"They did not give up on me.": Vocational students’ perceptions of the special support in their studying.

Research output: ThesisDoctoral ThesisCollection of Articles


This dissertation investigated the elements that vocational education and training (VET) students who received intensive learning support perceived as the most relevant to enhance their studying, sense of belonging and what would create the domains for good VET. Earlier research on VET has shown that versatile, individually tailored measures of special support, teachers’ and other VET stakeholders’ understanding attitude impact both on students’ engagement in their studying, their success in their learning and comprehensive well-being. According to the Act on VET (531/2017) the aim of special support is firstly to permit equal access to vocational studying for those who have challenges in learning. Secondly, pedagogical special support is provided, if necessary, to ensure the attainment of the qualification requirements. However, these intentions do not necessarily end up embracing students’ perceptions of the aspects enhancing their studying, sense of belonging and good VET. Thus, the aim of the study was to examine students’ perceptions and to determine what elements they appreciated. The theoretical framework of the dissertation was Axel Honneth’s theory of recognition which suggests that an individual’s identity is established in social relations when one’s abilities and achievements are recognized. Social interactions shape both individuals’ identity and the normative mechanisms upon which society is founded. The other relevant concepts of the dissertation were derived from the ambition to provide an in-depth investigation on students’ needs. These multiple theories worked as pillars to verify and confirm the results of the study.

The three studies summarized in the dissertation were based on empirical interview data. The studies used multiple methods (content analysis, the narrative’s positioning and actantial analysis) to investigate the position and the needs of the vocational students who received intensive special support. Interviews (N=29) were carried out in 2018 and 2019. The first data set (n=11) consisted of interviews with students in four vocational colleges providing intensive special support. The students’ experiences of the interaction between student and class teacher were in the focus of Study 1. The results indicated that students put only modest demands on their studying and on their teachers. The interaction between a student and a teacher was study-oriented and teacher-lead. According to the students’ descriptions, the interaction situations with the teachers were comfortable but formal and distant. Study 1 concluded that as part of the larger purpose of vocational education to support the growth of the students into autonomous, balanced and civilized citizens, it would be important to make room for the students’ voice and support their interpretations during their studying. This would include both acquiring qualifications for a profession, subjectification as an empowering element and socialization of the social, cultural and political order.

Study 2 was based on the interviews with students (n=18) who were qualifying from a vocational special college. Its purpose was to elaborate on students’ experiences of their VET studying and mirror these aspects with Biesta’s (2010, 2020) theory on domains of good education - qualification, socialization, and subjectification. Finnish VET must be founded on inclusive principles that provide all students with the opportunity to become professionals of their fields, balanced and civilized citizens and assist them entering the world. However, the results of Study 2 summed up that instead of emphasizing individually personalized study paths to fulfil the qualification requirements even more attention should be paid to the subjective growth of the students and provide them with real encounters with the world out of college context.

Drawing on Scheff (2000, 2003), the third study reported on the dynamics of the social emotions and social bonds between students (n=11) and class teachers. In the study I observed social emotions like shame and pride as the primary emotions that are present in all communication and action. The results of Study 3 demonstrated that pride was based on the students’ experiences in achieving their study objectives and thereby pleasing their teachers who had set the objectives. Pride related to the students’ ability to see positive development in their studying and in their sense of social belonging. Whereas students who experienced shame could not perceive themselves as being subjects of positive development. The study claimed that social belonging and communality need more space and attention in VET system instead of emphasizing competence and effective individual study paths.

To conclude, the three studies reflected on students’ perception on the elements that enhance their studying, sense of belonging and domains of good VET. On the bases of the studies, it became apparent that students with intensive special needs appreciated their opportunity to study, to gain new skills and knowledge and to be more autonomous citizens. Understanding and supportive teaching staff was a significant pillar for the success of their studying. The dissertation argues that the students struggled for recognition which means that they wanted to be depicted by significant others in a broad-minded and positive way not only as students with special needs but as human beings with valuable skills and capabilities. The dissertation calls for awareness rising: a student with special needs in one area of life can be a top expert in another.

The study suggests that VET teachers should acknowledge their role as change agents who could support both students and employers in diverse and equal employment and management. Furthermore, the dissertation claims that it is not enough to understand the special needs of the students to change the world, but we need education policy measures and practices which are disconnected from the economic growth and efficacy. This would call an education system which practices are developed towards ecological, social and economic sustainability. A VET system which has pledged itself to responsibility, fairness and mutual recognition, to the principles of ecosocial wisdom. The dissertation suggests that processes of dialectic recognition are the heart of the process of sustainable VET.
Original languageFinnish
Awarding Institution
  • Faculty of Educational Sciences
Award date20 Jan 2023
Place of PublicationHelsinki
Print ISBNs978-951-51-8740-6
Electronic ISBNs978-951-51-8741-3
Publication statusPublished - 20 Jan 2023
MoE publication typeG5 Doctoral dissertation (article)

Fields of Science

  • 516 Educational sciences

Cite this