In search for significance

The In Search for Significance project is funded by the Academy of Finland (2019–2023). It seeks to identify and test ways in which adolescents can find and cultivate significance in their lives, understood as perspectives and actions that connect the adolescents’ personal interests with activities and projects for a just and equitable world. The project is led by professor Yrjö Engeström.
Project description

In this project funded by the Academy of Finland (2019–2023), we seek to identify and test ways in which adolescents can find and cultivate significance in their lives, understood as perspectives and actions that connect the adolescents’ personal interests with activities and projects for a just and equitable world. The adolescents will take the position of agents actually redesigning their activities by means of projects. This will be accomplished with the help of Change Laboratory interventions conducted in two schools. The 14-year old middle-school students will be the central agents of change.

Phelan & al. (1998) identified three worlds of adolescents: family, peers, and the school. What matters is how the youngsters manage transitions between the three worlds. This project draws on cultural-historical activity theory and significantly expands Phelan’s model. We recognize two additional spheres of activity in the lives of young people, namely social media and civic activity. The search for significance is an expansive process of learning. It requires the overcoming of encapsulation of the worlds by cultivating projects selected and designed by the adolescents.

The project seeks to answer the following research questions:

  1. What kinds of individual and collective trajectories of development emerge when adolescents envision and put in practice local initiatives that give significance to their lives?
  2. Which instruments are effective in facilitating movement across the five activity spheres of the adolescents in search for significance?
  3. In which ways does the Change Laboratory method need to be adjusted and further developed to allow the adolescents to become authors of their own lives?

The first Change Laboratory is conducted in the Pitäjänmäki school in Helsinki in the fall of 2020. The participants are 8th grade students. The project will trace and identify different trajectories of search for significance among the participants. The analysis will focus on the participants’ actions and instruments of boundary-crossing across their different spheres of activity. The project will generate a new, interventionist model for promoting sustained search for significance among adolescents.

Team leader

Leader of the project "In search for sig­ni­fic­ance" is professor Yrjö Engeström.


Engeström, Y., Rantavuori, P., Ruutu, P., & Tapola-Haapala, M. (2022). The hybridisation of adolescents’ worlds as a source of developmental tensions: A study of discursive manifestations of contradictionsEducational Review.

Conference presentations

FERA: Sustainable education – sustainable future (December 15–16, 2020)

From future orientation to future-making: A difficult move in the formation of adolescents’ transformative agency.

Nuorten omaa toimijuutta koskevat itsekategorisoinnit: Tutkimustuloksia ja metodologisia pohdintoja.

Nothing happens until something moves – embodied interaction of adolescents in the Change Laboratory intervention.

Sosiaalityön tutkimuksen päivät: Sosiaalityö professiona (February 18–19, 2021)

Merkityksellinen elämä – näkökulmia sosiaalityön koulutukseen

INSA conference: Collaboration: Working together towards improved attendance (October 13–14, 2021)

Why do I come to school? – Adolescents’ projects in a Change Laboratory as sources for improved school attendance.

What can school give? Toward an opening a black box of school subjects (poster presentation).

Nuorisotutkimuspäivät 2021: Käännekohtia – nuoret yhteiskunnallisissa muutoksissa (November 4–5, 2021)

Muutoslaboratoriotyöskentelyä nuorten kanssa – kanssatutkimuksellisia reflektioita.

FERA: Oppiva ja hyvinvoiva yksilö ja yhteisö (November 24–26, 2021)

In search for significance: Fostering movement across the five worlds of adolescents.

From mental future orientation to material future-making: A Change Laboratory for adolescents’ transformative agency.

Merkitystä etsimässä: 8.-luokkalaiset nuoret muutoksen tekijöinä.

Between formal and informal in school – Developing a fantasy role-playing game in a Change Laboratory.

RESET/CRADLE seminar (February 8, 2022)

Finding life beyond the classroom walls: De-encapsulation in a Change Laboratory supporting adolescents’ search for significance.

Sosiaalityön tutkimuksen päivät: Ympäristöt ja rakenteet sosiaalityössä (February 17–18, 2022)

Yhdessä merkitystä etsimässä – nuorten Muutoslaboratorio koulussa.

Nuorten näkökulmia vertaissuhteiden haasteisiin.

Nordic-Baltic ISCAR: Towards inclusive and just societies: a dialogue with, within and beyond CHAT  (June 14–16, 2022)

Expanding school learning through students' own initiatives. 

Developing a role-playing game in a Change Laboratory: Three lenses on the “Brotherhood of Steel” project.

JURE 2022: Unpredictable Challenges – Education in a Rapidly Changing World (July 18-22, 2022)

What can school give? Towards opening the black box of school engagement.  

The Ropecon 2022 Academic Seminar: Co-Creation and Community (July 29, 2022)

The “Brotherhood of Steel” project – Adolescents developing a role-playing game in a Change Laboratory intervention in school.