Our work as educators is not just about understanding. It’s about making things better.
Hilary Bradbury, Ph.D. is a scholar-practitioner focused on the human and organizational dimensions of creating healthy communities.
Our beautiful Earth is becoming inhospitable to us. How should educators, researchers, and knowledge creators respond to this existential threat? By accepting an unpalatable truth: our mainstream approach to learning, education, and research is actively co-producing the very opposite of what we need at this time of unsustainability.
Some of the world’s leading scientists share the belief — along with the evidence — that humanity is destined to die out as temperatures increase, rainfall patterns change, sea levels rise and oceans become more acidic. The most recent IPCC Special Report on Global Warming gives us 12 years before catastrophic environmental breakdown becomes our shared reality. Avoiding such catastrophes now requires questioning the very nature of the way we produce and use knowledge.
We call upon knowledge creators to direct more attention and effort to co-producing a better world for all. Imagine if even 10% of the research funds, and educators efforts, currently given to objectively describing our problems were redirected to relational, collaborative learning processes with experiments to provoke future learning? We believe that a refreshed understanding of action research in support of transformation (ART) is a particularly good way forward.
Action Research belongs in a category of knowledge that has evolved from William James’ Pragmatic philosophy. Pragmatic knowledge is assessed by its practical consequences and not only by its explanatory power. Action research builds in potential for transformative action because of the unusual emphasis on the relational and emotional nature of the learners and a willingness to practice more mutually transformative power.
ART that transforms healthcare
Svante Lifvergren MD met the ART approach around 2000 and began to listen differently to his patients. One day Lars, a patient suffering chronic lung disease, remarked in exasperation:
“although we have a hospital, and a local doctor and nurse, it is so very difficult! We still have to call the ambulance. Then we spend hour after hour in the emergency ward. Why don’t you help us more quickly? Before things get worse?
Svante saw that meaningful transformation of this system, enough to be felt by Lars, and all patients, would require a new knowledge creation and healthcare delivery approach redesigned with the patients as the central ‘attractor.’ This would be daunting. The redesign process rippled out through formal “learning platforms” that convened increading numbers of stakeholders. By sharing experience, seeking to understand one another and then coordinating experiments, a series of projects cumulatively allowed for continuous improvement. Multiple and transdisciplinary data collection informed a key shift in which mobile healthcare teams visit patients in their homes. Key indicators of success today include an 80% reduction in emergency visits; a 90% reduction in office visits as well as a reduction in hospital days by around 90%. These reductions help pay for the ongoing innovations that are now felt by 100,000 people (Lifvergren and Zandee, 2017).
What might such a learning process look in a small classroom, when tackling Climate Change?
ART with school children
In a sense, children have the most to lose from an unsustainable planet. Yet, because of the passive role that society usually assigns to them, children often have the least control over their environmental future. Carlie Trott (2019) addressed this lack of environmental empowerment among the young through ART research with her PAR collaboration with 10–12 year-old children. She used an innovative arts-based, participatory method — photovoice — in an after-school program to help the children make personal and local connections with environmental issues. This helped the children in planning and implementing informed individual and collaborative projects such as a tree-planting campaign and a community garden club. Carlie’s research shows the critical importance of participatory process and collaborative action in strengthening children’s sense of agency. Her findings support the emerging view of children “not as ‘human becomings’ (i.e., future citizens), but as ‘human beings’ (i.e., citizens of today) who can be critical actors in their communities.
What might ART look like when connected up to many like spirited experiments around the world tackling Climate Change? How might large scale experiments (such as Swedish healthcare ) and small scale (similar to gardening with children) multiply and sync up?
The weakness of the current expert paradigm and the strength of ART
Conventional science excels in producing fact based insights into the world. But it is not designed to lead to collaborative action of the kinds now urgently needed.
Most formal modes of knowledge production, such as natural and social science disciplines, privilege individual observation and sense-making related to the “measurable” external world in the belief that it is possible to be independent from what is observed. In most formal modes of knowledge production, such as conventional academia, there is little attention to the social and emotional context that inevitably determine a person’s interpretation of knowledge and consequently how they use it to take action on and how. Moreover there is little room to voice — nor have valued — one’s own experience outside a narrow range of “objective” facts that describe the world. An exaggerated concern with avoiding solipsism has made it a taboo to engage also in a delicate empiricism anchored in personal experience that can enrich our understanding of the universal. We must engage our whole selves as learners if we are to empower our ability to move to intelligent action together.
Practicing with a different mode of knowledge creation is now needed. An action oriented transformations approach, if practiced more broadly, may represent a leap as great as the enlightenment in encouraging individuals to know what is true for them; we might say it’s similar to the leap in learning our forebears took when they stood up, leaving all they had known on the African savannah, simply to survive.
We are, irrepressibly, embodied, emotional and relational creatures. Happily our (partly) rational brains are attached to the most advanced and complex bio feedback on this planet: our emotional brain, our body and our hearts. We might turn then to reimagining knowledge creation as if our lives depended on it. We must do this together, throughout the entire knowledge creation system and undertake experiments in transformation.
ART brings dynamism to the task of knowledge creation because we work with the back and forth movement between 1) individual change agents and community needs; 2) personal experience and sense-making; 3) experimental action and reflection, and 4) external world and the internal world of the learners emotions and intentions. This “both/and” dialectical learning scaffolds developmental growth among those involved. ART invites us beyond the autonomous expert mind of “yes or no” thinking (what current school systems are designed to produce) to redefining, and collaboratively producing (yes and) a world worthy of our aspirations.
We now call educators, both formal and informal, to action, with a a relational manifesto. We encourage more widespread uptake of Action-oriented Research for Transformations. Our natural learning inclinations desire it. The times demand it. Join us then in realizing:
1. Our purpose with knowledge creation is to support our collective thriving on this planet.
2. Our knowledge creation includes and transcends rationalist empiricism and acknowledges our whole selves as relational beings.
3. Our knowledge creation starts “here,” with stakeholders’ felt experiences and a willingness to tackle unilateral power in a development toward mutually transforming power.
4. Our ART proceeds by working participatively with stakeholders by including multiple ways of knowing-for-action.
5. Our knowledge creation integrates personal/reflexive, interpersonal/relational and impersonal knowledge, thereby growing those involved and empowering participants in social change to shape the social world of their aspirations.
In sum, action researchers are called to contribute to conversations-for-change about ways of knowing, doing and being that invite us to develop shared learning platforms, alongside people with a stake in transforming structural forces that inhibit thriving. In bringing into our work multiple ways of knowing and declaring truth, let us yoke our efforts to a commitment to inquiry that makes a positive difference. Let us determine anew the boundary lines about whose knowledge matters, whose methodology counts, and how these questions are at the root of our survival and potential thriving as a learning species. Let us have courage enough to engage with the power dynamics that hold us on an unsustainable path with knowledge defined by the needs of a previous era. Let us as educators practice mutually transforming power — inviting citizens as learners, as prosumers of knowledge, in service of a more beautiful world, for all.
The interested reader is invited to learn more about Action Research at the Action Research Plus Foundation’s website: ActionResearchPlus.com
More details on the work of Dr. Svante Lifvergren are available in Lifvergren, S. and D. Zandee. 2017. Healthcare Transformation: Action Research Linking Local Practices to National Scale. In Cooking with Action Research: Stories and Resources for Self and Community Transformation. Hilary Bradbury and AR+ Associates. ActionResearchPlus Foundation: https://actionresearchplus.com/action-research-book/
More details on the work of Carlie Trott and other Climate Change Transformations research is available in the upcoming special issue of the journal of Action Research. An international peer reviewed Sage Publication: https://journals.sagepub.com/home/arj
The final in a series of free ART webinars offered through February is on 27 Febuary. Registration is required: https://actionresearchplus.com/free-artransformations-winter-webinars-wednesdays-registration-required/
Note: Hilary thanks her colleagues Steve Waddell, Karen O’ Brien, Marina Apgar, Ben Teehankee & Ioan Fazey for their partnership in articulating how our practice of action research meets the demands of our time.
Hilary Bradbury, Ph.D. is a scholar-practitioner focused on the human and organizational dimensions of creating healthy communities. Previously a full professor, today she devotes her time to raising consciousness about action research as convener and CEO of the Action Research Plus Foundation and editor-in-chief of the international peer reviewed Action Research Journal (Sage Publications). She was named 2018 Jubilee Professor at Chalmers Institute of Technology, Sweden.
Reach Hilary at firstname.lastname@example.org.