The Critical Importance of Youth-Led Research

By Rolando Fernando II
November 30, 2020

Youth-led research plays a critical role in advancing student-centered education. It provides the opportunity to elevate student voice and transform an inequitable education system. Research, at its most powerful, combines methodological rigor with the openness to inquire from our lived experiences. Inhabiting this vulnerable place is necessary to provoke us to venture into uncomfortable spaces that can give rise to deeply resonant insights not only about education systems, but also about why we adults pursue the kinds of research that we do.

From the very beginning, the youth-led research project, Youth Action Researchers at the Intersection (YARI) has encouraged and supported youth researchers to look deeply into the education system and pursue questions that they are passionate about from the unique perspective of their learning journeys and personal experiences. Intentionally built into the project design are substantive engagements wherein we supported youth to connect with adult mentors and researchers as part of the Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative’s commitment to bringing together diverse perspectives to better answer meaningful questions about learner-centered education.

At our first convening, we designed a space for youth researchers to reflect on their learning journeys and highlight both positive and negative moments along the way. From this exercise, they landed on questions that show deep awareness and courage to have difficult conversations to improve education for themselves and for those who will come after them:

  • Amy and Laila: How do the racial/ethnic backgrounds of teachers and students affect student-teacher relationships within the classroom?
  • Crisanny and Michelle: What advantages and disadvantages do female students of color face in schools, and how does it affect their learning journeys?
  • Everitt: How can historically marginalized students pursue meaningful paths and healthy careers after high school?
  • Angel and Michy: How can the Providence public schools district improve their education for high school ESL/ELL Latinx students?
  • Adi and Orah: How do public school teachers’ impressions of students impact their education and accessibility accommodations within the classroom?

During the second convening, we virtually gathered once again to connect with and learn from one another. We set up space to recognize and celebrate every participant’s resilience amidst unprecedented challenges that the pandemic has brought to families, homes, schools, and work, most especially the youth researchers who have persisted steadfastly in their research efforts. Adult researchers shared their personal stories and how their experiences and identities influence the questions they pursue.  

Through this engagement, they gained moments of valuable reflection and re-centering of why they do what they do. In turn, the youth researchers shared how their projects are progressing, including how their own personal stories are informing their inquiries and the problems of practice they are facing. In sharing this space with the adult researchers, the youth will hopefully begin to firmly clarify their own “whys” and gain inspiration from the learning journeys of adults with whom they share similar backgrounds and lived experiences.

From the chat box comments, verbal reflections and even a tweet or two, it was evident by the close of the convening that both youth researchers and adult participants found this engagement illuminating and uplifting, as they all continue with their endeavors to uphold education equity and social justice.

It is our hope that the YARI Project will bring educators and other education stakeholders to prioritize the centering of student voices and to acknowledge the depth and richness of students’ capabilities and insights. Because of their backgrounds and lived experiences, they occupy a truly unique and opportune position to question the education system and ultimately advocate for what students at the intersection like them need to flourish in their learning journeys.

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