What Is Participatory Action Research in Education?

Community members seated around a table with laptops and notebooks engage in PAR discussion about education issues.

How can teachers better engage young people and help them become active participants in issues that matter to them? For some educators, participatory action research (PAR) provides an answer.

Differing from traditional, top-down development approaches in which the researcher is a detached observer, PAR stresses collaboration, knowledge of specific communities, and social change. Understanding the benefits of such an approach, and how it can be translated into a curriculum, requires a deeper dive into PAR and its potential role in education.

What Is Participatory Action Research?

Drawing from the work of multiple educators, sociologists, psychologists, and activists, PAR has a complex history rooted in social justice, community involvement, and the empowerment of marginalized people. As its name suggests, PAR stresses participation and action—components that speak to its democratic approach and emphasis on effecting social change.

PAR empowers participants to pursue inquiry collaboratively to combat the challenges facing their communities. This aspect can be particularly beneficial to individuals and groups who typically lack representation.

Participatory Action Research vs. Traditional Research Methods

Understanding how a PAR approach differs from more traditional research methods entails considering potential use cases for each type.

For example, researchers engaged in a traditional project designed to study the relationship between ethnicity and diabetes might analyze demographic data and anonymized health records to explore correlations; additional research might include interviews with participants of different ethnicities across neighborhoods to determine specific factors that influence this health outcome. They could then publish this information in a paper for policymakers and other researchers to reference.

The goals and approach of a participatory action research project would differ fundamentally:

  • Individuals in the community would not be study “subjects” but rather active contributors to the research and formulations of actions to be taken.
  • Rather than just collecting data that could be disassociated from the community in which it was gathered, participatory action research would aim to identify social issues and enact change in that community.

Such an approach breaks down the power dynamic between researchers and subjects and involves stakeholders in the community directly.

Participatory Action Research in Education

PAR can be an effective tool in an educational setting. Its principles of active engagement, collaboration, and nonhierarchical relationships help foster growth, discovery, and positive outcomes.

Integrating PAR Into a Curriculum

Developing a PAR project for the classroom doesn’t follow a formula—PAR is an approach, not a method—but the essential principles of PAR can guide teachers and students in a collaborative effort to bring about change. A PAR project might begin by helping students identify a research question that addresses a problem in their environment. Students can then work with teachers to design a program that identifies needed resources in their school or community. After discussing possible solutions, including what resources they can draw on to spark change, students determine methods for collecting and analyzing data and how to present their findings to school or community leaders.

For example, PAR leaders might conclude that their community needs support in dealing with the pressure to engage in risky behavior, like smoking. Interviews with people inside that community can help them understand these pressures so they can design relevant strategies to support children who may be likely to engage in these behaviors. Whatever action plan they devise—bringing in guest speakers, designing afterschool programs, or advocating for a new community center, for example—will be directly connected to the people and voices in their community.

Benefits of Participatory Action Research

The benefits of PAR in educational settings can be substantial:

  • It can be particularly powerful for groups such as LGBTQ students, undocumented students, and students of color. Voices of individuals from these groups may be underrepresented in research studies. Further, students from these groups may be marginalized in formal classroom settings, but a PAR project may provide opportunities to address and communicate their specific needs.
  • PAR can be a form of active learning. Educators have long recognized the benefits of employing approaches and activities that engage students with the learning process rather than having them passively accept information.
  • Participatory action research in education changes the power structure and provides transformative ways of seeing problems and finding solutions.

The collaborative nature of PAR gives voice to knowledge and opinions that might not otherwise be heard. Additionally, when research participants contribute to a process and make decisions, they tend to feel a sense of ownership over the project.

Become a Pioneer of Change in Education

Teachers and administrators who embrace active learning and participatory action research in education promote higher levels of student engagement, encourage a collaborative approach to social change, and amplify the voices of individuals and groups who have often been marginalized.

To learn more about opportunities to promote social justice and equity in education, visit Mills College’s online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership program. Mills College develops transformational leaders with a collaborative education model that values inclusiveness, collaboration, and information sharing.

While Mills is charting a new path for the future, we are still enrolling graduate students for fall 2021.