What do we learn when adult learners become
researchers of issues that intensely affect their own
lives? The Changes Project, a two-and-a-half-year intensive effort, engaged learners from five
programs in Western Massachusetts as researchers using a participatory action research approach. A
core group of 21 learners, with assistance from research facilitators and other support staff,
developed the data gathering tools, conducted the interviews and focus groups, worked with other
researchers to develop surveys, and analyzed the data. Their research focused on three issues: the
impacts of welfare reform, immigration reform, and the changing workplace on adult learners.
Over the course of the investigation, more than 400 students participated in the project and
described the ways in which these three issues had an impact on their lives. In participatory action
research, investigators are affected by what is being investigated. This approach differs from
other methods where researchers are outside of the research subjects. This article will highlight
several findings and recommendations from the investigation. It will also reveal how learners
were affected by acting as reseachers.
Adult learners who are welfare recipients are having problems reaching their education
goals. We heard over and over again that they needed more time in school to achieve a level of
education sufficient to get a job that pays a living wage. Without more schooling, many of the
learners on welfare will struggle desperately to support themselves and their families once their
benefits end. One woman told her daughter that the welfare benefits would be ending soon. Her
young daughter responded: "But Ma, how you going to get a job if you don't know how to read
Complying with welfare regulations is a complex and confusing process that often interferes
or competes with family and educational needs. To comply with welfare regulations, learners
reported missing classes and dropping out of school. To make matters worse, learners reported
that important information is often unavailable, is not known to the caseworker, or is not made
available to recipients who need English language translation or who lack the ability to read and write.
Immigrants and other newcomers are confused about or unaware of the changing
immigration laws and regulations and how they affect them. As with welfare, accurate and
accessible information is difficult to get about changing visa status, applying for a green card or
becoming a US citizen. In addition, immigrants are confused about the benefits they are legally
eligible to receive and they are concerned about how receiving benefits will impact their
immigration status. Some students had incorrect information, others wrongly believed that they
were completely ineligible. They also told us about some of the barriers they faced in pursuing
education, many of which were related to their immigration status.
Technology was identified as one of the big changes facing workers. Newcomers told us
that they do not have adequate access to computer training that is appropriate to them as
nonnative English speakers. The barriers they cited include waiting lists for instruction,
instruction that was inappropriate for their English language level, and the high cost of computer
classes. Other workers indicated a need for computer training to either stay current with their
jobs or to be competitive in seeking new job opportunities.
Uncertainty about skills and education needed for work in the future was another theme in
the data. Some newcomers were frustrated that their degrees, professional experience, and
training from their home country are often not recognized in the US. This often means that these
newcomers are making less money and working at lower levels than they did in their home countries.
Networks of Support
Despite the negative effects of these three issues, the adult learners we talked with were
resourceful, strong and resilient individuals. These learners crafted intricate, responsive networks
of support that have enabled them to persevere in the face of the negative effects of welfare
reform, immigration reform, and the changing workplace. To portray only the effects of these
three issues without describing the networks of support would inaccurately portray the data we
collected. We found that the presence or absence of appropriate support in learners' lives has a
very strong effect on their ability to reach their education goals, especially in the face of the
challenges described above.
Examples of Support
These networks include individual, personal and institutional support. Many learners told us
that hopes, dreams, and faith are essential and support them to continue even when life is
difficult. We consistently heard about the powerful and important support individuals got from
family, friends, peers, and teachers. School (the adult learning program) was seen as a vital
institutional support. Learners saw school as a way to gain specific skills and information
necessary to manage life and to build self-esteem and self-confidence. For newcomers, school
provides the key support of English language classes. One learner told us: "You need support at
home, you need support in the classrooms, from the teacher and the students-that helps you to
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The Value of Participatory Research
Participatory research efforts like the Changes Project are powerful methods for deepening
understanding of particular issues and their contexts. In addition to yielding important data,
participatory research can also support participants in reaching their education and life goals by
strengthening their skills and supporting them to create change in their lives and communities.
Changes Project research team members were very clear about the ways in which being
involved changed them. They learned a great deal about the three issues, gaining an
understanding of the complexities their fellow learners face as welfare recipients, immigrants, and
workers. This knowledge, and working with one another, enhanced their awareness of
differences and their ability to work within diverse and often unfamiliar settings. One researcher
said the project "made me aware of cultural difference... on a different level... I had to go
really deep to realize... how people deal in different ways."
Research team members also talked about how the project increased their ability to
communicate, improved their literacy and English language skills, and helpedthem develop job-
related skills. Being involved in the project also affected the future plans of several team
members, influencing their goals and aspirations. The teachers who were involved noted how
participation in the Changes Project taught them to be better teachers. One said:"It's changed the
way I think about how knowledge gets made."
Based on the findings of the Changes Project, we offer the following recommendations to
teachers and programs who wish to better support learners facing these three issues. (The full
report of The Changes Project also makes recommendations for policy makers and learners.)
- Involve students in investigation and action around these and other issues they identify as
important. Such investigation will not only answer questions, but support students to develop the
confidence and skills necessary to manage these issues.
- Assist learners in accessing accurate information about the constantly changing regulations
that accompany welfare reform and immigration reform. Support immigrants and refugees in
learning English and in understanding how US systems (like health care, education, employment
and immigration) operate.
- Integrate information about these issues into the curriculum.
- Provide flexible programming so learners' complex schedules can be best accommodated.
This includes a diversity of class times, as well as flexible attendance policies that recognize
students' needs to respond to the requirements of the Department of Transitional Assistance, the
Immigration and Naturalization Service, and their employers.
- Look beyond academics when doing assessment and intake with learners: ask questions that
will help understand the complexities of learners' lives. Provide specialized counseling that
addresses the specific needs of welfare recipients, newcomers, and workers. Learning about the
ways students' are managing and the gaps in their networks provides opportunities for teachers
and programs to offer responsive programming.
Integrating Research into the Classroom
Adding an investigative component to adult basic education curriculum does not have to be
on the scale of the Changes Project. There are many resources that can aid teachers and learners
to develop projects and curriculum that feature classroom-based investigation. The work of the
Changes Project might offer a starting point for those interested in welfare reform, immigration
reform, and the changing nature of work.
A full report about the Changes Project will be published that details findings,
recommendations, and process. The report will be available online at
Resources on Participatory Research:
Hurst, J. (1995). Popular Education: A Powerful Tool.
McTaggart, R. (1991). "Principles for Participatory Action Research." Adult Education Quarterly, 41(3): 168-87. (ERIC Document No.
Park, P., et al. (1993). Voices of Change: Participatory Research in the United States and Canada. Toronto: OISE Press.
Pretty, J.N.; I. Guijt, J. Thompason and I. Scoones. (1995). A Trainer's Guide to Participatory Learning and Action. London: International
Institute for Environment and Development.
Web sites on participatory action research: www.goshen.edu/soan/soan96p.htm
Roshen, R. . Introduction to Participatory Approaches and Methodologies. Institute of
Development Studies in Sussex, UK. Web: www.ids.ac.uk/ids/particip/intro/introind.html
Alex Risley Schroeder is an Associate Coordinator at SABES West, Holyoke Community
College (MA), and coordinated the Changes Project. She can be reached at 413-552-2066, or by