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University of Helsinki Faculty of Behavioural Sciences

Department of Education


Contact information:

Siltavuorenpenger 20 R
P.O. Box 9
00014 University of Helsinki
Tel. +358 9 191 20555
Fax  +358 9 191 20561  

Citizenship, agency and difference in upper secondary education
- with special focus on vocational institutions

Background, aim and significance of the project
The aim of the research project is to analyse how citizenship and differences are constructed in upper secondary education and how actors in the field, teachers and students, enact agency in this construction. Policy documents, institutional practices, cultural processes and experiences and interpretations of teachers and students are studied. Current changes in Finnish and European educational and labour policies, as well as the historical background of vocational schooling, provide the context for the analysis. General (academically oriented) upper secondary education is regarded as a reference to which vocational education is reflected. Also young people’s transitions to secondary education and forward are explored. The focus is on dimensions of difference, such as gender, social background, ethnicity, sexuality, background in special education, age, and their interlinking. In dialog with actors in the field, more inclusive pedagogies and educational practices are searched.

Research questions, data and methods
The project includes four interlinked subprojects with Post Doc, PhD or MA studies in each. Within the context of upper secondary education, the following broad research questions will be studied:

1) How are citizenship and differences between students constructed in policy documents?
2) How are citizenship and differences constructed in educational processes and practices?
3) How do teachers enact agency by adapting, negotiating and challenging changing educational politics, and how do they reflect on differences between students?
4) How have students of different decades enacted agency by adapting, negotiating and challenging possibilities and restrictions in post-compulsory educational transitions?

The contextualisation of the study, presented in the first research question, is in European and Finnish texts of educational politics and policies and statistics from the 1970s to the current situation. Here the ’Foucauldian’ discourse analysis, deconstructive reading and genealogical analysis are utilised. Tentative answers to the second question are searched through ethnographic observations and interviews within some institutions of upper secondary vocational education, most thoroughly in the field of social and health care. Teachers’ experiences and interpretations in various institutions are studied through narrative interviews. Educational transitions are explored by – in most cases ethnographically grounded – life historical interviews of people who have finished compulsory education in the 1970s, 1990s and in the beginning of the 21st century.

Researchers and research context
The project is based at the University of Helsinki, Department of Education. It comprises of independent studies in which citizenship, agency and differences are studied within upper secondary education and in educational transitions, with special focus on vocational education. All participants have a common core interest in relation to the topic and research questions of the project, conceptual framework and theoretical and methodological background. Research themes within the project include:

A. Labour market citizenship and welfare state professionalism in the context of vocational education in social and health care (Sirpa Lappalainen and Maire Antikainen)

B. Teachers in changing practices of vocational education (Ulpukka Isopahkala-Bouret, Aino-Maija Lahtinen and Leila Pehkonen)

C. Multiple transitions: agency of young people in post-compulsory educational choices (Elina Lahelma, Jukka Lehtonen, Tarja Palmu, Kristiina Brunila and Tuuli Kurki)

D. Being special in the learning society? 'Competent citizen' and the discursive practices of the vocational special needs education and training (Katariina Hakala, Reetta Mietola and Anna-Maija Niemi)

Currently several master students conduct their thesis in the project and some of them will continue as doctoral students after finishing their master thesis.

National and international research collaboration
Co-operation has started with professor Leena Koski and Dr Mari Käyhkö at the University of Joensuu and docent Karin Filander at the University of Kuopio. Joint interest in neo-liberal educational policies unites project with the project of the Academy of Finland at the Universities of Joensuu and Lapland, directed by docent Katri Komulainen. Close collaboration will be done with Sanna Aaltonen at the Department of Sociology, University of Helsinki. The project is in process of constructing more close international research collaboration with professor Elisabet Öhrn and professor Dennis Beach at the University College of Borås and Lisbeth Lundahl at the University of Umeå. In the Nordic context, the above collaboration is included in a new research network on critical educational studies (NorCrit). Professor Anne-Lise Arnesen is the main Norwegian collaborate of this network.