Teaching participatory action research: The search for pedagogical insights

To read the full-text of this research, you can request a copy directly from the authors.


Most graduate social science departments and professional degree programs require their students to study both qualitative and quantitative research methods. This binary focus typically glosses over questions such as who defines the subject matter and scope of the research and who owns or controls research findings. In this chapter, we discuss how teaching Participatory Action Research (PAR) in MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning has pushed us to focus on (1) the responsibilities of action researchers and their obligations to the communities and places in which they work; and (2) the importance of building the capacity of community members so that they can take control of the research being done about, with, and for them. While various manuals have suggested the best ways of doing this kind of work in practice, very little attention has been given to how to teach PAR methods to graduate students and research partners. We offer six considerations that we consider central to PAR pedagogy and, in the remainder of the chapter, describe how each of these considerations has informed the intellectual framework and pedagogical strategies at the heart of our teaching. One of the big surprises for us has been the extent to which a half-semester PAR module can radically alter the way professional degree candidates think about the rest of their course work and future careers. We conclude with an invitation to our academic colleagues who teach quantitative and qualitative research methods, but do not include any discussion of PAR-oriented issues and approaches in their courses.

No full-text available

Request Full-text Paper PDF

To read the full-text of this research,
you can request a copy directly from the authors.

... However, Participatory Action Research and transdisciplinarity are also contested, with some arguing that they are mainly benefiting elites and often failing in their pursuit of structural social change (Whitzman 2017). At the same time, they have been recognized for spurring critical reflection on researchers' own responsibility for the places and communities in which they operate (Susskind et al. 2018). They are often invoked in the context of addressing 'wicked problems' such as climate change, food insecurity, poverty and social exclusion (Boyd et al. 2015). ...
Relational thinking has entered spatial planning, unsettling some of its basic assumptions and thus bearing practical implications for the way planning activities are conceptualised. To prepare our graduates to enter an increasingly complex and dynamic world in which uncertainty, struggle and conflict are more common than predictability, consensus and straightforward collaboration, we employed theatre-based approaches as a productive complement to the more traditional setup of planning and design training programmes. Building on perspectives from Erving Goffman’s interactional sociology and Judith Butler’s work on performativity, we introduced two different ways of theatre-based teaching: i) as an exploratory device to evaluate the interplay of theory and practice; ii) as a heuristic to uncover the diversity of ‘planning spaces’ and related routines in opening a conversation about alternative behaviours. In both instances, embodied performance added to the learning experience a layer based on practical skills and a reflexive attitude enabling the exploration of the interplay between rationality and power, knowledge co-creation and reflexivity, as key tenets of transformative planning practices.
... He concludes, along with others, that social science is in a position to tackle serious societal issues (Flyvbjerg, 2001;Flyvbjerg, Landman, & Schram, 2012). The MIT PAR group builds a community of scholars and focuses on teaching PAR methods to graduate students and research partners and offers six considerations of PAR pedagogy: ethics, multiple modes of community interactions, ways of involving communities, best means of preparing case studies, collaborative data analysis, and balancing competing professional needs and interests of outsiders (Susskind, Cunningham, & Cruxen, 2018). ...
In the United States (US), PK‐12 education refers to elementary and secondary education for students aged 4‐18. Designed to engage youth in social change processes, as they are often not sought as change agents, youth participatory action research (YPAR) connects practice and reflection. Community‐based educational AR requires immersion into the AR process for a multitude of stakeholders. When utilizing AR with K‐12 groups, YPAR groups, community‐based education AR groups, or AR centers and networks, conflict is bound to arise as important problems are brought to light. The community of AR researchers needs frequent reminders to watch for and identify conflict types and strategies to employ when conflicts occur, which could ease the transition to meaningful change. Action researchers would do well to apply tools for identifying and managing conflict before, during, and after the actual conflict surfaces.
Full-text available
In early 2005, the Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA) and the University of Victoria's (UVic) Faculty of Education began collaborating on a project to teach participatory research (PR) via distance education. Written by the two course instructors from PRIA and UVic, this article documents the successes and challenges of this international collaborative project. We argue that figuring out how to live and communicate the values of PR in teaching is equal to meeting the content goals, and integral to the struggle of PR itself. Just as our partnership bridges university and community-based institutions in the Majority and Minority Worlds, so too are these differences reflected in the history of PR and in the learner composition of our classrooms. As such, we believe that the theory, practice, and struggle of PR are advanced through the example of our personal and ongoing commitment to reflexivity and relationship.
Full-text available
Action researchers have rarely focused attention on reforming higher education and I argue that this is a mistake. The article reviews some of my failed attempts to make AR a sustainable teaching, research, and extension strategy in my own university. These experiences show that AR works well in the classroom and in small and marginal projects but this small scale and marginality and invisibility also makes such efforts fragile and short-lived. We action researchers have yet to use AR strategies successfully to guide necessary reforms in the relation between universities and the extra-university stakeholders and to deepen collaborative relationships within universities among students, staff, and administrators.
Full-text available
This paper aims to assess who benefits from community–university engagements and if a Participatory Action Research (PAR) methodology can fulfill its well-known objectives. Reflections on a studio-based project facilitated with residents—from two informal settlements located in Gugulethu, Cape Town—show that under certain circumstances it cannot be assumed that community partners benefit from PAR-led engagements. Findings spotlight some of the limitations of service learning and PAR that warrant identifying recommendations to better equip students for future engagements. Findings also highlight some of the difficulties of working with "gatekeepers" for information and of facilitating partnerships with economically stressed communities.
We live in a time of massive institutional failure that manifests in the form of three major divides: the ecological, the social, and the spiritual. Addressing these challenges requires a new consciousness and collective leadership capacity. In this groundbreaking book, Otto Scharmer invites us to see the world in new ways and in so doing discover a revolutionary approach to learning and leadership. In most large systems today, we collectively create results that no one wants. What keeps us stuck in such patterns of the past? It’s our blind spot, that is, our lack of awareness of the inner place from which our attention and intention originate. By moving through Scharmer’s U process, we consciously access the blind spot and learn to connect to our authentic Self—the deepest source of knowledge and inspiration. Theory U offers a rich diversity of compelling stories, examples, exercises, and practices that allow leaders, organizations, and larger systems to cosense and coshape the future that is wanting to emerge.
A leading MIT social scientist and consultant examines five professions--engineering, architecture, management, psychotherapy, and town planning--toshow how professionals really go about solving problems.
This paper discusses an action research project in which the making and screening of a film was conceived as a catalyst for social change in a deeply divided community. The context is the history of segregation of Indigenous peoples and settlers in Canada. Is there a decolonizing role for planning, beginning with the work of healing and reconciliation? And, is there a role for film as a methodological tool in such a process? Our findings suggest a very necessary role for therapeutic planning, albeit with caveats; and, that film can be an effective catalyst for creating this therapeutic space.
Chinese translation of Curriculum Action Research: A Handbook of Methods and Resources for the Reflective Practitioner Trans in Taiwan by Chiu Liu Publishing Co.
In this article, I describe my career as a pracademic. Over several decades, I have been able to maintain a substantial private practice in public dispute resolution and also meet the teaching, advising, and research demands of an academic career. I have achieved this by engaging primarily in action research: I begin with “problems” in the field and work collaboratively with stakeholders to generate “solutions” that meet their interests. I then document and analyze these interventions to build prescriptive theory through systematic reflection on my own involvement. In this article, I discuss how I have been able to achieve success as a “pracademic,” but also consider the challenges that young scholars who seek to engage in practice confront today. I further describe some possible strategies for successfully integrating a substantial practice component into an academic career in conflict resolution.
A fully-updated and reworked version of the classic book by Stephen Kemmis and Robin McTaggart , now joined by Rhonda Nixon, The Action Research Planner is a detailed guide to developing and conducting a critical participatory action research project. The authors outline new views on ‘participation’ (based on Jürgen Habermas’s notion of a ‘public sphere’), ‘practice’ (as shaped by practice architectures), and ‘research’ (as research within practice traditions). They provide five extended examples of critical participatory action research studies. The book includes a range of resources for people planning a critical participatory research initiative, providing guidance on how to establish an action research group and identify a shared concern, research ethics, principles of procedure for action researchers, protocols for collaborative work, keeping a journal, gathering evidence, reporting, and choosing academic partners. Unlike earlier editions, The Action Research Planner focuses specifically on critical participatory action research, which occupies a particular (critical) niche in the action research 'family'. The Action Research Planner is an essential guide to planning and undertaking this type of research.
In a move consistent with co-generated learning, this article is co-written by teachers of action research and a former student. Before we present the content and structure of the actual course, we write about the vital issues in teaching action research. We then describe the course and finally hear a former student (himself now supervising doctoral students) on the merits of this particular approach to learning AR as a doctoral student. This article represents the combined experience of the authors in teaching action research together for several years at Southern Cross University in New South Wales, Australia. While involved in the same general activity our focus and experiences have, naturally, been quite different and we have tried to communicate them in this article. Hopefully, our learning will be of some value to the readers. What follows, then, are the thoughts of: Bob, the master action research craftsman and educator; Alan, who sees the bigger picture no matter what he is looking at; Shankar, the implementer and coordinator of projects; and Stewart, who struggles and is at peace with a world full of contradictions.
This article describes our experience teaching action research (AR) in a Mexican graduate program. It emphasizes the challenges associated with teaching this kind of research in Mexico and illustrates ways we address those challenges. It also illustrates that a high level of personal growth often accompanies AR training and that such growth, as well as learning the `mechanics' of AR, is significantly enhanced when faculty become deeply engaged with students during the entire learning experience. The article contributes to what is known about teaching action research in graduate university settings, specifically, about how to teach it, reasons for teaching it, and unintended consequences of teaching it. It describes problems in teaching and mastering AR competence and uses experiences in Latin America's oldest masters program in organization development to illustrate solutions. Examples from student projects demonstrate how action research coursework translates to increased student skills and simultaneously to increased effectiveness of the social systems in which the students conduct research. Finally, the article describes work that led a university to include action research training in all of its graduate programs.
The three tales told here concern my experiences of teaching educational action research. I first became involved in action research in 1973 while a doctoral student working on peace and cultural studies education curriculum in Northern Ireland where project teachers inquired into their own classrooms so as to facilitate the teaching of contentious social and political issues for mutual understanding across the religious–political divide. My three tales of teaching action research are rooted in three very different settings: one working with gypsy education projects in inner-city Dublin; the second as part of a small university–school collaborative in rural North Carolina, and the last a tale of a doctoral seminar at East Carolina University.
This article discusses participatory action research, a methodology that incorporates subjects in the research and indexes results to transforming the lives of those involved. The approach is gaining momentum and recognition in academic circles but still often limited to specialized training centers. The author discusses two years of experience teaching participatory action research at a school of social work, focusing on the challenges that educators planning courses in action-oriented research are likely to meet.
This article argues that story has a special importance in planning that has neither been fully understood nor sufficiently valued. Planning is performed through story, in a myriad of ways. The aim here is to unpack the many ways we use story: in policy, in process, in pedagogy, in critique, as a foundation, and as a catalyst for change. A better understanding of the work that stories do can make us better planners in at least three ways: by expanding our practical tools, by sharpening our critical judgment and by widening the circle of democratic discourse.
Incl. bibliographical references, biographical data on the authors
Impact of teaching an action research course
  • S R Beisser
  • K Connor
Beisser, S. R., & Connor, K. (2004). Impact of teaching an action research course. Academic Exchange Quarterly, 8(3), 80-86.
  • C Cahill
  • F Sultana
  • R Pain
Cahill, C., Sultana, F., & Pain, R. (2007). Participatory ethics: politics, practices, institutions. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 6(3), 304-318.
Theorizing Audience, Products and Provocation
  • M Fine
  • M E Torre
Fine, M., & Torre, M. E. (2008). Theorizing Audience, Products and Provocation. In P. Reason & H. Bradbury (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Action Research (2nd ed., pp. 407-419). London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Introduction to action research: Social research for social change
  • D J Greenwood
  • M Levin
Greenwood, D. J., & Levin, M. (2006). Introduction to action research: Social research for social change. SAGE publications.
Deepening Democratic Capacity through Collective Inquiry: Community-led Research at PalmasLab. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • J A D Harvey
Harvey, J. A. D. (2016a). Deepening Democratic Capacity through Collective Inquiry: Community-led Research at PalmasLab. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Participatory Action Research as a Theory of Practice for Planners
  • J A D Harvey
Harvey, J. A. D. (2016b). Participatory Action Research as a Theory of Practice for Planners.
We make the road by walking: Conversations on education and social change
  • M Horton
  • P Freire
Horton, M., & Freire, P. (1990). We make the road by walking: Conversations on education and social change. Temple University Press.
Exploring Participatory Action Research: Speaker Series
  • A Mehta
Mehta, A. (2015). Exploring Participatory Action Research: Speaker Series. Retrieved September 28, 2017, from
Action research: Improving schools and empowering educators
  • C A Mertler
Mertler, C. A. (2016). Action research: Improving schools and empowering educators. Sage Publications.
Opening up the Canon of Knowledge and Recognition of Difference. Another Knowledge Is Possible
  • B Santos
  • S De
  • J A Nunes
  • M P Meneses
Santos, B. de S., Nunes, J. A., & Meneses, M. P. (2007). Opening up the Canon of Knowledge and Recognition of Difference. Another Knowledge Is Possible. London: Verso, XIX-LXII.