Participatory Action Research: Experts of Our Experiences

We associate the word “research” with a variety of ideas. Some people think of research in medical and scientific terms. Some associate it with books and libraries.  There are those who find it dull, and those who question its usefulness entirely.   While most people appreciate and celebrate the breakthrough moments in medicine or technology, few consider the time it takes. Even fewer want to do the research themselves.  Let’s face it. This is why critics stay in business, and why we love Yelp reviews and those little stars on Amazon.   Even researching the stuff we spend money on is kind of dull and tedious. This tells you why I’m feeling a bit daunted about writing a story about Participatory Action Research (PAR) that can hold everyone’s attention. 

How to hold your attention

As a current doctoral student, I have to admit I like research.  I like to ponder the questions disconnected from daily life. Trying to figure out how we can understand the unknown is my poetic interpretation of what drives researchers. Some people will see it differently. Some might say researchers are individuals who can’t leave well-enough alone. Researchers clump up in universities because they drive everyone else mad. They are those kids forever asking “why” –but taller.

Participatory Action Research

Participatory Action Research is different.  PAR is the opposite of disconnection from daily life.  The philosophy and mission of PAR is based in the idea that all people produce knowledge, that we are all experts of our own experiences.  PAR falls under qualitative inquiry. Quantitative researchers focus on the measurement of various aspects of the human experience. Qualitative researchers seek to understand the nature of those aspects. In simple terms, qualitative researchers do not ask “how much” but rather, “what is it like?”

The purpose of PAR is to understand those experiences directly from those people. PAR researchers bring participants in to explore questions and include them all the way through to the writing and publishing of papers.

PAR researchers resist the idea that a researcher can truly be objective.  Most of us think of research as training a person to put their biases aside. The researcher is there to observe, to gather data, and then to leave.  We think of the traditional researcher that heads to the library, analyzes, and then writes about what they have learned. The people they observed and interviewed no longer have a role to play.  The information producers sit on the sidelines.

Participatory Action Research is Inclusion in Action

Dr. Meagan Call-Cummings, a PAR researcher at George Mason University says, “PAR is an approach to research that democratizes the process.  It celebrates voices and expertise we often discount.  Traditional research processes at best can be injurious and at worst, marginalizing.”  In a classic PAR researcher move, Meagan turned to her co-researchers and said, “You’re both doing this. You tell her what you think.”

LeAnne Beardsley is an English teacher at Osborne Park High School in Manassas, Virginia. She has been teaching for thirty-seven years.  Ashleigh Clyde is a high school junior who joined the PAR group this year.  Neither has the letters Ph.D. after their name, but for those who embrace PAR methods, that fact is irrelevant. LeAnne and Ashleigh’s life experiences make them experts in the questions this team is investigating.  Questions like, “How can school administrators and teachers “hear” students’ voices?” Meagan provides the access to the scholarly world, but LeAnne and Ashleigh and other members of the group produce that knowledge they share. 

For this PAR team, their inquiry and research production integrates art. Qualitative research investigates questions related to the nature of an experience or a phenomenon. Art can be an effective way to communicate that nature or explore it. While art can be the final product of a research inquiry, this PAR group also writes and publishes their findings in scholarly journals, -the hallmark of traditional academic expression- as well as, podcasts and social media.

The Importance of Expression

Ashleigh described, “PAR means that all student have a way to express themselves in a way they can’t in a school setting.” Expression is a big deal. Ashleigh noted, “The school community praises (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).  Art has been taken out of a lot of stuff.  So, having a platform where kids can talk about what they are going through using art is a lot better.  Art is really expressive.”

LeAnne explained, “Every participant becomes an expert.  Every child that has come within auditory range becomes engaged.”  

Learning to Listen

That ability to express themselves through art is only half of the attraction.  Meagan pointed out, “There’s also just something about being heard. In one of our workshops, a girl went up and performed poetry she already had. She was carrying it around with her.  It’s not like students aren’t saying anything. They are saying things, but who is listening. Just the fact that there’s this audience there to listen and celebrate it and further disseminate it.  That, to me, is really powerful.”

Teen girl with books.
Drawing by Kristine Clyde

One of the things that has inspired me to draw this piece was the civil unrest that was occurring in America and how it was so close to the idea of being seen but not heard. In the drawing I used a more closed technique by making the girl center stage and allowing different types of literature that touch on various issues such as, police brutality and systematic racism to be in the back of her. I did this because it shows how easily someone can become distracted and comfortable with the issues that really should be center stage. This piece is not only my biggest but, it also means a lot to me as it has shown me that I have the ability to use my talent to not just educate others but, to also prove to myself that I can make art that makes an impact.

-Kristine Clyde

The PAR group has used a variety of art forms to engage student participation including picture journals, poetry, Theatre of the Oppressed, autobiography, painting, and creative writing.  LeAnne commented on the importance of having individual forms as well as collaborative ones, “I would never have gotten up on a stage as a kid! You want to have your own thoughts. Everyone has their own story. There is art in writing. Everybody likes to tell a story.”

Connection Through Art

Sharing stories is how we learn about one another. Ashleigh commented, “A lot of high school is self-discovery.  There are so many things we are brought into when we are born.  Self-expression gives an outlet for people to find out who they are.” She also noted how art brings people together because of the emotion that art brings out in people.  Meagan added, “You can argue about facts, but the affective component in art, it’s a low barrier access point. It creates a common experience.”

As an example, Meagan described painting a mural together with the Participatory Action Research team.  A professional artist drew an outline of an image and provided a color key for the students to follow. Megan remembered how moved she was when all of them clustered around the drawing, working together to fill it in, joking if someone used the wrong color, or deciding to use a different color because they felt like it.  “It was all of us working together to fill in the lines. It was really metaphorical,” she smiled.

Finding their Voices

LeAnne noted that these experiences have been transformative for students.  While both she and Meagan hope for strong participation, LeAnne noted she did not feel compelled to create an enormous group. In some ways, it was enough if even one child found their voice. “Make sure every kid has a voice. They leave these workshops different people when that happens.  I work to create a level of safety so they can find their voice.”

The group has grown from thirty to 90 kids attending the workshops.  During the interim meetings, there is a stable attendance of five to ten students who drive the research forward as equal partners in all decisions.  “I’m really proud of our group,” Meagan commented, “As much as I go to conferences, students are going to conferences and presenting research in academic settings.  They are co-authors on papers and doing analysis.  I worried (in the beginning) it was tokenizing, but they hold their own.  Each person is just as much a knowledge producer.” 

She grinned, “And it’s not bad being a high schooler with two scholarly publications by graduation.”


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