Author(s):Marit Lensjø (presenting)

Conference:ECER 2016, Leading Education: The Distinct Contributions of Educational Research and Researchers

Network:02. Vocational Education and Training (VETNET)


Session Information

02 SES 02 B, VET Teachers Initial Education and Training

Paper Session


Room:Vet-Theatre 115

Chair:Leif Christian Lahn


Learning Through Participation Between Plumbers, Apprentices and Vocational Teachers in Communities of Practice

There is little information about learning between plumbers, apprentices and vocational teachers on the building site, in training establishments and apprenticeship firms. Roughly, 50% of Norwegian adolescents choose vocational education at the age of 16. Despite this fact, most pedagogical research focuses on primary school and general studies. There is especially little understanding of the learning in communities of practice in the field of building and construction such as plumbing.

In Norway, every young person between the ages of 16-19 has a right to go to upper secondary school. Nine vocational programs qualify for different fields of vocation. Mainstream vocational education is based on two years in school and two years of apprenticeship in a firm.

All over Europe, the numbers of young drop out students in VET are too high. In Norway as well as in other European countries, recent research point to a considerable lack of coherence between educational content and the need for qualifications in actual vocations. The situation relates to a lack of coherence between learning in vocational school and learning in the workplace and between practical and theoretical aspects of the curriculum (Hiim 1989, 1993, 2010).

This situation raises many challenges and a possible reason for high dropout numbers in Norway is that broad education-programs conceals and delays the student’s own vocational plans (Høst, Seland & Skålholt 2013). A mismatch between the school’s focus on basic skills and vocational orientation, and VET-student’s need for vocational learning leads to an absence of vocational role models and lack of vocational cultural environment where students are able to create social belonging, social skills and crafts identity (Alvin Lensjø 2011).

While 39% of the VET-students complete their education, 80 % of the apprentices in training establishments and apprentices firms complete their apprenticeship and pass their craft certificate on time (Utdanningsdirektoratet 2015; Barne, ungdoms- og familiedirektoratet 2015). The numbers indicate that when students have started their two years of apprenticeship, their chances for completing their vocational education increases dramatically. To be able to improve Vocational Education in school, we need to know more about learning through participation in the world of work.

The purpose of this Ph.D. -study is to explore structures for learning between participants in communities of plumbing practice at the building site and in training establishments. In this presentation, I concentrate on the importance of social belonging and participation for young apprentices in communities of practice. The research question for the presentation of this part of my Ph.D. - project is:

In what ways do social interactions in communities of practice at the building site affect learning and training in plumbing?

One aim in my Ph.D. -work is to develop more knowledge about learning through apprenticeship. The theoretical framework is based on pragmatic and social constructivist theories of learning. I have studied how apprentices in plumbing gradually learn social and professional skills, attitudes and motivation from older colleagues at the building site, in training establishments and apprenticeship firms (Dreyfus & Dreyfus 1991). I am looking for core qualities in communities of practice (Lave & Wenger 1991; Wenger 1998). I will study how interaction and social behavior at the building site determines changes and new beliefs about cultural codes, self and attitudes (Illeris 2006; Nielsen & Kvale 1999). Inspired by Schön (2009), I think that trying to understand participants’ reflections in and on actions in concrete work and learning situations is essential in this study. I also focus’ on how apprentices search for role models among colleagues, based on the competence and skills they admire and would like to have (Lave & Wenger 1991; Wenger 1998).   


In this project, I have used pragmatic approaches to create an empirical design aimed at studying practical, organized human activities concerning learning through work in everyday life. Through longitudinal fieldwork, a generous production of field notes together with 14 formal and an amount of informal interviews represent the textual bases (Hastrup, 2011; Denzin & Lincoln, 2000; Patton, 2011). My background as a plumber, engineer and vocational teacher in building and construction, gave an opening for participating research through a double role - working as a plumber/teacher and ethnographic researcher in my own culture (Wadel 1991). For one schoolyear, I followed a group of young apprentices in plumbing at different building sites and in a training establishment. As a teacher and plumber myself, familiar with the professional language and cultural codes and through long periods of side-by-side work at the building site, I gradually gained the acceptance for doing research on and among the participants and for my Ph.D. -project and myself. Because of this acceptance, my efforts finally created opportunities for field positions on the building site and in the training establishment, me as a natural member of the “inner circle” of the apprentices and the plumbers. One way to develop knowledge about human beings is by living together with people in a common world. To be able to observe, ask questions and talk to during work, lunch and breaks gives the opportunity to catch patterns and structures, which are significant to understand learning a vocation like plumbing (Hastrup 2010, Angrosino & Mays de Pérez 2000, Creswell 2013).
The textual - analyses follow two different tracks. First, the texts condense and split thematically into categories, and their content of meaning will then be tested through a Grounded Theory-inspired constant comparative method (Charmaz 2014, Glaser & Strauss 1967). The main-findings will fall into different themes, followed by theoretical and critical discussions. A hermeneutic approach mainly characterizes the second track of analyses (Alvesson & Sköldberg 2008). Based on my own horizon and understanding, I search through the texts looking for meaning, relations and connections and interpret the content through pre-understanding and understanding, through parts and whole. Based on observations of the apprentice’s, plumber’s and the vocational teacher’s world of work life and on their narratives I analyze, construct and present stories in a parallel and chronological line.

Expected Outcomes

The apprentices in this study move between quite different arenas, partly at the building site and once a week at a training establishment. Training establishments are private schools for apprentices and adult learners in plumbing, owned by a group of apprenticeship firms and led by vocational teachers. Different rules and systems control the different contexts. At the building site, new apprentices normally work as full members of the working team, but as newcomers with the lowest rank. At the training establishment, the apprentices are equal members of a group aged between 17 and 23. The teacher is highly respected for his or her extensive knowledge of plumbing, and is undoubtedly the leader of the group. I expect to find situations and people who can tell me more about different rules and roles under different conditions in the learning environments.
During my fieldwork, some topics grew out from the opportunity to observe, compare and analyze learning processes over a long period. The social environment between the plumbers could appear as tough, but is also characterized by laughter and good moods. For a long time I was very curious about the apprentices’ humble and quiet behavior. I watched how they carefully followed the conversations and discussions during work and around the lunch table, but never asked questions or interfered. It appeared to me that the newcomer chose to patiently develop competence as a plumber and to learn some cultural codes and social behavior before they participated in the discussions between the older plumbers. I expect to find out more about learning through social participation in practical communities of plumbing, hidden and underlying values and patterns to be found in communities of practice through my analyses during the next moths. These findings will be presented in my paper - presentation at ECER.


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This proposal is part of a master or doctoral thesis.

Author Information

Marit Lensjø (presenting)
Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences