Swedish Apprentices Moving Towards an Upper Secondary Vocational Examination
To implement a vocational education and training (VET) curriculum that corresponds to both the demands of the labour market, and the students constitutes a challenge to any education system (Akkerman & Bakker, 2011; Billett, 2007). In Sweden, pedagogical aspects of teaching and learning in VET programmes have been almost invisible in the debate that preceded the upper secondary school reform in 2011. Students who were identified as less academic were destined for an upper secondary curriculum designed to meet an evolving demand for qualified workers (Andersson et al, 2015). In such school-based apprenticeships, the students are expected to alternate between school and workplace in order to integrate learning in the workplace and in secondary school. In this way, they could attain the general and vocational learning objectives expressed in the guiding coursework. To gain a deeper understanding of how students are afforded access to different learning activities in school, and in the workplace, this paper analyses how students construct pathways to knowledge in such VET practice: What problems do the students face, and how are they resolved? How is the students’ access to different assignments restricted and supported in school and in the workplace?
Research that focuses on how students develop vocational knowledge shows how they make use of both school and workplace to become skilled workers (Berner, 2010; Tanggaard, 2007). However, some problems can be foreshadowed when a school-based apprenticeship model is implemented as workplace learning (Berglund & Henning Loeb, 2013). This was identified in previous trials with Swedish upper secondary apprenticeships. The more qualified tasks demanded in the coursework may, for example, be withheld from the students in the workplace. This problem is embedded in the different ways knowledge acquisition is arranged and organised in school and in the workplace (Akkerman & Bakker, 2011; Kilbrink & Bjurulf, 2013). With regard to the new Swedish apprenticeship model, implemented in 2011, the students need access to learning opportunities in school and in the work place, which relate to school based foundation- and vocational subjects. Hence, to build on previous research: When we want to learn how upper secondary apprentices construct pathways to knowledge, the students’ participation in the teaching of general subjects needs to be taken in to consideration alongside the vocational training.
During the spring semester in 2014, field studies were conducted in three upper secondary schools. A group of second-year apprentices were shadowed during school days, and 16 tripartite conversations between student, tutor and teacher were observed. Interviews were conducted with 34 students.
Deploying activity theory (Engeström, 1987), the students’ actions and operations as knowledge-creators were compiled and analysed in the activity theoretical framework. How students construct different paths to knowledge is revealed in the analysis of the contradictions that arise, and the knotworking that goes on between school and workplace (Engeström, 2005). The notion of students as knowledge-creators thus refer to them participating in different activities in school and in the workplace with the intention to develop knowledge and skills.
The analysis reveals that a strict schedule for alternating between school and workplace leads to difficulties for the students. This problem was embedded in the students’ activity of school going where both school and workplace emerged as important arenas for learning in the new school based apprenticeship model. Three problems are analysed: 1) The problem of gaining access to school assignments reveals how students sometimes need engage in individually designed teaching and learning activities in school. On occasions, working hours are reduced and replaced by in-school activities. 2) The problem of gaining access to school related work tasks reveals how students shift workplace and rearrange their work schedule to gain access to the work community, and the embedded identified work tasks. In this process students need to be able to interpret the content in the various duties in order to gain access to the relevant work tasks. 3) The problem of gaining access to work related content outside the training scheme reveals how students negotiate the knowledge included in their training. For example, after acquiring knowledge about different work areas in the workplace some students renegotiate the predetermined education curriculum and add available new areas of expertise.
The analysis provide examples of how students in school-based apprenticeships are afforded access to knowledge in school and in the workplace. These students need to construct pathways to knowledge in different ways. Accordingly, when upper secondary apprentices have problems engaging in different learning activities, it is essential that the potential educational opportunities in the workplace are clarified for the students, and that the school becomes less school-like. Consequently, these paths are multi voiced, and may be designed in various ways: For example as a broad entry to an occupational field, or tailored to individual student’s, or workplace demands.
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