In this post I will report on a special research workshop that discussed ‘multi-methodological strategies and theory-diverse approaches’ as an effort to overcome theoretical and methodological diving lines. Below I will give a brief overview on the invited presentations and them add my comments (that I also delivered as a participant’s reaction in the session).
Invited contributions on ‘multi-methodological strategies’ and ‘theory-diverse approaches’
The idea to discuss possible ways to develop ‘multi-methodological’ approaches and to overcome theoretical and methodological dividing lines has been coming up some time. In the Stockholm International VET Conference Lazaro Moreno gave a presentation in which he paved the way for such workshops in the forthcoming conferences. To me, this session was the first step to implement the plan. The invited speakers presented their ideas on such ‘boundary-crossing’ approaches or potentials in their research contexts:
- Petri Nokelainen from Finland started with a example from a quantitative study, in which the first phase of analyses was based on configuration frequency analyses. In the next phase the analyses moved into ‘data mining’ (with the help of a special software based on algorithms). Here Petri demonstrated an example of crossing a methodological boundary that was also overshadowed by cultural barriers.
- Haege Nore from Norway presented an exemplary research context in which the theme was in the phase of making methodological choices. The study – commissioned by the Norwegian educational authorities – was focusing on the final examinations of apprentices. Here, Haege outlined a gallery of research perspectives that could be relevant for studying this theme. Then she indicated the policy-related priorities of the educational authorities. Yet, there was room for discussion on, what kind of complementary views could be taken on board in the methodological concept to avoid a too narrow approach.
- Michael Gessler from ITB presented three exemplary studies as examples of perspective transformation, in which the role of theoretical starting points and methodologies is to be reflected in the light of the societal relevance of the studies. In an international conference the most striking questions were related to the transferability of the German dual system to foreign countries and to cooperation between learning venues (Lernortkooperation) in a North-German region. In the study on the transferability Michael and his project theme distanced themselves from the academic debate, whether transfer across different VET systems and cultures is possible. Instead, they focused on an empirical and historical question, how cultural transfer or transformation has been possible and what manifestations can be found. In the study on Lernortkooperation he shifted the question from attitudes to cooperation into identifying actual manifestations of cooperation (and on the level of intensity).
- Christof Nägele from Switzerland discussed the prospects of developing longitudinal studies and experimental/intervention studies. In the first context he drew attention to the potentials of configuration frequency analyses and of multi-cohort sequence designs. In the second context he discussed the need of multiple reflection opportunities in experimental/intervention studies (and the necessity to have a proper control group). Finally, he discussed the issue of theory as a ‘Procrustes bed’ or as a tool for interpretation when studying transitions during learning careers.
- Lazaro Moreno and his colleagues from Sweden had started to study the role of practical learning in the obligatory school as a foundation for choices whether to opt for a vocational learning pathway. In this respect the team had explored the history of the paradigmatic woodworking subject ‘slöjd’ (anglicized as ‘slojd’). Here, the interest was not only on the curricular history but to get informed of the teaching-learning processes as lived practice.
- Finally, based on various individual contributions, Christof Nägele, Barbara E. Stalder and Michael Gessler had started to outline a common European VET Research Agenda (taking into account the role that the VETNET network is playing at the European Skills Week organised by the European Commission. (We need to discuss this interesting initiative at a later date.)
Reflections on prior discussions of the VETNET network on core concepts/approaches in European VET research
To me this session was of particular interest, since I could see it as a sequel to similar symposia in the early years of VETNET. In ECER 1997 in Frankfurt I had initiated a symposium to discuss core concepts and discipline structures in European VET-related research. In the symposium we had my introductory presentation and inputs from Gerald Heidegger (then ITB, Bremen) and Michael Young (Institute of Education, London). Without going into details I can summarise the common conclusion. We agreed on the interpretation that we have three somewhat different interpretations on European research in the field of VET:
- VET as multidisciplinary area of research: According to this interpretation VET is primarily a common area of research that can be approached from different research disciplines. Thus, the field of VET does not necessarily provide a basis for specialised disciplines but can be seen as a research area for shared interests and exchanges.
- VET research as a field for specialised interdisciplinary studies: According to this interpretation the specialisation on VET tends to generate interdisciplinary approaches to cover complex challenges in the development of VET (policies, systems, institutions and practices). Based on such development there are specialised institutes with interdisciplinary agendas for VET research (and with commitment to support VET development).
- Pedagogics of VET as a set of research disciplines with transdisciplinary characteristics: According to this interpretation the professionalisation of teachers and trainers in VET requires a set of research disciplines to support the pedagogic, organisational end societal development of VET. The shaping of such research disciplines is linked to the university curricula for VET professionals and related doctoral studies.
This rough generalisation provided the basis for co-habitation, mutual exchanges and co-development of the VETNET network during its early years. Also, in the same ECER conference in Frankfurt we had a triple symposium with the heading “Towards a European VET research agenda”. This was based on contributions from different thematic groups of the Forum network (“Forum for interdisciplinary research on vocational education, training and learning”). However, these contributions could at best be seen as a gallery of themes brought together by an emerging network within the VETNET community.
Looking back at that phase of the development of a European VET research community and comparing the earlier discussions (of 1997) with the ones in the current workshop (2017) I can see that the VETNET community has clearly reached a level of maturity. In the current situation there is no tendency towards particularisation or fragmentation (whether on theoretical or methodological grounds). Instead, the workshop was inspired by common interests to promote theoretical and methodological enrichment of VET research – with an emphasis on enhancing its societal relevance. Of course, the workshop was based on rather brief inputs that outlined the respective approaches. Nevertheless, they opened prospects for further steps in learning from each other.
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I guess this is enough of this workshop in Copenhagen (2017) and of the reflections on its early predecessor in Frankfurt (1997). Surely this kind of discussion will be continued in the future conferences.