By gathering and synthesizing data in a methodical and professional manner, students become vital agents of change. Use the tools and examples provided here to help students get started.
Why should students and young people conduct research about education and learning? Why not leave it to “the experts,” such as scholars, scientists and experienced practitioners? Supporters of student-centered learning know the answer already: students are the experts on their own experiences and have a stake in learning about the conditions in which they spend their waking hours, in both school and community.
Most young people who are researchers are engaged in “action research,” a nationally recognized research methodology which describes research utilized to make the world a better place. Action research involves utilizing a systematic cyclical method of planning, taking action, observing, evaluating (including self-evaluation) and critical reflection prior to planning the next cycle. The following toolkits can help you get started:
- Participatory Action Research Toolkit
- Toolkit for Participatory Action Research from the Community Development Project
- Students Speak Toolkit
Students can investigate a wide range of topics, such as graduation rates, school climate, adult-youth relationships, peer relationships, curriculum, and general school improvement. The following reports synthesize action research on these topics completed by students across the country:
- North High School Report
- School Climate in Boston’s High Schools
- Student Voices Count: A Student-led Evaluation of High Schools in Oakland
Advantages of Action Research
The advantages of action research are many:
- Data collection reaches all students, including those who are least engaged and most disenfranchised
- Data-driven change is a best practice and hence a source of power for youth
- Students that participate in action research projects are often more active in their own learning inside the classroom
- The data itself is personal in nature, bringing the conversation out of abstract concepts and into compelling, real-life circumstances
- Action research helps create a common language for change and a sense of urgency to move forward
- Armed with research data they helped collect, students can be powerful messengers in the community
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of action research is the fact that, in learning about their own community, young people are acquiring the knowledge, habits and dispositions that are the hallmark of student-centered learning. Participating in the action research cycle enables young people to master a wide array of skills. They hone academic skills such as conducting interviews, analyzing documents and research, and writing reports. They also gain valuable social and emotional skills such as public speaking, civic skills like running a meeting and setting an agenda, negotiation, and cooperation.
When students engage in the school reform process as researchers, they are experiencing exactly the type of student-centered learning education advocates want for all children. Drawing from this experience, they can more clearly articulate to their peers, parents, and the general public the advantages of student-centered learning. In addition, when young people utilize the methodologies and tools of research, with adult guides working alongside them, valuable information can be uncovered. Students are then armed with data that support the need for education reform. They can share what they have learned with the community through formal presentations and in everyday conversations. Informed and engaged students are powerful messengers of change.