Reforming Education in the North


No practice that is engaged in by hundreds of teachers and university fac­ulty is likely to be homogeneous; under the heading of educational AR, there are many varieties. To summarize the main thrusts, we see this field as center­ing on primary, secondary, and higher education teachers and the university scholars who support them. These stakeholders engage in a number of varieties of AR, mainly focused on improving the quality and effectiveness of their prac­tices as teachers and on improving the institutional environments in which they operate. There is a significant element of organizational development work in this area and many analogies to similar work done under the rubric of industrial democracy. Both approaches have drawn significant inspiration from Kurt Lewin and from the work of the Tavistock Institute for Human Relations.

In a review article, “Educational Action Research,” Ken Zeichner (2001) typologizes the field as follows: a U.S.-based approach drawing on the work of Kurt Lewin and centering on Stephen Corey at Columbia University; the British curriculum reform movement ( 1960s-1970s) centering on the work of John Elliott and Lawrence Stenhouse; the Australian movement, which drew its main inspiration from the U.K. but had the added dimension of dealing with aboriginal education involving people like Stephen Kemmis and Robin McTaggart; the teacher/researcher movement in the United States; and, recently, higher education self-study to improve teaching.

Each of these practices differs in a variety of ways, but they mainly focus on changes in professional practice and organizational development within institutions. While they press for change in practice and organization, they are clearly reformist activities aimed less at shifting power than at improving the communication patterns and work environments for students and teachers and at making policy reforms that support those changes.

Some of these varieties of AR are heavily teacher centered and feel quite thin on participation by other stakeholders, while others are open to student engagement and to other nonteaching members of the organizations. Zeichner (2001) offers a significant bibliography on this approach (pp. 281-283). For a comprehensive synthesis and methodological guide, a good recent source is Stringer, Action Research in Education (2004).


Above and beyond these varieties of educational AR, there are others that purposely take a more strongly reformist approach to the educational system. A host of specialized extra-public schools has been organized. These include special schools for music, dance, religious instruction, and cultural transmis­sion (for example, Japanese Saturday schools in many Western countries). Here the focus is additive. These schools intend both to enrich the curriculum and to set the daily public school experience of children in the context of a larger view of the world controlled by parents and teachers.


We devote a full chapter to the education of action researchers (Chapter 16), so we will not review this subject here, except to say that a number of significant efforts are underway to create AR programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

One of the most ambitious and well-funded formal educational strategies for democratic social change was the development of the U.S. land grant uni­versity in the 19 th century. The basic land grant system was tied to territorial conditions in the United States. Most states had a certain amount of public land at their disposal. By mandate, the states were to sell some of these public lands and use the proceeds to create a core fund. The income was to be used to build a state university (hence the term land grant). Each state was required to have one land grant university.

As a state university built with public funds, the land grant university’s mission was to be research, education, and public service linked in a putatively seamless web. These universities were to educate the people of the state, to con­duct research on subjects of practical interest to the citizens of the state, and to disseminate that knowledge directly to the people of the state. The basic for­mulation behind the land grant university is closely linked to AR. It involves a systematic partnership between academic and nonacademic stakeholders, a full dialogue among them about their needs and interests, and collaborative research and testing of the results. Despite this, the land grant university has not become the source of major AR initiatives.

Though there is little question that such public universities have carried out many of the required services and have prospered mightily (Lyall & Sell, 2006), over the years the land grant universities have become mainly the ser­vants of social power rather than an avenue to the democratization of knowl­edge. Designed originally as institutions in which faculty would be encouraged and rewarded for their combined intellectual and practical contributions to society, these universities have become internally subdivided into high-status faculty who conduct non- and anti-applied research and extension faculty and other personnel who are much lower in status.

The land grant universities have routinely supported large farmers and powerful business interests, the substitution of machinery for labor, and other hierarchical efforts. The land grant concept is a reform idea hijacked by power, even though the legislative and economic mandate of the system should have supported a far more democratic outcome. Under these conditions, the devel­opment of a strongly reformist AR within university walls is not welcome. And yet, a few reforms manage to be undertaken; we say just a bit about them.

Within the context of the land grant university system, there is a modest movement to reconceptualize and reinvigorate this work that builds specifi­cally onAR principles. One of the major practitioners of this approach is Scott Peters (Peters, 2001; Peters, Hittleman, & Pelletier, 2005; Peters, Jordan. Adamek, & Alter, 2005) whose commitment to land grant ideas and democracy has moved him into the study of the skillful practices of many of the unsung heroes of the extension system. From these collaborative studies, now heavily based on narratives generated in long dialogues, Peters is laying out a vision of

the complexity and reform potential within these AR practices that are largely obscured by the domination of the more authoritarian and conventional mod­els of extension as experts “doing for” rather than “doing with” stakeholders. And there are others doing this kind of work (Crane, 2000).


A number of institutions develop their educational programs through various combinations of service learning, internships, and coops in which work experience and intellectual activity are integrated in the manner that Dewey (1900) envisioned. Famous for this are institutions such as Antioch College and Berea College.

Over time, this effort to engage students and faculty in internships and other forms of direct service to agencies both within and beyond the colleges and universities spawned the service learning movement (Giles, Stanton, & Cruz, 1999). In the past 20 years, this movement has grown to the point that now very few institutions of higher education lack a system at least of place­ments in some form of service learning. The Campus Compact in the United States (available at organizes and promotes the efforts of more than 950 institutions and places in excess of 5 million students.

That said, and believing fully in the value of these kinds of experiences for students, we should point out that service learning can involve AR, but not necessarily. In the practices of people like Kenneth Reardon ( 1997), it definitely does and serves as a multi-stakeholder training ground for action researchers. But it can also be entirely external to the educational lives of students, a kind of separate “service” activity from which they might “learn” something, but they will learn it largely on their own.

Taking the service relationship into the core of higher education life and using service learning as a way of redesigning the relationships between higher education and the society beyond is much rarer. ^fuen service learning is domesticated, it becomes a way of doing “good” without changing much of anything about the operation of educational institutions. ^fuen it is taken into the institutional mission in a deeper way, it can become transformative.

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

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