth Research. Rather than a single time or place for research to “happen,” we were continually reminded that the capacity to analyze, reflect, and build new theory and findings was omnipresent. The graduate students we worked with at UCLA called this “Carpool Pedagogy.”
As Ebony Cain, one of the graduate students who worked with the Council with us noted in a conversation: “All of us were driving students home. We were driving students to presentations. And, in the car, waiting for people to get in and out, that’s when the real conversations happened. That’s where the application of this theory and the life-changing moments really happened — in those non-traditional spaces.”
Too often, research on young people (rather than research with young people) gets in the way of work that can transform how spaces of learning and interaction are utilized. While formal learning environments, like classrooms, are important, YPAR reminds us that research is something that is not bound to specific places, times, or participants.
Who does research?
When we first approached Los Angeles high school students to ask them if they wanted to participate in a research program, we received quite a few raised eyebrows and skeptical glances; after all, they (like many of us) thought of researchers as adults wearing white coats sequestered in laboratories working on esoteric academic concerns. Our students could not see themselves or their concerns in research as it was traditionally defined and had a hard time imagining adding “researcher” to their repertoire of identities. Only when they saw that research could be about staking a claim to defining your community and questioning the injustices around you did students recognize that they wanted to claim this identity.
YPAR reminds us that no one holds a monopoly on producing knowledge — only on sanctioning and legitimizing it. Students are experts of their own lived experiences, and digital media is providing more outlets that can allow their voices to speak back to dominant narratives and break the hold that academia often tries to maintain on speaking and disseminating truth.
When does research happen?
Slowly. Too slowly.
The processes of research, peer review, and publication in largely non-open access journals that plague most tenure-track positions for researchers means that research is often happening in a timeframe that is disconnected to the needs and interests of the communities on whom our research is focused.
In contrast, we look to the moment-to-moment exchanges between youth, teachers, and researchers even in the moments just prior to presenting as spaces for possible research and insight to emerge. The Council of Youth Research highlights how research happens in response to the localized needs of a school community. As a result, whether presenting to academic communities, local policy makers, or to families, parents, and teachers – YPAR work is contextualized within contemporary needs.
Where does research happen?
When I did a Google Images search for this question, three locations emerged most often: laboratories, books, and computers. The lesson is telling — research is traditionally conceived of as being located outside of and away from the messy realities of our everyday lives, away from our streets and our schools and our families. Research is something you find by looking for the expertise of others. YPAR flips this idea to re-center research in and with communities.
This screenshot illustrates the results of a survey question Council students asked more than 600 of their peers throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District about the extent to which they thought their teachers cared about them. Instead of relying on policymakers’ ideas about highly qualified teachers, our students turned to their classmates to define quality teaching as caring. They walked through their school hallways distributing and collecting surveys, analyzed the data that their classmates provided, and emerged with a disturbing but crucially important finding that could only be discovered through deep engagement with real students and schools.
YPAR reminds us that research occurs in dynamic, living communities and, when opened up to a variety of perspectives, can help us recognize blind spots and speak back to the silences that can develop as we become wedded to particular methods and approaches.
How does research happen?
You’ve seen the hollow-eyed distant stare of sleep-deprived graduate students (perhaps you’ve been that student). No, they are not playing extras in The Walking Dead, they are living embodiments of the lonely and long-night process of researching and dissertating. This is the typical academic depiction of how the academic sausage is made.
In contrast, we should revisit the three words preceding “research” within YPAR. Research happens through participation and collaboration with youth, teachers, parents, and other stakeholders within a community. It is a dialogue-driven model of theory building. Combining both empirical and tacit forms of knowledge, YPAR illustrates that research happens through more than randomized control trials. Our foundation of research begins by validating the lived experiences of our youth and teacher participants as valid forms of data and build from there.
While it’s easy to get wrapped up in the processes involved in research — the lit reviews, the methods, the presentations, the journal articles — YPAR reminds us that we always must return to the overarching purpose of our work and consider the extent to which the knowledge we create offers benefit to society.
During the 2010-2011 school year that we document in our book, we brought Council students to share their research at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Annual Convention. Instead of continuing the process of encouraging a group of adult researchers to speak about young people, we found it important to disrupt this tradition and involve the young people in telling their own stories, with adults as the listeners and learners.
Consider the impact that this experience had on Cesar, one of the Council students:
“The trip to New Orleans was an experience that changes a person. I never thought I could be such a revolutionary, but an experience like AERA tells me that I have a future in this field. It tells me that I am not someone who will sit around and take oppression; I am someone who will be an advocate for change. After listening to educators and administrators applaud us on our work, I realized that I can make a change.”
Cesar’s quote reminds all of us in the research community that what we do is about much more than participating in the rituals of academia. YPAR helps us re-focus our work on transforming lives and society and producing knowledge that contributes to the vision of a more just future.