WIL as a research topic

A new “grammar” can help us define the future of WIL

After almost 20 years experience of the concept of work integrated learning (WIL), and participation in various conversations and discussions about what WIL is, I am increasingly convinced that it is more relevant to ask the question what WIL can become in the future? WIL can be described as a new discipline within the social sciences and humanities and has for the past 30 years sought its scientific identity within University West.

During these 30 years, various attempts have been made to define what WIL is, but it has been a challenging work. One fundamental reason for this is that there has been a lack of an internal grammar and an internal descriptive language which is a necessity if we want to develop and formulate a “new” discipline within academia.

WIL as a new discipline is based on a set of “mother disciplines” (e.g., sociology, philosophy, psychology, and pedagogy) which each have their own specific knowledge structures, research objects and specialized languages and which must be seen in relation to their own “disciplinary structures”. WIL can thus be seen as a mix of different disciplines, loosely combined to enable studies of learning and knowledge production in work and educational practices.

My reasoning is based on Bernstein’s concept (Bernstein, 2000) “grammar” which offers an opportunity to clarify the knowledge structure of a discipline. What Bernstein (2000) means by grammar is that a discipline has a specific language structure that comprises both an external and an internal descriptive language. The internal language helps us to construct the conceptual knowledge objects of a discipline and the relations between them, while the external language defines what counts as an “empirical reference, how these references relate to each other, and translate these references back to the internal language” (Hordern, 2021, p. 1457). By engaging in further discussions on and problematizations of how WIL’s external and internal descriptive language could take shape, it becomes possible to develop WIL as a new discipline and clarify the tensions that exist for the WIL-discipline in a society with great challenges for learning and knowledge production.

Furthermore, the difference between “old” disciplines such as sociology, philosophy, psychology, and pedagogy, and WIL as a new discipline, is that the “old” disciplines can be defined with reference to their own specific ”grammar”. While “old” disciplines have historically controlled their own problems and the direction of their knowledge production, new disciplines must develop in close connection to and “monitor” how both the grammar and the knowledge production of the old disciplines develop.

My main point is that WIL, as a new discipline, has both a rather loose connection to its “mother” disciplines (see examples above), and a rather vague internal language that needs to be clarified and specified to develop a scientific perspective on WIL.

Some might say that we have already developed an internal language about WIL and my answer is that it must be an ongoing process of development, discussion, and clarification. The next question is whether if it is necessary to develop an internal descriptive language and my answer is yes! If we want to establish WIL within academia, an internal and external language is necessary to develop.

Another strong argument to strengthen WIL’s grammar is that a well-defined and developed WIL-grammar will increase the opportunity to produce powerful knowledge within both work and educational practices. This suggests that there is reason to develop a coherent scientific grammar through which WIL can be evaluated over time. This grammatical development work will also allow us to ask ourselves the question what WIL can become in the future, not what it is today!

Jan Gustafsson Nyckel, Professor in Educational science, University West

Bernstein, B. (2000) Pedagogy, symbolic control and identity (2nd edn) (New York, Rowman & Littlefield).

Hordern, J. (2021). Why close to practice is not enough: Neglecting practice in educational research. British Educational Research Journal, 47 (6), pp. 1451–1465

Be the First to comment.

Thank you, Jan, for the first blog about WIL reflections.
I agree with the importance that we need a common and communicated grammar linked to WIL. You have expressed the importance of us “speaking the same language”, both for ourselves in research and education and for others interested in the society. It will be easier to formulate the need for new research and convey messages and findings if we get “A new grammar that can help us define the future of WIL”

Jan, I agree with your argument that we need to develop a clearer WIL-grammar, and also with Anette’s thoughtful comment. Furthermore, since WIL is multifaceted phenomenon, I think it is desirable if this clearer and more developed WIL-grammar is pluralistic nature and thereby recognises that WIL can mean different things in different contexts.

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