Sensing The Spirit Of Social Science Research: Doing Autoethnography To Explore Learning Spaces Within Mandatory Internships
This paper discusses the methodology of autoethnography as an instrument of scientific guided, transformative reflection of workplace learning. Based on empirical data gained from a project on vocational internships we investigate how and by what means and methods scientific curiosity, critical reflection of workplace experiences and development of learners` professional competences can be fostered. Vocational internships are an important resource for reinforcing the knowledge acquired in school and for the further development of the professional personality of the learner. Learning as acquisition (LAC) in traditional classroom settings and learning as participation (LAP) within internships or apprenticeships are both included in most VET programs (Sfrad 1998).
The focus of our research is to explore the constitution of ‘learning spaces’ (Billett 2004; Evans & Kersh 2012) within vocational internships. ‘Learning space’ is understood as a multidimensional, metaphysical concept which goes far beyond the narrow comprehension of space as a merely physical location and includes all kinds of moments, occasions, possibilities, practices and actants (Fenwick & Edwards 2010) – i.e. everything that enables learning ‘at, for and through work’ (Evans & Kersh 2012: 26). Hence the internship, as a particular form of workplace learning, opens up a broad range of various learning and work spaces, e.g. inter-personal, intra-personal, virtual, physical or spiritual (Cairns & Malloch 2011: 8) and fragile networks or assemblages, where the boundaries between each of them are considerably blurred.
Within this framework we use the issue of ‘boundary crossing’ (Engeström, Engeström & Kärkkäinen 1995). One important aim of most vocational internships is to establish connections between academic and practical knowledge. The question of the transfer of knowledge between the school and the workplace arises (Eraut 2004). Therefore one research objective is to analyse the phenomena of movements between the learning venues ‘secondary vocational school’ and ‘the internship company’. We assume that the development of vocational competence for action requires an integration of theoretical and practical knowledge through a participation in a community of practice.
The methodology of autoethnography is used in our investigation as a ‘mediating tool’ (Tynjälä 2009: 19) to support learners to develop informal expert`s knowledge, to integrate different forms of knowledge and to reflect on diverse learning spaces. Autoethnography highlights the lived experiences and relational practices between individuals, others and social within the specific internship. Practicing critical thinking and reflection (Gray 2007) enables learners to analyse their theoretical and practical knowledge as well as to recontextualize their existing knowledge and skills in new contexts. Thus autoethnography can be seen as an opportunity for learners to create new, polycontextual knowledge and connective skills within the scope of their internship and to extend their vocational action competence.
 The PEARL Project investigates the mandatory vocational internships of pupils in secondary vocational schools in Austria. It is funded by Sparkling Science, a research program of the Austrian Federal Ministry of Science, Research and Economy. Sparkling Science adopts an unconventional way in the promotion of young scholars. Researchers at the university work side by side and on an equal footing with pupils of all ages on current research questions. For further information see: http://www.sparklingscience.at/en
In comparison to many retrospective, quantitative orientated studies the PEARL project offers ‘internal perspectives’ of internships by means of autoethnographic research. It gives insight to questions of ‘What is being learnt here? How? With whom and where? What objects and actants are involved and what stories are told?’ (Salisbury 2012: 149).
Through a close collaboration between the business education research team of the University of Innsbruck and four classes of two secondary vocational schools an autoethnographical attitude and an approximation to social science principles are embedded in the project. From the very start of PEARL, the pupils involved participate actively in working out the details of the research question and the concrete research design for their autoethnographical investigation of learning spaces within their internships. They turned into field researchers of their own learning processes and experiences. The pupils themselves investigated - with the support of the university - their internships as ‘individualized cases’. By using a form of ‘autoethnographic narratives’ (Davis & Ellis 2010: 285) – individual logbook accounts written as stories complemented with photos, interviews, objects, field notes and videos – the pupils reflected their own learning experiences, collected diversified data and generated descriptions of their learning spaces.
So far we have carried out (together with the pupils) 59 case studies, which have been communicative validated by material-stimulated single interviews (conducted by the research team). The analysis and interpretation of the manifold data is performed according to the ‘grounded theory’ (Strauss & Corbin 1990) method with the help of the computer assisted qualitative data analysis software atlas.ti.
According to the framework of learning spaces we want to mention three results which emerged from our first data analysis.
1. The scientific discourse on workplace learning and the social learning assumptions of participating in different contexts and professional communities to develop new knowledge, practices and identities for both the individual learner and the respective organisation (Tynjälä 2009: 26f.) is confirmed by our investigation.
2. The analysis suggests the importance of an integrative pedagogical approach to support effectively the diverse learning experiences and to make the multiple learning spaces visible for sustainable professional development. Participation in different practical contexts is not per se a deep learning experience. It needs mediating tools, dialogic inquiry and a well-trained practice of thinking and reflecting. Teachers and supervisors of the internship should tutor, mentor and coach the students before, during and after the internship. Therefore a close collaboration and partnership between vocational schools and workplaces is essential (Tynjälä 2009: 12).
3. Moreover the data analysis shows that scientific literacy leads to an increased ability to learn and reflect, especially in ‘cross-border-learning’ situations (Ostendorf & Ammann 2009). Through ‘becoming junior scholars’ the learners are able to reflect more efficiently on the multiple learning experiences in internships and to enhance their professional competences. Through this process they learn scientific procedures, open thinking and creative solutions.
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