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Promoting Workplace Guidance and Workplace–School Collaboration in Vocational Training: A Mixed-Methods Pilot Study


The aim of this mixed-method pilot study was to expand the understanding of potential methods to support collaboration between vocational schools and workplaces and to enhance workplace guidance processes. Specifically, we evaluated whether a Cultural-historical Activity theory-based intervention program could have beneficial effects on school–workplace collaboration and on the individual-level competencies of the teachers and workplace personnel. Our results indicate that the change workshop provides a potential mechanism for enhancing personal competencies such as self-efficacy and for promoting collaboration between schools and workplaces, especially in terms of defining objectives for workplace learning. Our study also highlighted how the change workshop method has the potential to trigger expansive learning, in which school personnel and workplace trainers, through learning actions, can change and create new ways of working together. This study highlights the importance of providing workplaces and educational institutions with opportunities to share experiences and learn how to promote workplace-situated learning together.


Since 2018, Finnish vocational education and training has been undergoing a reform. This reform aims to respond to the changes occurring in working life and to meet future competence demands. The development measures are expected to increase vocational training provided at the workplace and on-the-job learning. In many countries, at least part of upper secondary-level vocational training is provided at the workplace (see Polidano & Tabasso, 2014). Workplace learning involves the acquisition of vocational skills and knowledge in the workplace as individuals attempt authentic vocational tasks (Billett, 19941995). The increase in workplace learning has been an international trend in vocational education. Schaap et al. (2012) pointed out that in many countries, the school-based learning path has been changing into a pathway that combines learning at school with an extensive amount of workplace-situated learning periods.

Mikkonen et al. (2017, 3) defined workplace guidance as “support that members of the work community and teachers from vocational institutes provide for students”. According to a Finnish survey (Airila et al., 2019), the amount of collaboration between vocational schools and workplaces varies greatly. The study also showed that Finnish workplaces need more support in terms of students’ workplace guidance. The importance of developing collaboration between workplaces and vocational training institutions has also been identified in previous international research (Rusten & Hermelin, 2017; see Tynjälä, 2008a). Collaboration across institutional boundaries provides the opportunity to combine the pedagogical expertise of teachers and the work-related technological expertise of workplace personnel (see Rusten & Hermelin, 2017). Previous studies (e.g., Gessler, 2017; Mikkonen et al., 2017) have highlighted the fact that the quality of workplace learning depends on whether the responsible bodies interact across institutional boundaries. Collaboration between workplaces and vocational schools is needed for various activities such as negotiating learning goals, responsibilities and roles, for assessing learning and pedagogical approaches, and for making practical arrangements (see Tynjälä, 2008a, b; Virtanen et al., 2014). Partnership between the vocational school and the workplace requires tools that help the actors improve their cooperation and build a dialogue across institutional boundaries (see Deitmer & Heinemann, 2009). Another important aspect of successful workplace guidance is related to the individual-level competencies of the teachers and the workplace personnel. These competencies include pedagogical skills and abilities to perform guidance-related activities and assist learning. If workplace trainers and teachers fail to provide guidance, students receive insufficient support for their learning (Mikkonen et al., 2017).

There is a gap in educational research on effective methods to increase collaboration between vocational schools and workplaces and to support workplace guidance processes. This study addressed this current lack of research. Using a mixed-method approach, we evaluated the short-term impact of a “change workshop” intervention on school–workplace collaboration and individual-level competencies such as self-efficacy. The change workshop intervention was based on the Cultural-historical Activity Theory and its Finnish application in Developmental Work Research (Engeström, 19872005; Virkkunen & Newnham, 2013).

Study Aims

The broad aim of this pilot study was to help us better understand potential methods to support collaboration between vocational schools and workplaces and to support workplace guidance processes. More specifically, our objective was to explore the impact of a Change workshop intervention. Our research questions were as follows: Does an intervention based on the Cultural-historical Activity Theory and its Finnish application in Developmental Work Research have positive outcomes in terms of 1) school–workplace collaboration 2) Individual-level outcomes such as workplace guidance-related self-efficacy, clarity of one’s personal guidance role and personal ideas to improve workplace guidance.

Change Workshop Intervention

The change workshop intervention is an application of the Change Laboratory method (e.g., Virkkunen & Newnham, 2013). It is based on the Cultural-historical Activity Theory and its Finnish application in Developmental Work Research (Engeström, 1987, 2005). Previous studies have shown that change laboratory interventions are useful for improving interprofessional collaboration, inter-organizational learning, and work in networks and heterogenous work coalitions, for example (e.g., Ala-Laurinaho et al., 2017; Daniels et al., 2007; Edwards, 2012; Engeström & Sannino, 2021; Kerosuo & Engeström, 2003; Ruotsala, 2014: Virkkunen & Newnham, 2013). Therefore, a change workshop intervention also has the potential to enhance collaboration between workplaces and vocational schools.

In our study, the change workshop process aimed to support expansive learning across the organizational boundaries of VET and workplaces. Engeström (2007) defines expansive learning as a collective process in which the work community, or collaborating network, constructs qualitatively new ways of working by resolving the tensions and disturbances in the current activity. In practice this means that the change workshop participants discuss current collaboration, workplace guidance practices and their challenges, and create new collaborative ways in which to support students on their learning paths. Expansive learning has been conceptualized as involving seven expansive learning actions (Engeström & Sannino, 2010). The first learning action is questioning or criticizing some aspects of current practices. This may involve identifying and defining development needs. The second learning action consists of analyzing problematic situations and identifying the causes or explanatory mechanisms behind the aspects requiring development needs. This involves analyzing both the historical transformation of the activity and the disturbances and tensions in the current activity. The third learning action means modeling a new activity, thus extending the developmental path towards the future. This involves constructing new ideas that offer a solution to the problematic situation, i.e., new concepts, tools, or forms of collaboration. The process continues by examining the new model in practice, grasping its potential and limitations; implementing and evaluating it; and consolidating it into a new form of practice.

Compared to a few previous change workshop processes (e.g., Engeström et al., 2013; Haapasaari et al., 2014), our intervention program was shorter and aimed to initiate the expansive learning process. The intervention consisted of four sessions (approximately three hours each), facilitated by two research team members. During the first session, the participants analyzed the changes in everyday work at the workplace, as well as the demands for competence that arose from these changes. The second session focused on analyzing challenges and how well the current collaboration and guidance practices worked. The process continued with envisioning a future collaboration model and development experiments to test the model in practice (third session). The fourth session focused on evaluating the development experiments and reflecting on the developmental process: questioning current activities, analyzing the disturbances and tensions in the current activity and the historical causes behind them, and modeling new activities for collaboration.

The role of change workshop facilitators is to activate and sustain collective learning and to negotiate the content and course of the interventions with the participants (see Ala-Laurinaho et al., 2017). Double stimulation is a central instructional technique, and was used to provoke expansive learning during the change workshop process (Engeström, 2011; Vygotsky, 1978). In practice, this means that participants collect concrete material from the problematic situations in their daily work (first stimulus) and the facilitators offer tools (second stimulus) to provoke the re-interpretation of the problems and their systemic relations and to generate qualitatively new solutions (Ala-Laurinaho et al., 2017; Sannino & Engeström, 2017).

In this study, the aims of the change workshops were to increase collaboration between the workplaces and vocational schools. The first and second stimuli were chosen to serve these aims. Examples of the first stimuli in the intervention process were the participants’ descriptions of recent changes in work, and the successes or challenges in the workplace–school collaboration. The “Development chart” tool (Ahonen et al., 2020) was used as the second stimulus. This chart is an activity theory-based tool for analyzing the developmental path of work activity, current and near future possibilities and the difficulties in and prospects for work and competence development. The development chart worked as a second stimulus throughout the change workshop process by providing an understanding of the work context in which collaboration and workplace guidance are connected. Table 1 presents the theme of each workshop, and the first and second stimuli used.

Table 1 Change workshop process: Theme of session, 1st and 2nd stimuli

Agency and Individual-Level Competencies in Workplace Guidance

A key aspect of the change workshop intervention is promoting agency (Virkkunen, 2007). Earlier studies on change workshop interventions have focused mainly on collective viewpoints and transformative agency, which refers to a process by which a group of people search collaboratively for a new form of productive activity, break away from a given frame of action and take initiatives to transform it (Virkkunen, 2007). Transformative agency is a feature of expansive learning (Sannino et al., 2016). Its concept differs from the individualistic perspective on agency, which mainly focuses on individuals and their competencies to act proactively and initiate changes (Englund & Price, 2018). The theoretical basis of the change workshop revolves around collective and transformative agency. Nevertheless, a change workshop intervention may have a positive effect on the individual level and on personal competencies, as such workshops provide a potential mechanism for this.

Individual agency requires an individual to possess internal capacities to act (Barnes, 2000). According to social-cognitive theory (Bandura, 1986), self-efficacy is a core feature of individual agency. Self-efficacy refers to a person’s judgment of their competency to execute a given type of performance (Bandura, 1997). It is a psychological resource that helps people put their skills and knowledge into action (see Cervone et al., 2006). Previous research (Barni et al., 2019) has emphasized the role of self-efficacy in teachers’ ability to effectively handle the tasks, obligations and challenges related to their professional activity. Thus, self-efficacy is considered an important personal resource for teachers and trainers at the workplace. It has been considered the result of interactions between individual and social contexts (Bandura, 2006). The change intervention workshop provides a specific mechanism for social interaction, which may have positive effects on self-efficacy. According to Bandura (1997), mastery experience, in which an individual successfully practices a behavior, is a key mechanism for enhancing self-efficacy. Thus, overcoming obstacles and solving problems is expected to increase self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is also boosted in a positive emotional state. Therefore, engaging in a group-based learning activity in a positive learning environment and working together to construct new ideas that offer solutions to a problematic situation may strengthen workplace self-efficacy. Self-efficacy has been defined as a domain-specific resource the manifestation of which depends on the activity domain (Bandura, 2012). In this study, we introduce a new concept of workplace guidance-related self-efficacy: the degree of confidence in one’s ability to perform workplace guidance-related activities (e.g., solve problems related to student guidance). Previous studies have not investigated whether a change workshop intervention can also have a positive effect on individual-level competencies such as self-efficacy. Furthermore, a discussion on roles and responsibilities among workplace trainers and teachers during change workshop meetings can also help the involved parties better understand their personal role in providing guidance for students and facilitating workplace-situated learning. One of the goals of the change workshops is to identify areas needing improvement and to envision a future model for activity and development experiments. This can also be reflected on the individual level in whether change workshop intervention generates development ideas and plans among participants.

Study Methods

Randomized controlled trials are often considered the “gold standard” in evaluation research (Bickman & Reich, 2015). Nevertheless, a small-scale pilot study is regarded as an important phase in the exploration of a new intervention or a new way of applying an intervention. Pilot studies are generally not intended to provide definitive evidence of intervention effectiveness; their purpose is to demonstrate the potential of an intervention and to examine the mechanisms associated with the beneficial outcomes before large-scale implementation and effectiveness trials. (see Lynskey & Sussman, 2001; Westlund & Stuart, 2017; Whitehead et al., 2016).

Our small-scale pilot study was based on a mixed-method design to evaluate the short-term impact of an intervention program. We used pre-post questionnaire data to assess the intervention outcomes on the individual perception level. Quantitative evaluation was conducted using a single-arm design with no comparison or control group. Qualitative analysis was conducted to identify expansive learning processes and learning actions during the intervention sessions. Next, we briefly describe the study setting, target outcomes and study methods.

Study Setting and Participants

We conducted the study in the context of Finnish vocational education. In Finland, upper secondary education comprises vocational education and general education. Basically, general upper secondary education focuses on preparation for higher education and the vocational upper secondary education track provides a vocational qualification in a certain occupational field. Upper secondary vocational education usually lasts three to four years and offers students qualified entry into working life. It also includes workplace learning periods. (Rintala & Nokelainen, 2020). During these periods, students have a workplace trainer who, in addition to their own duties, supports them at the workplace. The student, teacher, and workplace trainer all take part in the assessment of these workplace learning periods. (Virtanen et al., 20092014).

We implemented three separate change workshops from October 2018 to May 2019. Each process took approximately five months. The participating vocational schools and workplaces were recruited for this research project from the Helsinki Metropolitan area. Study organizations were recruited through either face-to-face meetings, or by postal invitations. A meeting was held with each organization representative during the recruitment phase. In these meetings, all the organizations raised the need to improve collaboration between the workplace and the school. Study participant recruitment within organizations was carried out in collaboration with the study organizations, using a convenience sample. Recruitment was based on the following factors: (1) current involvement in workplace-vocational school collaboration and workplace guidance activities, and (2) availability in terms of time and resources to participate in the change workshop process. We obtained informed consent from all the study participants and they were informed of the study through an information sheet.

A total of 22 people from three different workplaces participated in the change workshop processes. The workplaces were in property maintenance, retail, and the health care sector. Nine study participants worked in a health care organization, 10 in the retail sector, and three in a property maintenance organization. In addition, thirteen study participants worked in a vocational institution as a teacher or in some other teaching-related position. Three different vocational schools participated in the study. The schools’ vocational fields were consistent with those of the workplaces involved. Two workplace participants cancelled their participation after the first meeting due to a job change. The collaborating schools and workplaces participated in a joint workshop. One separate workshop process was implemented for each workplace–school pair. The intervention consisted of four sessions (approximately three hours each), facilitated by two research team members. The intervention program was free of charge for the participating workplaces.

Study Data and Analysis Procedures

Quantitative Data and Methods

The baseline questionnaire data were collected approximately two weeks before the change workshops and the follow-up data were collected at the end of the last change workshop meeting. Twenty-seven people (77%) who participated in the change workshop process completed the baseline questionnaire. The response rate to the baseline questionnaire varied between 66% and 100% across the organizations. Furthermore, twenty of the study participants who responded to the baseline questionnaires completed the follow-up questionnaires: Workshop process 1 (n = 6), Workshop process 2 (n = 9), and Workshop process 3 (n = 5). Previous studies have recommended approximately 20–25 participants for pilot studies (Hertzog, 2008).

At baseline, we used standard survey questions to obtain information about the study participants’ characteristics such as age, educational background, job tenure, and previous experience in workplace guidance. All the outcome measures were included in the questionnaires at both measurement points. We developed a six-item, five-point workplace guidance self-efficacy measure for this study. Cronbach’s α for self-efficacy measure was 0.69 at T1 and 0.69 at T2. We also measured the extent to which the study participants generated ideas for improving workplace guidance using a four-item five-point scale (α = 0.91 at T1, α = 0.87 at T2). The perceived quality of school–workplace collaboration was assessed using three five-point items (α = 0.81 at T1, α = 0.55 at T2), and the clarity of the personal guidance role was measured using three five-point items (α = 0.62 at T1, α = 0.87 at T2). Appendix Table 7 presents a detailed description of the questionnaire items on self-efficacy, study participants’ improvement ideas, perceived quality of school–workplace collaboration, and clarity of one’s personal guidance role. We also measured the content of school–workplace communication using a 12-item, five-point scale created for this study.

We also included various learning experience measures at follow-up. The questions on these were based on expansive learning theory. The study participants scored their experiences of the change workshops on three different five-point scales. Three questionnaire items assessed learning experiences in terms of questioning aspects of current workplace guidance practices (α = 0.91), four items assessed learning experiences related to analyzing the explanatory causes of current development needs (α = 0.95), and four items assessed learning experiences in terms of modeling solutions and development activities for workplace guidance (α = 0.89). Appendix Table 8 presents the specific questionnaire items on the learning experience scales.

The follow-up questionnaire also included six five-point items measuring the perceived utility of the change workshop and three five-point items measuring the learning atmosphere of the change workshop.

The characteristics of the study participants, the outcome variables, and the perceptions of the intervention program are described using mean, medians, standard deviation and/or proportions, as appropriate. We screened the data for skewness, kurtosis, and violations of normality, and used paired t-tests or the Wilcoxon signed-ranked test to evaluate the change workshops’ effects by comparing the baseline and follow-up scores. Following the recommendations for pilot studies by Lee et al. (2014), we set the significance level at 10% and 90% confidence intervals. We used SPSS 25 software in all the analyses.

Qualitative Analysis of Learning Process

Qualitative analysis was based on the recorded data of one change workshop process and the first-hand accounts of the study participants. The change workshop meetings were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim. The total length of the recordings was 643 min. Two researchers systematically reviewed, analyzed and coded the transcripts. The researchers who analyzed the data were not in contact with the participants and were not involved in the intervention development or implementation processes. We used theory-directed content analysis as a tool, and the theory of expansive learning (Engeström, 1999) provided the framework for our analysis. Although full cycles of expansive learning may take years, the aim of a change workshop intervention is to initiate the learning process (Virkkunen & Newnham, 2013). Thus, our goal was to identify the three first learning actions triggered by the change workshop process: 1) Questioning 2) Analysis and 3) Modeling and Experimenting. These three expansive learning actions formed our coding framework and we applied them to the transcripts. As the change workshop’s goal was to support workplace learning and guidance and to enhance workplace-school collaboration, we focused on the expansive learning actions related to these topics.

The theory-directed content analysis process proceeded in the following steps. Our analysis began by carefully reviewing all the transcripts and highlighting all the contents that indicated learning actions. We then coded all the highlighted text using the coding framework. The unit of analysis was a topical episode. Expansive learning actions were identified according to (a) the topical episodes based on their substantive contents, (b) the formulation of a preliminary description of the learning actions in each episode, and c) an analysis of the speech turns within each episode. The criterion was that the learning action was constructed by more than one person (minimum of 1 person from workplace and 1 person from vocational school). We also examined the relationship between the learning actions in a topical episode. In our study, the minimal criterion was a meaningful sequence of three different expansive learning actions (i.e., questioning, analysis, modeling and experimenting). By meaningful sequence we refer to the general directionality of the expansive cycle (see Engeström et al., 2013). Finally, we divided expansive learning cycles into empirically derived categories. Our analysis process was somewhat similar to the methods used by Rantavuori et al. (2016) and Engeström et al. (2013). However, our analysis focused more generally on identifying themes related to expansive learning and was limited to analyzing three expansive learning actions.


Table 2 presents the baseline characteristics of the study participants. Of the 27 study participants who provided the baseline data, the majority were female. The participants reported an average of 6.2 years of experience in workplace guidance and the mean age of all the participants was 42.2 years.

Table 2 Baseline characteristics by organization type

Perceived Utility, Learning Atmosphere and Learning Experiences

The participants considered the atmosphere of the workshops positive and inspiring. The majority also felt it was easy to discuss their own ideas and experiences. Perceived utility was the most important factor for enhancing workplace–school interaction. Table 3 presents the results concerning perceived utility and learning atmosphere measures.

Table 3 Perceived utility and learning atmosphere of change workshops

The study participants rated the various learning experiences according to four sub-dimensions of expansive learning: (1) Questioning aspects of current practices (mean = 3.91 SD = 0.9) (2) Analyzing explanatory causes of current development needs (mean = 3.88 SD = 0.9), and (3) Modeling solutions and development activities (mean = 4.11, SD = 0.6). Considering the response scale of 1 to 5, these results indicated that the change workshops supported the study participants’ expansive learning.

Pre-Post Measures

The pre-post outcome measures did not indicate problematic levels (above +1.5 or below −1.5) of skewness or kurtosis (Tabachnick & Fidell, 2007). However the p value for the Shapiro–Wilk test was <.05, suggesting that the data were not normally distributed in the scales measuring the content of workplace–school collaboration. Therefore, we analyzed these variables using Wilcoxon signed-ranked tests. Paired samples T-tests indicated a mean difference (p < 0.10) between the baseline and follow-up measures in workplace guidance-related self-efficacy and development plans. Furthermore, the results of the Wilcoxon tests indicated that the change workshop intervention increased (p < 0.10) perceived collaboration in terms of defining learning objectives for training periods. Tables 4 and 5 present the results of the paired samples t-tests and Wilcoxon tests.

Table 4 Results of pre-post measures
Table 5 School–workplace collaboration

Qualitative Evaluation of Expansive Learning Process

The questionnaire data indicated that the change workshops had a positive impact on the collaboration between the vocational schools and workplaces, and that they triggered learning processes among the study participants. We aimed to provide an in-depth case example of an expansive learning process in our qualitative analysis. Using content analysis based on expansive learning theory, we identified three separate learning themes: School–workplace collaboration in cultural skills; Monitoring and evaluating student ICT skills required at the workplace; and Identifying relationships between curriculum learning goals and work tasks during the on-the-job learning period. Table 6 highlights how the expansive learning process progresses from questioning and analysis to modeling and experimenting.

Table 6 Qualitative analysis results and illustrative quotes

School–Workplace Collaboration in Cultural Skills

The first learning theme that arose during the change workshop process focused on school–workplace collaboration in cultural skills (Theme 1, Table 6). The teachers expressed an increasing need for cultural skills in working life. They pointed out that the current competency requirements in vocational training do not effectively correspond to the needs of multicultural working life. Workplace trainers identified the same development need and stressed that the requirement for cultural skills was not sufficiently addressed in the education process. The shared analysis of the current changes in work activity, using a development chart as a tool, highlighted that the customers of the organization in question had also become more multi-cultural in recent years. As the workplace trainers highlighted, the issue was no longer merely language skills; it was also about understanding different cultures, which is essential in customer service processes. The teachers started modeling a new form of collaboration in which students were involved, as part of their studies, in identifying cultural viewpoints related to the organizations’ fields, which in turn offered important information for the organization. This was also seen as an opportunity to strengthen students’ understanding of the occupational field. The workplace trainers reinforced the idea and proposed collaboration in which they provided the workplace with written materials related to customer services for students to evaluate from a “cultural perspective”.

Students’ ICT Skills and Competency Evaluation

The second learning theme was related to the students’ ICT skills, and ways in which to evaluate these (Theme 2 in Table 6). The workplace trainers questioned the current division of work between workplaces and vocational schools. The problem they highlighted was that some students lacked certain basic ICT skills that the workplace required of them when they started the workplace learning period. The teachers continued questioning the current activity by emphasizing that workplace learning should focus more on workplace practices and working methods than on learning basic computer skills that students should already have. The workplace personnel continued analyzing the current situation by considering the inadequacy of their own pedagogical resources for teaching the students these basic IT skills. They also saw it as the responsibility of the vocational schools. The vocational school personnel began modeling a new tool and collaborative practice. Specifically, one teacher produced the idea of using a needs assessment tool related to student ICT skills and the specific competency needs and work tasks of the workplace. The workplace trainers reinforced the proposed development idea and perceived it as facilitating the dialogue between school and workplace on the competency requirements for the workplace learning period.

Relationships between Curriculum Learning Goals and Work Tasks

A third theme on which collaborative learning focused was the relationship between the curriculum and the work tasks during the workplace learning period (Theme 3 in Table 6). The teachers questioned the current level of acknowledgement of the relationship between the curriculum and the work tasks. The discussions highlighted the need for arenas in which to discuss which tasks could fulfil curriculum goals and which tools could help explain this relation to students. Following on from this, the workplace trainers and teachers jointly modeled a new kind of process description, which would work as a shared tool for the workplace trainer, vocational teacher, and student. The idea of these descriptions was to present the relationship between workplace tasks and each learning requirement in the school curriculum. The teachers perceived that the modeled process descriptions also had a broader meaning: to enhance students’ general understanding of the occupational field in question.


The primary aim of this pilot study was to evaluate whether the Cultural-historical Activity Theory-based change workshop process would have beneficial effects on collaboration between schools and workplaces and individual-level competencies. The results indicate that the change workshops increased ideas for improving workplace guidance and enhanced the study participants’ workplace guidance self-efficacy. These results can be viewed from the perspective of social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1997). As we stated, the change workshop process offered an opportunity to gain mastery experiences of collaboration between the workplaces and vocational schools. The positive learning atmosphere may have further supported the intervention effects. Furthermore, the questionnaire data indicated that the change workshop intervention increased workplace–school cooperation in defining the objectives of workplace learning. This is in line with a study by Mikkonen et al. (2017), which pointed out that when workplace guidance processes become transparent, members of the work community become more aware of the objectives of the students’ workplace learning. During the intervention process, various workplace learning processes were reviewed. Thus, it is plausible that the positive effect on school–workplace collaboration was related to defining learning objectives. Previous research (Pillay et al., 2014) has highlighted that achieving mutually agreed objectives based on a shared vision is an important element for successful collaboration between the workplace and the institution. Hence, the change workshop intervention may provide an important tool for setting shared objectives across institutional boundaries in workplace-situated learning.

Our qualitative analysis provides a case example of a collaborative learning process between vocational schools and workplaces. We identified three different expansive learning actions in three different themes in our data. The results showed that expansive learning was related to school–workplace collaboration in cultural skills, identifying relationships between curriculum learning goals and work tasks during the on-the-job learning period, and the ICT skills required at the workplace. We found that the learning process in these topics progressed from questioning to analysis and modeling. This indicates that the learning process during the intervention program was, at least to some extent, expansive. It is important to note that the results of the qualitative data were in line with the results of the questionnaire data. The pre-post measures indicated that the change workshop intervention improved workplace–school collaboration in terms of defining learning objectives for training periods. Qualitative data revealed that a learning process was involved in the identification of relationships between curriculum learning goals and work tasks.

Overall, our study highlights how the change workshop method has the potential to trigger expansive learning and to enhance collaboration between workplaces and vocational schools. The key instructional methods during the intervention program followed the idea of Developmental Work Research and included the idea of focusing on the changing work activity and the collaboration in relation to this activity. An example of an instructional tool was the Development Chart (Ahonen et al., 2020), which engaged the participants in building a shared view of changing work and the competences needed in current and future work. The discussions, in which actors from both workplaces and the vocational schools were involved, were central to finding new solutions for developing workplace learning. The discussions between the different parties helped create new collaboration practices that acknowledged future development trends in working life in terms of competency requirements.

The questionnaire data indicated that a change workshop intervention offers a potential tool for enhancing individual-level competencies such as self-efficacy. Our study suggests that the positive effects of a change workshop intervention may manifest not only on collective-level but also on individual-level competencies. The change workshop mechanism contains elements which, from the perspective of social-cognitive theory, are pathways for strengthening self-efficacy. In this study, this meant the opportunity to gain mastery experiences by working together to construct new ideas that offer solutions to problematic workplace guidance situations. Our study results support further implementation of change workshop intervention programs in vocational education. Through this study report, we hope to familiarize readers with this promising method to improve school–workplace collaboration in vocational education. Change workshops provide a theory-based, structured method to promote this collaboration. More generally, this study highlights the importance of providing workplaces and educational institutions with opportunities to share experiences and to learn together how to promote work-based learning.

Study Limitations

Our study had a few limitations. First, our sample size was small, which undermines the generalizability of results. Nevertheless, small-scale pilot studies are a key step in assessing preliminary evidence of positive effects before progressing to a larger-scale effectiveness study (see Hallinberg et al., 2018). In future, the intervention’s efficacy, and effectiveness in terms of individual level outcomes should be confirmed using a larger scale study and an RCT trial. Second, the results cannot be generalized to apply to the entire personnel of the participating organizations. Third, this study only focused on short-term effects, leaving questions about its long-term effects unanswered. Fourth, in contrast to previous studies on expansive learning (e.g., Engeström et al., 2013), our study examined only three learning actions. In addition, the qualitative analysis of expansive learning was relatively simplified, focusing on identifying the themes that the learning process addressed. We wish to underline that the expansive learning theory also defines other learning actions. Thus, our results show learning actions that have the potential to be expansive, and which should not be regarded as evidence that a whole expansive learning cycle has taken place. As the primary purpose of our qualitative analysis was to provide a case example of the learning process during an intervention program, we focused on one change workshop process. Therefore, our qualitative results should be regarded as indicative of expansive learning occurring in one change workshop process only.

It should also be noted that the questionnaires were created for this study and had no specific steps related to rigorous scale development. Our pre-post measures included items that the research team considered important for studying the workplace guidance process. In future, the content validity of the new scales should be confirmed using expert and target population judges. Future studies should also assess the psychometrical properties and construct validity of new scales using exploratory factor analysis and confirmatory factor analysis with larger samples. (Boateng et al., 2018; Morgado et al., 2017). Nevertheless, given the exploratory purpose of our small-sample, mixed-methods pilot study, we believe that although it is important to consider these shortcomings in the study measures, they are nevertheless acceptable.

Finally, it is important to consider earlier criticisms of the change workshop method and its theoretical approach. Warmington (2011) pointed out that hierarchies, managerial and organizational power structures may remain embedded in the change workshop process and restrict development activities. Vocational school teachers in Finland have a great deal of autonomy in their work, including the freedom to organize their tasks and to make decisions on the most suitable training method (see Paronen & Lappi, 2018). This may contribute to the implementation of new collaborative practices.

Future Research

Our study suggests that a change workshop intervention is a potential method for promoting collaboration between schools and workplaces. The positive effects on individual-level competencies should be further confirmed using a larger-scale study. In addition, the extent to which the ideas for improvement generated during change workshop intervention have led to practical changes in organizations should be further assessed.


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This work was supported by the European Social Fund. We thank Alice Lehtinen for the language editing.

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Authors and Affiliations



All authors contributed to the study conception and design. Material preparation, data collection and analysis were performed by the first author and the second author. The first draft of the manuscript was written by the first author and all authors commented on previous versions of the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Mikko Nykänen.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the ethics committee at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health (#3/2018) and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

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Appendix A

Table 7 Pre-post measures and questionnaire items

Appendix B

Table 8 Learning experience measure

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Nykänen, M., Kurki, AL. & Airila, A. Promoting Workplace Guidance and Workplace–School Collaboration in Vocational Training: A Mixed-Methods Pilot Study. Vocations and Learning 15, 317–339 (2022).

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  • Vocational education
  • Workplace learning
  • Workplace guidance
  • Pilot study