Conceptions of Connectivity: How Swiss Teachers, Trainers and Apprentices Perceive Vocational Learning and Teaching Across Different Learning Sites

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  • ORIGINAL PAPER

    Conceptions of Connectivity: How Swiss Teachers,Trainers and Apprentices Perceive Vocational Learningand Teaching Across Different Learning Sites

    Viviana Sappa & Carmela Aprea

    Received: 25 July 2013 /Accepted: 6 May 2014# Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

    Abstract The integration of learning across different learning sites is an important andchallenging task for each vocational education and training system. Although variousintegrative teaching and learning models have been developed and many reforms havebeen undertaken, their implementation is complicated by several factors. In particular,individual ways of understanding the relationship between the learning sites could beconsidered filters that may potentially influence the communications and actions ofprotagonists in this learning context. This study aimed to explore different ways ofconceptualising learning and teaching across learning sites in the Swiss vocationaleducation and training system. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 26vocational school teachers, company trainers and apprentices in apprenticeshipprogrammes in industry and business and administration in the Canton of Tessin.Data were analysed by combining data-driven (phenomenography) and theory-driven(content analysis) text analysis procedures. By adopting a phenomenographic method,four ways of conceptualising vocational learning across multiple learning sites werefound: as separate learning experiences, as complementary learning experiences, asexperiences mediated by intercompany training centres and as experiences integrated atthe school level. Content analysis showed qualitative differences among the concep-tions in relation to what extent they included socio-cultural key claims of school-workplace connectivity. Conclusions regarding potential implications for teachers,trainers and apprentices are drawn, and suggestions for future research are made.

    Keywords Schoolworkplace connectivity.Vocational learning and teaching .Multiplelearning sites . Phenomenographicmethod

    Vocations and LearningDOI 10.1007/s12186-014-9115-y

    V. Sappa (*) : C. ApreaSwiss Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (SFIVET), Via Besso 84,6900 Lugano-Massagno, Switzerlande-mail: viviana.sappa@iuffp-svizzera.ch

  • Integrating Vocational Learning and Teaching Across Different Learning Sites:The Potential Role of Individual Conceptions

    The integration of learning and teaching across different learning sites, frequentlytermed connectivity by contemporary scholars (e.g., Stenstrm and Tynjl 2009;Tuomi-Grhn and Engestrm 2003; Griffiths and Guile 2004), constitutes an importantyet challenging task for each vocational education and training (VET) system atdifferent levels (micro, meso and macro). In particular, many VET researchers (e.g.,Akkerman and Bakker 2011; Shaap et al. 2012; Rauner and Smith 2010) consider thesechallenges specifically pertinent at the level of concrete learning and teaching.Although various integrative teaching and learning models have been developed(e.g., action-oriented, problem-based and situated) and several reforms have beenundertaken (e.g., the development and implementation of competence-based curricula),the alignment of what is actually happening at this level in different learning contexts isnot always straightforward and still poses unresolved problems. Looking at the evi-dence from existing research (e.g., Hardy and Parent 2003; Akkerman and Bakker2012; Fuller and Unwin 2011), it seems that even in formalised apprenticeshipprogrammes, there is often little reciprocal acknowledgmentlet alone coordina-tionof learning goals, contents, methods and assessments. Consequently, apprenticesstill perceive challenges and sometimes even unresolved contradictions between whatthey learn at school and what they experience in the workplace, and they often get nohelp in integrating the two learning experiences (Shaap et al. 2012; Stenstrm andTynjl 2009; Akkerman and Bakker 2012). However, as empirically shown byVirtanen et al. (2012), the opportunity to perceive integration between learning atschool and in the workplace is an important support for students learning.

    As shown by an extensive literature on apprenticeship (see, for example, Rauner andSmith 2009, 2010; Akkerman and Bakker 2012; Fuller and Unwin 2011; Stenstrmand Tynjl 2009), many factors do contribute to promote or to obstruct effectiveconnection between learning at school and in the workplace. Among others, thefollowing aspects were identified as supporting an effective apprenticeship: the degreeof coordination and collaboration between the various bodies involved in the VETsystem at the macro institutional level (Hardy and Parent 2003), the quality of VETcurricula in relation to the new demands of the labour market (Deissinger 2004;Griffiths and Guile 2004; Rauner and Smith 2009), the development of integrativepedagogical approaches (Shaap et al. 2012; Tynjl 2008) and the ability of teachersand trainers to guide and support apprentices effectively (Harris et al. 1998; Filliettaz2010; Akkerman and Bakker 2012; Baartman and Bruijn 2011).

    However, it is reasonable to suppose that the effective implementation of thesefactors might be influenced by how involved individuals conceive the functioning oflearning and teaching across school and workplace.

    Two strands of studies inspired us in developing this idea. First, scholars who arguefrom a socio-cultural perspective in particular (e.g., Stenstrm and Tynjl 2009;Tuomi-Grhn and Engestrm 2003; Akkerman and Bakker 2012; Griffiths and Guile2004; Tynjl 2008) stress that any successful integration of learning across thedifferent learning sites requires the key actors (teachers, students and workplacesupervisors) to explicate, negotiate and possibly reconcile their conceptions of theirroles and responsibilities as well as their reciprocal expectations. From this perspective,

    V. Sappa, C. Aprea

  • various authors from different areas of studies (including work-based learning, voca-tional higher education and secondary VET) have emphasised the need to base thosenegotiations and collaborations on adequate integrative and connective-oriented modelsof vocational teaching and learning (Tynjl 2008; Griffiths and Guile 2004). Thisassumption is nurtured by contemporary theoretical and empirical investigations fromdifferent research fields, such as cognitive psychology (e.g., Gardner 2006),organisational learning (e.g., Senge 1999) and pedagogical innovation management(e.g., Euler and Seufert 2005), all of which stress that one of the most important factorsthat can foster or hinder successful implementation or change is how involved partiesconceive of the issue at hand because these conceptions influence not only how peopleprocess and interpret information but also how they subsequently communicate and act.

    A second line of argumentation stems from educational researchers who adopt aphenomenographical perspective. Here, the investigation of individual conceptions hasalso become very prominent, especially since the pioneering studies conducted at theUniversity of Gothenburg (e.g., Slj 1979; Marton 1988) revealed their powerfuleffect on students approaches to learning and consequently on their learning outcomes.More recently, this line of research has been extended to studies of how teachersapproaches to conceptualising teaching and learning influence their teaching and howthis affects students learning (e.g., Paakkari et al. 2011). In particular, scholars whoadopt a phenomenographical view have identified different general conceptions oflearning, hierarchically ordered on the basis of the increasing awareness they implyin terms of the multifaceted, interactive and complex nature of the learning phenom-enon (e.g., Slj 1979; Marton 1988; Paakkari et al. 2011). From this perspective, it hasbeen shown that conceptions that are higher in a hierarchy make teachers more likely toadopt effective teaching approaches, with consequent influence on students learningapproaches and outcomes (Kember and Kwan 2000; Trigwell and Prosser 1996).Similarly, students with conceptions that are higher in a hierarchy are more likely toadopt effective learning approaches and increase their learning (Cano and Cardelle-Elawar 2004; Eklund-Myrskog 1997).

    Although these approaches legitimise the consideration of conceptions of connec-tivity as a possible precondition for effectively implementing integrated programmes ofvocational training, studies that address the role of individual conceptions in VET arescarce. Two exceptions are Eklund-Myrskog (1997) study in Finland and Wesselinket al.s (2010) study in Holland. Nevertheless, these studies focused on aspects ofvocational learning that differ from our specific point of interest. Eklund-Myrkogexplored conceptions of learning within a group of vocational students. The object ofthe study was a general definition of learning, without specifically considering how itdevelops across learning sites. Wesselink et al. examined the concept of schoolworkplace connectivity from students, teachers and company trainers points of view,focusing on specific aspects of competence-based education (authenticity, self-responsibility and the role of expert and coach).

    The study we present in this paper adopts a more comprehensive focus on vocationallearning and teaching across learning sites. The main point of the investigation is howteachers, trainers and apprentices conceive vocational learning and teaching acrossschool and work sites. Finally, a socio-cultural approach to the integration of school-and work-based learning offered us the basis for developing the conceptual frameworkof the study.

    Conceptions of Connectivity

  • Conceptual Framework: A Socio-Cultural View of Vocational Learningand Teaching Across Learning Sites

    In recent decades, the integration of vocational learning and teaching across differentlearning sites has been the subject of a rich body of theoretical and empirical scientificliterature, especially from scholars who adopt a socio-cultural perspective to investigateschoolworkplace connectivity in secondary or tertiary VET programmes (Griffithsand Guile 2004; Stenstrm and Tynjl 2009; Tuomi-Grhn and Engestrm 2003;Akkerman and Bakker 2012; Tynjl 2013). From this perspective, various conceptualmodels have been proposed. Some of these models deal with the development ofpedagogical approaches that seek to integrate school- and work-based learning effec-tively (e.g., Tynjl et al. 2006). Others focus on institutional aspects of promotingpartnership and collaboration between actors in different learning contexts (e.g., Guileand Griffiths 2001). In addition, various constructs (such as competence, transferand integration) as well as different dimensions of the learning process at school andin the workplace have been progressively elaborated as fundamental arguments of thosemodels. Integrating these various aspects of the socio-cultural perspective, we havechosen the following three claims as key conceptual assumptions of our study:

    1. Nature of vocational learning and teaching: Vocational learning and teachingshould be conceptualised in a competence-oriented way, overcoming the traditionaldualistic view of theoretical and practical learning as well as the subject-orientedconceptions of school learning. According to this perspective, competence isviewed as the potential to generate effective actions to cope with the demands ofspecific situations. This potential is based on the availability, activation andinterplay of learnable individual dispositions such as different kinds of knowledge,skills, motivational orientations, attitudes and values (Eraut 2004; Baartman and deBruijn 2011; Wesselink et al. 2010; Tynjl 2008).

    2. Nature of the transfer process: The transfer of what is learnt at school to theworkplace is not automatic, mechanical or unproblematic. On the contrary, itimplies complex processes of recontextualisation (Van Oers 1998) and of con-tinuous transformation (Beach 2003), in which knowledge is generated acrosssocial activities rather than simply transferred from one situation to another(Griffiths and Guile 2004; Middleton and Baartman 2013). According to thisperspective, learners need to be supported to transform their knowledge and skillsto make them applicable to the different context-related situations (Griffiths andGuile 2004). In addition, they should be helped to develop their ability to under-stand both differences and similarities among situations and tasks (Middleton andBaartman 2013; Marton 2006) to re-contextualise similar activities successfullyinto different contexts (Griffiths and Guile 2004).

    3. Nature and direction of the association between learning at school and in theworkplace: An integrated and bidirectional process of connection between learningexperiences at school and in the workplace should be promoted. In this view,vocational learning and teaching are conceived as iterative processes that occur atthe boundaries of different socio-cultural contexts of learning and practices, that is,schools and workplaces (Tuomi-Grhn and Engestrm 2003; Griffiths and Guile2004; Tynjl 2008; Akkerman and Bakker 2011). Assuming that this perspective

    V. Sappa, C. Aprea

  • is correct, students experiences in the workplace should be considered an integra-tive part of the vocational learning process.

    An additional aim of our study is to investigate the extent to which teachers,trainers and apprentices ways of conceptualising vocational learning across learningsites include these key assumptions.

    Research Context and Method

    Context

    The study presented in this article is part of a larger project whose aim is to enrichunderstanding of vocational learning across different learning sites to develop strategiesand tools for improving it. One goal of the project is to analyse whether and howindividual ways of conceiving the relationships between learning sites can foster orhinder the effective implementation of an integrated learning and teaching approachand, consequently, influence students development of vocational competence. Thisstudy lays the foundation for the broader research effort by identifying a set ofconceptions to be further validated and more systematically analysed through the useof questionnaires.

    In this framework, the present contribution aims to investigate individual concep-tions of vocational teaching and learning in multiple learning sites among teachers,trainers and apprentices involved in the dual-track initial VET programme inSwitzerland.

    Compared to other European countries, Switzerland appears to becharacterised by the higher percentage of young people enrolled as apprenticesin initial vocational training. After completing compulsory education at thelower secondary level, about one-third of Swiss students move on to the VETsystem, and 80 % of them attend apprenticeship programs. Apprentices spendone or two days per week at school; during the...

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