Academic journal article Educational Research for Social Change

Reflecting on Reflecting: Fostering Student Capacity for Critical Reflection in an Action Research Project

Academic journal article Educational Research for Social Change

Reflecting on Reflecting: Fostering Student Capacity for Critical Reflection in an Action Research Project

Article excerpt

Copyright: © 2015 Wood

This is an open-access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License, which permits unrestricted non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.


The obligation for universities to take on community engagement as a core activity (Council for Higher Education, 2010) presents an opportunity to conduct applied research that is responsive to societal needs (Favish, 2010). I proceed from the viewpoint that this requires the adoption of democratic and participatory paradigms that promote engagement with people, involving them as coresearchers, rather than taking knowledge from them to create theories about how they should deal with their problems. Participatory action learning and action research (PALAR; Wood & Zuber-Skerritt, 2013) is one such methodology that allows academic researchers to partner with people to help them learn how to improve their own situation, drawing on their lived experience and intimate knowledge of the challenges they face. HIV and AIDS, teenage pregnancy, gender-based violence, substance abuse, and poverty, to mention a few, are all thorny social issues that require education researchers to engage with school communities to learn how to take action to reduce social barriers to learning and development (Wood, 2014). Such research can be regarded as a process of social change in itself (Schratz & Walker, 1995) because participants learn skills and acquire knowledge that will enable them to sustain and build on the research outcomes. However, the academy tends to cling to more traditional and objective research approaches, based on technorational paradigms (Odora Hoppers & Richards, 2011), which are unsuited to dealing with the complex problems facing social scientists today. For this reason, the capacity of academic researchers to engage in this form of research still needs to be strengthened (Favish, 2010; Wood, 2014).

This article focuses on the experiences of a group of doctoral students and their supervisor as participants in a research project that aims to generate knowledge about the usefulness of PALAR as a means of community engagement. One of the main purposes of the project is to explore how the capacity of academic researchers can be developed to enable them to engage in democratic, collaborative research partnerships with community participants. Although there are many different definitions of and approaches to action research, they all stress the centrality of critical reflection to the process of learning and development (Bradbury & Reason, 2008; Kemmis, 2010; McNiff, 2013) for both the academic researcher and the community participants. PALAR is no exception; in fact, the explicit inclusion of the term action learning in the term, as opposed to the more usual term of participatory action research (PAR), is a clue to the importance that this approach affords to learning that leads to ontological and epistemological transformation as a precursor for sustainable change. As Kearney, Wood, and Zuber-Skerritt (2013, p. 115) explained:

The concept of PALAR integrates action learning and PAR in a holistic way. People involved in PALAR projects are interested in participating (P) and working together on a complex issue (or issues) affecting their lives, learning from their experience and from one another (AL) and engaging in a systematic inquiry (AR) into how to address and resolve this issue/issues.

A central component of the PALAR process is the action learning set, where the participants regularly come together to collectively reflect on their experiences and their learning (Wood & Zuber-Skerritt, 2013). In this particular project, the action learning set is made up of the postgraduate students on the project and their respective supervisors, who are all pursuing the goal of completing postgraduate studies using PALAR methodology. …

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