Reimagining education through Participatory Action Research: A critical review of involving students in critical citizenship education

Year: 2021

Author: Meyer, Frauke, Locke, Kirsten

Type of paper: Individual Paper

It has never been as urgent for education to constitute students as critical citizens, i.e., as having the ability to discern, critique, and put into action ideas about what it means to be an individual with responsibilities and obligations to collective society. Thus, as educational researchers we need to actively engage students in the design to honour the notion of active critical citizenship and to empower their agency over their engagement with society and the social, political and policy forces that impact on them and their education. However, much  research on critical citizenship has focussed on students as mere informants. We are interested in actively involving students in designing critical citizenship education research. We hence examined existing empirical research that employed a Participatory Action Research (PAR) design which aims to involve participants as active researchers. Our research questions are: To what extent have students been involved in research about the constitution of critical citizenship education in compulsory schooling through a PAR design? and What can we learn from including students as active participants in research about critical citizenship?We report on a systematic review of empirical studies using PAR involving students as participants. A systematic search of three databases (EbscoHost:Education Research Complete, ERIC, and PsycInfo) resulted in 39 articles that were published in English between 2000 and 2021, set in compulsory school settings and met our inclusion criteria. The articles were reviewed using a thematic analysis approach. We report on the extent and forms of student participation, the focus, nature, and content, and the outcomes and challenges of the research. Our findings show that many studies aspire to the authentic use of PAR, however reporting tends to depict students as informants rather than genuine partners. Studies were often set-up within a ‘hybrid’ model spanning across schools and community organisations. Thus, they rarely constituted a part of compulsory schooling, were hence not assessed, and specific student groups were selected for participation. When students were genuinely involved in the research goals, foci and design, researchers reported high levels of agency. Core challenges for genuine PAR seemed to lie on the reliance on students’ engagement and the creation of a shared understanding of structure and outcomes. The literature provides a compelling example of  engaging students as active researchers in ways that both trouble and challenge the question of how to best communicate the findings of PAR projects. A small amount of studies incorporated students as researchers in the dissemination and communication of the research findings in forums such as education conferences, civic public meetings, school presentations and even as co-writers of texts. We found the most authentic accounts of PAR communication and dissemination were those that critically engage students in a reciprocal and collaborative relationship with the 'adult' researchers in ways that take on the characteristics of critical citizenship. Overall, our findings imply that genuine PAR is challenging, however given the complexity and uncertain realities of students’ lives, genuine engagement is necessary to empower and build students’ agency for critical citizenship.