A student is speaking into a microphone sharing her research, while two other students stand in the background waiting for their turn to speak.

What Is Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) and How Does It Relate to Civics?

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Youth Participatory Action Research is a way to engage students in investigating an issue of concern that they see in their community. Once they’ve done their research, the students then work on a plan to tackle that issue and make their community better.

I first encountered Youth Participatory Action Research – or YPAR – when I had a student teacher from Rutgers University. The Urban Teaching Fellows at Rutgers incorporates YPAR into its student teaching experience, and all of their graduates facilitate YPAR for a group of students before they finish. But YPAR is happening throughout the country, and it exists in many variations outside of New Brunswick.

Ultimately, this is great civics education. It scaffolds the process for your students to become engaged citizens.

So What Does Youth Participatory Action Research Look Like?

YPAR is a framework for engaging students in participatory action reach. They form a group, identify problems, and narrow things down to one problem. They research that problem and brainstorm possible ways to address it. Finally, they prepare a presentation, hopefully with a solution, and share the results of their action research.

What follows is not meant to be a step by step guide to execution – it’s more of an overview. UC Berkeley has a collection of lessons that can help you walk through the process if you’re looking to do YPAR. The whole thing should unfold over the course of a few months, although the length depends on how often you meet and how much work occurs between meetings.

Form and Norm the Group

If you’ve worked with or facilitated groups before, then you know this step is critical.

In the first few meetings, students develop relationships and get to know each other. This is necessary as they will be working together in a large group on the entire project. They will have to come to a consensus at certain points, and this foundation will help them work through problems that arise.

This is also the point at which you would establish group rules and norms. As part of the group norming process, students should have part to play in setting these rules. Throughout the entire program, that should be a prominent goal – to let students have agency over the decisions that are made.

Identify and Select a Problem

The next step is to brainstorm potential topics and select one on which to focus. You may want to have students brainstorm ideas first in small groups, or they could write down their ideas and submit them anonymously. It could be a school based issue, like the quality of student lunches. It could also be a more serious community issue, like gang violence.

Eventually, this needs to be narrowed down. Once the students have made their suggestions, the group will need to deliberate on the options. This should not just be a simple majority vote. You need to spend time on deliberations and give students agency in the choice. A group facilitation technique like a world cafe or open space technology could be a first step. You may wish to let students do some preliminary research on a few topics before you narrow it down.

But eventually, the group must agree on one topic.

Conduct Your Research

Once the group has agreed on a topic, they need to conduct research that helps them identify and describe the problem as well as prepare and support a recommendation for action. Research methods could include surveys, interviews, and focus groups. One group that studied school lunches crowd sourced part of their data collection by asking fellow students to share and hashtag pictures of their lunches. The group should also look at existing research, data sources, and other information available on the Internet, through government sources, or at the library.

You should strike a balance between general research that provides background and frames the issue and collecting research directly in your community. The goal is to understand the problem as it exists in your community, so data collected from students, parents, and community members is particularly important.

Prepare and Deliver Your Presentation

Finally, the students collect their research and prepare a presentation. The goal is to be able to communicate clearly what the problem is and what their research revealed about the problem in their community. Incorporating photos and videos of the research collection process is great.

Rutgers held an annual gathering for YPAR students to share their presentations with each other. But you should also look for opportunities to have the students present their findings to stakeholders – the principal, PTA, board of education, city council, etc.

Do You Have an Example I Could See…?

I do. But you’re going to have to be a bit patient for that.

A recurring feature on The Civic Educator will be Sunday spotlights. Each week, we’ll give a civic educator a platform on which to describe their work in their own words. We have some in the works, and I would definitely expect to see some educators writing about their experience with YPAR in the coming weeks.

As those posts go live, I will update this post to include them. In the meantime, you should subscribe to the weekly newsletter to make sure that you don’t miss out when they go live.

A group of students pose for a group picture in two long rows in front of a brick building.
This group of students in East Orange participated in Youth Participatory Action Research in 2011. They took a trip to Rutgers to present their research.

So What Does Youth Participatory Action Research Have to Do With Civics?

YPAR is a useful tool for civics educators for two reasons.

First, it promotes healthy civic engagement. It gets students looking at problems in their community and thinking about solutions. They might not solve the problem they set out to address, but this is an important part of building political efficacy. In this regard, YPAR is similar to other programs like Project Citizen and the Citizen’s Campaign’s Solution Civics.

Second, it promotes character education and interpersonal skills. Throughout the process, YPAR helps students develop the skills and attitudes necessary to work together in groups and deliberate complex problems. Similar to the Citizen’s Campaign’s civic pledge and C-SPAN’s Classroom Deliberation, this prepares students to participate in a positive and productive civic discourse.

Have you actually used YPAR? Or maybe you have some questions about it? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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