Transforming Research by Having Students Lead the Investigations

By Rita Pello
September 19, 2019

In the education world, well-intentioned adults often gather to discuss evidence-based instructional techniques they intend to implement to improve student outcomes. Educators, administrators, non-profit leaders, and policy officials huddle—sometimes together, sometimes separately—to consider best practices and greatest impact. They ask questions like “How can we reach all students? How can we prepare for them for civic engagement and the 21st century workforce? How can we encourage them to be life-long learners? And how can we overcome systemic discrimination?” These are important questions adults need to be asking, but they beg a different question: What voice is missing from these discussions? All too often, it’s the student voice.

Acknowledging the frequent absence of student voice in education research and reform, we designed a youth-driven investigation in partnership with GripTape. An organization dedicated to supporting youth to follow their interests and passions, GripTape supported seven researchers ages 15 to 19. Each youth researcher investigated an issue related to student-centered learning that was informed by a core curiosity or passion they possess. For 18-year-old Anyfern González, this meant taking the opportunity to partner with researchers and educators to explore how her then high school and community supported immigrant students. The project she undertook allowed her to engage a variety of stakeholders in her community. “I was able to interview a lot of the organizations and services. I was able to go to schools and observe. I was able to talk to other students.”

Through Anyfern’s investigations, she discovered what’s working and for whom, and where areas for improvement existed. She used these data and her analyses to form recommendations she delivered to her former high school to help them more successfully serve immigrant populations. Some recommendations were to strengthen the school district’s commitment to dual language instruction, to include a student on the dual language task force, and coordinate better transportation for EL families.

Anyfern describes the research experience as a rewarding one because it provided her the opportunity to investigate an issue personal to her family, to network with different people in her community, and to build the confidence she needed to enter into rooms of peers and adults and start asking questions. Now in her first year at Bentley University, Anyfern believes the youth researcher experience gave her the skills and direction she needs to pursue a career as an immigration lawyer.

Anyfern said that when was finally able to present her research, she felt prepared with data, survey results, handouts, and, most importantly, firsthand experience conducting the research. She could easily field questions people had for her. Overall, Anyfern describes the experience as “life-changing” and even told her close friend to consider the opportunity because “you’ll have the guidance, the school will be there to support you, you’ll meet people, and it will jumpstart your career in research.”

As the culmination of their research projects, the youth researchers presented their findings to adult researchers, funders, Research Collaborative staff, and partners in the field. The youth researchers received feedback about which of their findings seemed to be the most important to share more broadly, and the implications their studies had for schools, systems, communities, and students like them. But the youth researchers weren’t the only ones who benefitted from this work. The presence of youth at the convening of the Research Collaborative elevated conversations among the adults and pushed them to check assumptions and plans against those who are most directly impacted by the practices and policies being studied. Having youth in the room changed the conversation, made it more rigorous, more responsive, more real. As a result, the SCL Research Collaborative is now committed to the integration of youth researchers in each cycle of research it supports. Plans are afoot now to support a new cohort of youth researchers in 2020.

This blog is part of the Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative Equity Series by JFF and KnowledgeWorks and created with support from its funders. Learn more about this work.

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