Educational Strategies in Pragmatic Action Research

One of the most important and frequent paths leading people into the practice of action research (AR) has been through the field of education5 in its various contexts. Education, as we use the term here, refers to everything from reforms of the formal school system, from primary to secondary schools, to universities and postgraduate work. It also includes adult education, either for re-skilling people displaced by technological and social changes or for technical education in the latest techniques in rapidly changing fields. The organizational problem we encounter with this exposition is that the broad field of education encom­passes many approaches, and only some of them deal with issues of power and social change.

This diverse field can be divided up in a variety of ways. One way is by the educational arenas dealt with: primary schools, secondary schools, higher edu­cation, adult education, informal education, and continuing education. Another way is by concentrating on the multiple functions of education. Education can be viewed as having a conservative mission involving the transmission of what is known and the conservation of social arrangements. But it can also be viewed as both conserving structures and ideas and as promoting a critique of existing arrangements and the development of new ideas. In the latter case, education can be seen as involving social incorporation and mobility. Finally, some approaches to education are strongly reformist and see education as the way to change social arrangements and bring about major life course changes.

Educational efforts, formal and nonformal, have been a central field of activity for action researchers during most of the 20th century, and thus the history of the field of education criss-crosses the history of AR at many loca­tions. John Dewey, the putative father of the U.S. public educational system, is an important figure in educationally oriented AR. His notions about the rela­tionships between schools and society, between education and democracy, between learning forms of self-managed inquiry and being free are a powerful reminder of the potential of educational systems to engage in social change.

Though Dewey’s long and constant pursuit of democratizing objectives through the schools yielded very little in the way of meaningful social change (see Westbrook, 1991), many of Dewey’s ideas resonated with social change agents. Some trade union organizers saw themselves as educators, as did a host of social reformers concerned with improving the lives of the poor in the United States (for example, Alinsky, 1946; Chavez, 1975; Horton, 1990).

This wide variety of educational practices and agendas not surprisingly gives rise to quite diverse AR practices. Some of them are socially conservative, such as educational AR: classroom-based research, teacher improvement, and conventional extension work. Others are more social change oriented through promoting literacy, race/ethnic and gender sensitivity, building self-esteem, skills development, and the creation of mutually supportive communities of learners. Finally, some educational approaches are strongly reformist or even radical. These involve Freire’s ( 1970) “conscientization,” adult education in the mode of the Highlander Center, labor union study circles, and project-based work such as that done by Fals Borda. In this chapter, we deal only with the reformist and social change-oriented approaches to education. (Other approaches are discussed in Chapter 11, “Educational Action Research.”)

As waves of social change sentiment have come and gone, so too have efforts at educational reform. The labor movement yielded a broad array of educational programs. The aftermath of the Great Depression created commu­nity development and education initiatives. The civil rights era did so as well. The events of 1968 caused a flourishing of educational initiatives in the class­room and beyond (Readings, 1996). Every major attempt at societal transfor­mation has been accompanied by a set of educational changes aimed at helping people who have been treated as passive objects to become active subjects.

These educational activities are very broadly distributed internationally. The focus on education as a possible vehicle for democratization has over­lapped in strategy with Southern PAR’s heavy emphasis on adult education. It is difficult, even artificial, to make a sharp separation between adult education and AR in the South. Facing the staggering problems of poor people around the world, poverty created in many cases by the activities of the rich and pow­erful countries whose educational systems have just been mentioned, Southern practitioners have developed a strong liberatory adult education focus. This is reasonable because most impoverished adults are also poorly educated and not well prepared to take an active role in social change initiatives. Rather than focusing first on childhood education as a point of entry, many AR practition­ers have felt it best to focus their resources on the development of skills, com­petence, self-awareness, and self-confidence among the adults to whom the task of struggling for social change necessarily falls.

Respecting this historical point of departure, we concentrate attention on the rich and diverse literature in adult education, both in poor countries and in the poor areas of industrialized countries. We review a number of education- based interventions, including labor organizing as a form of adult education, trade union education, adult education schools outside the public school sys­tem, and the potential role of educational institutions in AR. This discussion necessarily refers to a heterogeneous set of methods, ideologies, and narratives of practice, but that is just how the field is. This diversity is part of the dynamic- energy that has characterized educational strategies for a long time. We are con­scious that a variety of AR initiatives in educational institutions within the North, such as the work of Michelle Fine ( 1992), are passed over lightly.


There is good reason to believe that adult education as a distinctive field originated in Denmark with the work of the theologian Bishop Grundtvig (1783-1872). He initiated a fierce debate with the theological establishment regarding the scientific analysis of the Bible. His point was that the scriptures should be made sense of by ordinary people through their daily lives in their congregations. From this conflict eventually emerged a conscious effort to create a popular education system in which history, theology, and studies of cultural heritage created an integrated and context-bound knowledge system (Nergaard, 1935). The first “folk” high school was established in 1851, and these schools soon became an important social and political factor in war- ridden Denmark. This popular education movement spread to other Scandinavian countries and was influential farther abroad. The Highlander Folk School in New Market, Tennessee, an institution that Myles Horton founded, was highly influenced by the concept of folk high schools. The Scandinavian folk high school movement is still vital and attracts many students.


Education has always been an integral part of trade union development, serving two purposes. Education is considered important for training union members to be efficient agents at the company level, for example, in handling bargaining and negotiating situations. The other main purpose of education is to raise the level of political consciousness. From very early on in the politi­cal struggles of trade unions, educational efforts were taken seriously. Trade unions considered it an essential union capacity to train members to become skillful actors in the company and also in the more general political arena. This broad educational strategy became very important in the social democratic movements in northern Europe and proved to be a key factor in European politics. To exaggerate the point a bit, the “Eaton” (the elite finishing school for political and business leaders) of Norway in the post-World War II era was Sermarka, the trade union national education facility in Norway. Very few prime ministers and cabinet members came from outside the circles of Sermarka. In the 1930s, the later prime minister Einar Gerhardsen wrote a textbook on Becoming a Union Official ( 1932), a book that is still in use.

Trade union education activities involve a combination of practical train­ing for handling union matters on the shop floor and within the larger com­pany, and always involve a strong component of the dissemination of union ideology. These education activities take place in the contradictory context where education for liberation and self-development is dealt with mainly by teaching a specific union ideology.

The conceptual platform for the trade union teaching effort appears to have developed pragmatically, based on specific local experiences. Based on the notion that knowledge is power, trade union education goes beyond this sort of self-evident statement by being linked closely to solving everyday practical problems. The German sociologist Oscar Negt (1977) created a conceptual platform for trade union education. In an introduction to a Danish edition of his work, the translators make the following statements:

Negt’s main interest is to give the working class the possibility, through learning processes, of creating a collective (conscious and unconscious) expe­rience and to give them a political direction …. [It is important] to take as a point of departure the everyday experiences in the production process, and through information about societal relationships (information that can support the learning process through discussions, materials, analysis, etc.) train the sociological imagination, which means to teach a way of thinking that makes the individual worker capable of understanding the relationships between individual life and the societal development. (p. 7)

For our purposes here, we can accept this platform as an a posteriori syn­thesis of the conceptual underpinnings of trade union education. It integrated a clear and explicit ideological platform with a practical educational system. In this respect, it has much in common with Southern PAR.


The boundaries among adult education, social change efforts, trade union-type consciousness raising, and other initiatives are not easily discerned. The people involved have long been aware of each other and occasionally have worked together. No better example can be found of this than Myles Horton and the Highlander Center.

Myles Horton was a popular educator born in the southern United States into a modest family. He made it through university through a combination of talent and drive, but he never forgot his origins and was determined to use education to promote democratic social change. After learning about the Danish folk school movement, Horton decided to set up an education and social change center in the mountains of Tennessee to provide opportunities for local people to meet, reflect, learn, and organize themselves for social change.

Highlander has gone through a number of vicissitudes over the decades, including being attacked by federal agencies and being closed down at the orig­inal location, but it is still operating. It was a key partner in the civil rights movement in the U.S. South; it promoted comprehensive community-based AR projects that resulted in the curtailment of many of the most noxious prac­tices of mining companies; and it has become a source of inspiration for gen­erations of social change agents.

Myles Horton was well aware of a wide variety of activist social change tra­ditions, including anarchism, trade union mobilization, civil disobedience, and AR. His own view of the process was remarkably nonauthoritarian. Horton insisted that he could not (and would not) “organize” people because people organized themselves when given a supportive environment and a chance to think for themselves. In this way, Horton set Highlander apart from more lead­ership-driven change approaches. He venerated local people’s experience and capacity for action and communicated this confidence in a way that embold­ened generations of change agents.

The story of Highlander is well told both in Horton’s biography (Horton, 1990) and in the book Horton completed with Paolo Freire just before Horton died (Horton & Freire, 1990). Highlander itself continues to be active and is a center for the promotion of adult education and AR.

Source: Greenwood Davydd J., Levin Morten (2006), Introduction to Action Research: Social Research for Social Change, SAGE Publications, Inc; 2nd edition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *