Author(s):Trine Deichman-Sørensen (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 03 A, Analytical Lens on VET: Social Justice and Inequality

Paper Session


Room:Vet-Theatre 116

Chair:Margaret Eleanor Malloch


Matrixes of (Dis)Continous Vocational Education. The Tavistock School Contributions to an Ecological Understanding of Learning and Knowing at Work

The move towards marketization of educational policy, which has taken place during the last twenty years, was part an OECD initiative, supported by EU and has resulted in a conversion of VET curricula into formal outcome criteria (e.g. Ball 2008, Lawn & Grek 2012, Meyer & Benavot 2013). When these systems are gradually transformed, they become bureaucratic frameworks designed to cover dispersed, fragmented practices, and it is easy to forget that this so-called “turn to practice” was anticipated by reforms pursuing work-oriented goals of democratic ideals; e.g. the introduction of “learning fields” in the German VET system founded on conceptions of work-process knowledge development (e.g. Fischer & Rauner 2002, Boreham, Samurcay & Fischer 2002). In the wake of the Lisbon Strategy, which reinforced politics of symbolics (Alvesson 2013), the practice-turn was altered and became a market-oriented concept. At the same time some enclaves of VET policies in Europe, especially in Germany, were motivated by opposite ideals of humanisation of work (Rauner 2007, Boreham 2010). Holistic notions of vocational composite knowledge mainly disappeared, as EU allied countries stepwise followed the crumbling UK VET model, which turned apprenticeship notions into overt performance criteria (e.g. Brockmann et al 2009, Young 2008, Deichman-Sørensen 2015).


This paper starts out from the paradox hinted to above of work-based knowledge apparently being highly rewarded in current economies whilst, simultaneously, being progressively marginalized and obstructed (cf. Guile 2010). We will argue for a reintroduction of socio-technical principles as developed by the Tavistock School, the founding fathers of the early humanisation of work movement. There are three rationales for revisiting these principles: firstly, it seems crucial to re-establish a triangulation of the three dimensions of business, production and labour processes critical to socio-technical design in order to avoid levelling logics of marketisation (e.g.  “credentialism” or “lean production”) or binary oppositions of similar origin (e.g. “hybrid professionalism”, Noordegraaf 2007). Secondly, as local and global economies become more interconnected the more ecological accounts of vocational or work knowledge are required. Similar challenges were met by the Tavistock group in their conceptualization of open systems’ dynamics (e.g. Elden 1976, Emery 2000; triggering as such, among others, questions like where to set the boundaries of “communities of practice” inside network economies). Of special interest, additionally, is their keeping of securing “redundancy of functions” (mainly talents) which lays the ground for “joint optimisation” to happen (and how does this possibly link to current criteria of ‘literacy’, we may ask). Another notion of interest is their conceptualisation of matrix organisations (e.g. Herbst 1976). One notion of gestalts in a series of “behavioural worlds (Herbst 1970), connected to matrix organisation is intimately coupled to a spatial notion of learning (i.e. questioning, inclusively, linear conceptions of career building). Thirdly, and consequently, system-oriented ecological theories are dependent upon cogent notions of mediation. In this respect the most important contribution is the notion of “co-genetic logic” outlined in the works of Philip Herbst (e.g. 1976), which bears a similarity to a newly coined notion of “meshwork” by Tim Ingold (2011) as exemplified by ‘line drawing’.


We will use the socio-technical school of Tavistock as a theoretical framework, which will afford us critical re-entries into dominant neo-liberal languages of work life qualifications (as grounded, notably, on critics of bureaucratic practices) whilst simultaneously enabling us to correlate, integrate and compare practice theories on work-based learning of divergent origins and epochs (including ANT, activity theories, ethnographic studies, et cetera). Thence, the purpose of this study is to contribute to the establishment of an analytical framework for discussing vocational knowledge development in terms of purposive activities resting in varied spatialities of encultured practice.


This paper presents an analytical account of vocational knowledge development in an era of risk (Beck 1992) and austerity (Streeck 2013) based on elements from socio-technical theories of the 1960ies and 70ies on work design principles apt to ‘times of turmoil’ (Herbst 1974, Elden 1976). Against this framework three levels of analysis are conducted:
1) We will compare part-whole relations in general system theories of reductive economic and bureaucratic thinking generating fragmentation plus hierarchical knowledge relations to set forth with open system principles accentuating connectiveness, equity, and enmeshed relations. Implications of distortion – including knowledge implosion, perhaps – of holding divergent conceptions of ‘competence(s)’ fluctuating in parallel as kept in current VET discourses, thus ranging from performativity standards to action-led holistic notions, is one example under study. Methodologically this investigation additionally draws on critical discourse analysis (e.g. Fairclogh 2010). This level represents a baseline of critics of dualistic thinking for further analysis.
2) We will debate analytical implications related to ways in which knowing-in-practice are dealt with in recent so-called socio-material analysis (e.g. Mol 2002, Law 2002, Latour 2005, Fenwick & Edwards 2010, Sørensen 2009) or more vaguely clustered ‘practice theories’ (e.g. Suchman 1987, Nespor 1994, Knorr Cetina 1999, Bowker & Star 2000, Ingold 2011, Gherardi 2012, Nicolini 2012) compared to analytical qualities associated with a sociotechnical framework of principles. Typical to former is emphasis put on the materiality of learning – e.g. how technology ‘speaks back’, how we are dealing with fluid objects, how knowledge rests in bodily experiences, and how knowledge incessantly transforms itself through use – that to the opposite largely fails within the Tavistock school’s prime preoccupation with learning organisations. At this level, therefore, we make a double analytical twist of applying abstracted organisational principles of sociotechnical thinking onto elaborations on work content compound compositions as displayed in situated activities whilst simultaneously underpinning this move with recent conceptualisations. Basic bridging principles to follow up are: knowledge / learning ecologies, complexity, spatiality, and tracing / spurs.
3) We will, conclusively, make investigations into ways in which knowing-in-practice at work are related to vocational knowledge development. Our claim is our comprehensions of vocational knowledge are enriched by detailed practice studies of above-mentioned kinds. On the other hand, these often lack principles of directionality, which are critical in turn to education. We believe action research principles of sociotechnical origins may convert this dilemma to an option. Examples shall be given.

Expected Outcomes

The main lines of argument stated in the paper are listed above.

The aim of the paper is to contribute to revaluating labour, including vocational education. We will do this by reinterpreting sociotechnical principles, then held against recent socio-material and practice-directed theories in order to acquire, next, a nuanced composite notion of learning practices conquering reductive notions of commodification and bureaucratisation presently predominating. By re-examining earlier theory, we hope to re-energize the conceptualisation of VET and provide a basis for new practice in tomorrows workplace.


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Author Information

Trine Deichman-Sørensen (presenting)
Oslo and Akershus University College