Some Possibilities for Current Undergraduate Action Research Teaching

With the exception of offering some specialized programs for small groups of undergraduates, which we describe later, we think the main focus of AR under­graduate teaching should be to provide an initial understanding of what AR is, its goals, its history in the larger context of social knowledge production, and an initial understanding of the kinds of skills required to do it. Our own long teaching experience shows us that, even within the limitations of the pseudo­constraints we have mentioned earlier, AR teaching can be carried out success­fully. We can give students some experience in running their own cogenerative learning environments, help them learn about projects and the role of the AR professionals in them, teach them about the ethical and political aims of AR, and give them a chance to reflect on ways their own interests and capacities might fit into AR. Such teaching can even be done in large introductory courses, though it is rare.


At the intermediate level, smaller classes focused on AR are easier to develop.

 Levin’s Public Planning and Administration Course

At NTNU, Levin created an experimental arena for AR teaching public planning and administration. At an engineering school such a topic attracted only a few students, but this had the advantage of permitting the creation of an interactive environment. To bring real-life problems into the classroom, Levin divided the class into teams of three to five students and had each team decide on a public planning issue in the region worth dealing with. It was easy for the students to find interesting and motivating problem areas. The student teams then had to develop their own problem focus and engage in a process of fieldwork.

Levin’s role was to become a critical listener-questioner in support of the effort of creating a research question for the project, and often but not always was the source of practical entry points into the field. The students had to operate by themselves in the field and did a lot of interviewing and data gath­ering, though with very minimal training in data acquisition and analysis. Most of them needed new technical skills, and they learned them by concretely dealing with the real-life problems in the field situation.

The learning process was designed around the development of the students’ projects, balanced against what Levin considered to be necessary sub­stantive texts to be read and used as tools. In one of the most successful years of this course’s operation, all four class projects made it to the front page of the regional newspaper.

The strong motivational mechanisms created by working on real-life problems were very clear. Students devoted so much time and energy in these assignments that they complained of not having enough time for their other courses, but they also refused to reduce their engagement in the projects. Talking to and learning from people for whom a problem situation was real created this high commitment and energy.

Greenwood’s Introductory Course in Action Research

Greenwood has been teaching an introductory AR course for both under­graduate and graduate students together for 14 years. He begins it by provid­ing a day-by-day syllabus with required and recommended readings. However, the students are then required to submit a biographical statement to the class listserv and to compose a list of their “wants” and their “offers” for the course. They are asked to state what they want to accomplish and what they are able and prepared to contribute to the course. These wants and offers are collectively worked into a list of priorities for the course by means of an extended group process exercise, and the results are composed into a syllabus. Students then volunteer to take on the orchestration of particular topics according to their interests and the expertise and experience they have to offer, and, together with Greenwood, they prepare and deliver the course materials and design the group processes as part of the course’s pedagogy.

Though this experience is unsettling to the students at the outset, the process takes off very quickly and students who have been expert passive learn­ers for years are able to take on the management of their own learning remark­ably quickly. Over the semester, they learn more about the complexities of their choices and designs and also a good deal about themselves. They are also tasked with developing a participatory evaluation process throughout the course and developing and administering a grading system for themselves and an evalua­tion of the professor as well. 1

As in Levin’s course, it is amazing how quickly students are able to move into this way of learning and how seriously they take it. They inevitably work harder and more willingly than in conventionally organized classes. They are aware of this, attributing this response to the fact that what they learn and do is their own choice and responsibility to themselves and others.

Levin’s Course on Organizational Development

Levin created a new course on organizational development (OD) from an AR perspective using his experiences from the previously described course in planning. Rather than taking the conventional OD expert professional posi­tion, the OD process was constructed around the cogenerative model. Levin also emphasized planning for and reflecting on change processes by using a timeline-based perspective, since change does not happen in the wink of an eye, but is a process that gradually evolves.

This way of teaching AR was well received by the students and was stimu­lating for Levin as well. Student enrollments were quite high (30-50) and student evaluations were quite favorable. “You take this course in order to learn”; “You have to work as much in this course as in all the other together courses this semester”; “You will need what you learn in this course when you start your professional life.”

Given these initial reactions, Levin looked for better ways to bring realism into the classroom and developed an assignment structure to support it. The students had to develop an assessment of the organization they studied, including the strengths and weaknesses. This analysis was then fed into the first development plan on which the students got simulated feedback that forced them to change or redevelop their initial plans. This modest change in struc­ture created a dramatic change in the course because it simulated a dynamic change situation, making it clear to the students that a plan for an OD process is only a plan and not a final blueprint for how things will evolve. They had to learn to change strategies and goals as the process developed.

Building on this experience, Levin looked for a way to present a case with­out an a priori focus of attention in order to have the students also learn how to set problems and not just to solve them. Computerized streaming of video opened up new possibilities. Levin taped a number of conversations with people in an organization and then made them accessible on a computer so that the students could listen, take notes, and discuss what they saw and heard.

In addition, members from the “case” organization were invited to give a guest lecture in the class, which gave them a chance to present their experiences and perspectives on their own organization. This was done in a 2- or 3-hour session. Then, some weeks into the semester, Levin either arranged for a video conference or, if the company was local, invited the local people back to clarify and discuss issues that the students came across as they worked on the project.

The students’ assignment was simply stated as “Develop an OD plan that improves this organization’s operation.” This simple and purposely imprecise problem statement frustrated many students. On the other hand, the experi­ential situation reflected how messy and unclear are real-life situations. Since an important element in professional action is to make sense of a holistic and complex real-life situation and to be able to formulate a grounded under­standing of what key issues need to be dealt with, this was realistic teaching. A demanding and time-consuming part of this assignment was to analyze the interviews. This was problematic and challenging, as the students had only rudimentary knowledge of data analysis. It was necessary to offer a crash course module on data analysis.

The focus of intervention was negotiated with local stakeholders, and students had to seriously think through and argue for the kinds of learning arenas they suggested to make organizational change take place. At the end of the course, members of the organization were invited to participate in the students’ final presentation, and direct and grounded feedback was given by the problem owners. The students’ work was always well received by the local stakeholders, even when the work took a critical stance toward the local organization.

The most evident disconnection from an AR process was the lack of direct exposure to the field. It was impossible to send 30-50 students out to a single location because they would overwhelm it. And the students could not take responsibility for running an AR-based change process themselves.

Many other AR teachers have developed similar cogenerative learning are­nas, and there is little that is special about what we have just described. Rather, we want to emphasize that, despite the institutional hegemony of the banking model, it is remarkably easy to engage students as colearners. Of course, it is up to the professor to make the first moves and to know how to support such a learning process.

Experience-Based Courses for Undergraduates

For advanced undergraduate students with an expressed interest in AR, special programs built around smaller classes that take on AR in more detail are pos­sible. For three years, Greenwood, together with a group of volunteer col­leagues (Nimat Hafez Barazangi, Ken Reardon, Paula Horrigan, and Leonardo Vargas Mendez) and the CorneU Public Service Center, ran the Bartels Undergraduate Action Research Fellows Program. With a grant from a Cornell donor, we set up a competition for undergraduate fellowships in AR. The applicants had to have a local project underway, have a letter of support from a local stakeholder, and be willing to take an AR seminar with the other fellows all year. In return, those with financial aid needs received scholarships, and all got some funding to support their projects.

The premise was that a much better link between service and learning could be created if the individual project work of the students was discussed and presented in a seminar and that training in AR was given in the seminar and matched to the needs of the projects. The program was quite successful, evaluated rigorously (Hafez Barazangi, Greenwood, Burns, & Finne, 2004), and popular with the students and the local problem owners. But Cornell was unwilling to reallocate its existing financial aid packages to support such a pro­gram or officially to second the faculty to the program by relieving them of some teaching duties in their home departments. This did not require new money, just the administrative will to allocate existing resources around this activity. As a result, when the donor’s gift was consumed, the program disap­peared. Such a case demonstrates that merely having an AR pedagogy that works does not assure its survival in the academy.

Kenneth Reardon, who is a major national figure in both AR and service learning, runs the Cornell Urban Scholars Program. With support from a foundation, he annually gives more than 20 Cornell undergraduates from six colleges, together with a smaller group of graduate students, the chance to work in the summer with community-based organizations in New York City.

To prepare, they have an on-campus AR and planning seminar during the regular academic year. In addition to giving students this experience, the pro­gram is aimed at encouraging more students to elect careers in public service by giving them both the tools and experience needed to understand such a future (more information is available at http://^^

There are lots of other examples of what is called “service learning” at U.S. universities. The quality of these experiences varies a great deal. In some cases, the students simply are employed as volunteers in local agencies and the expe­rience is called service learning. In others, faculty members have ongoing pro­jects locally that students join, and, in a few cases, courses are taught that have a service learning component. Not all service learning is “learning,” and most of it is not oriented around an AR research strategy but takes the form of con­ventional, expert-driven consulting.

The space to develop an AR focus in such activities exists, as Greenwood’s and Reardon’s undergraduate programs demonstrate, but garnering regular institutional support and recognition for such activities is an uphiU battle. These experiences show that it is possible to create undergraduate teaching that can prepare students for doing 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 *