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managing careers, convenient myths and local voices

how geography maps a basis for reforming the well-being curriculum

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Bill Law
22 June 2012

Bill Law
The Career-learning Café

There’s much talk among careers workers of the value of reliable assessment and impartial information.  It belongs to ideas about matching the qualities of an individual to the requirements of an opportunity.  It draws on knowledge of labour economy and of differential psychology.

Such thinking position careers workers as front-loading into the labour economy.  Its leaders see the work as supporting economic productivity.  If they are right, the effectiveness of careers work is tested by how fully the outputs of an education become the inputs of the economy.

But it all makes a lot of assumptions; and they are largely mythical...

  • careers work is in no position to accrue a significant net gain for national economic performance
  • assumptions about such decision-making rationality have little support, even among economists
  • life chances are as likely to rest on some combination of accidental encounter, well-positioned background and instinctive impulsive

None of this pictures a towering individual, freely making independent decisions, based on a balancing of factors.  And the idea that what comes out of that process benefits rather than damages the rest of us is pure mythology.  Somebody should make an on-line wargame fantasy about it – somebody probably will.  But the evidence tells a different story.

The towering dragons and their sorcerers’ apprentices probably know they are dishing up myths.  But they’re bright enough to know that these are convenient myths – rampant individualism is convenient to...

  • leaders who rake in rewards by persuading others that all progress depends on trail-blazing individuals
  • commerce which flatters consumers, romances candidates, and isolates employees by steering away from the collective and towards the individual  
  • governments which claim that social damage can be fixed by firmly dealing with feckless and undeserving individuals

And we need better to understand the to-and-fro between what are internal claims on ‘respect’, ‘freedom’ and ’confidence’ and what are external experiences of stress, manipulation and anxiety.

In a sane society the people best placed to work on probing any resulting crock of delusion would be educators.  That curriculum deals with the power of contemporary mythology, and the interests it serves.  Would that be careers education?   Probably not, no time or space for that kind of exploration.  And, anyway, it would get minority support – schools and universities are widely assumed to be for supporting the advertising and propaganda which steers individual employables towards national competitiveness.  Is that why teachers become teachers?

A relevant  conference has been organised.

 ‘Space, Place and Social Justice in Education’

Why ‘space and place’?  It’s because the evidence shows how geography relates to chances in life.  The ways people experience ‘respect’, ‘freedom’ and ‘confidence’ are situated.  That feeling of knowing you are probably going to be alright is place-related.  How you feel belongs to where you are.  Geographer Danny Dorling is among the few who have thoroughly documented and mapped these realities.  He will be at the conference. 

My own paper examines the varying terms in which people voice their claims on respect, freedom, confidence.  It is, I argue, a marker for their claim to a stake in society.  It kicks off from a fundamental question for social justice...

who gets to do what in society?

I find it hard to think of a more important issue for social policy.  And posing it brings careers work to the heart of that issue.  What we do about it will feed into our hopes for social mobility.  And, among those who prefer to live with convenient myths, it will feed into the pretensions they use to disguise the reality.

The article shows how the 'who-gets-to-do-what' question must be answered differently in different locations.  It examines six manifestations of place.  Each of them is differently populated - they are social enclaves.  We are social animals and work-life is part of our social membership.  In each enclave people are bound together by what shared experience has taught them.  And in each there are different beliefs about how things are, different values about what is worth getting, and different expectations about getting them.  The voicing of recognition, affirmation and membership is situated.

 Here are some of the ideas that need arguing...

...about experience

  • what seems real and useful in one place seems alien and irrelevant in another
  • from early in life, too many people have ambition progressively squeezed out of them, if these are not the ambitions that are locally favoured
  • that trap can be sprung in a sequestered suburb as much as in a run-down neighbourhood or a remote village
  • helping action which serves the interests of some can damage the interests of others
  • programmes that go well in some locations are rejected in others
  • progress depends less on what leaders claim – more on who believes them

... about what we can and can’t know

  • measures of effectiveness assume that we can say in advance what programme outcomes should be
  • we can’t, ready-for-anything flexibility has different starting-points and pursues different aspirations
  • observations of how people use learning are more useful than measures of what they learn
  • we don’t know in advance how local people will use a programme
  • discovered usefulness should dispose of ready-made tests
  • ready-for-anything flexibility is needed by people and community, it also serves commerce and society

... about professionalism

  • ready-made measures originate in commerce and policy
  • satisfying them is portrayed as a kind of patriotism
  • an evidence base can only make useful sense one location at a time
  • It must take account of embedded learning from local experience
  • parading research findings are secondary to discovering that experience
  • findings must inform professional and organisational reform as well as programme development

... about voice

heeding local voices means excluding ready-made thinking   /   otherwise targeted expertise may silence exploratory experience   /   voice means enabling people to construct their own narratives   /   narrative and exploration are mutually dependent   /   narrative starts in a place but does not necessarily stay there   /   space makes room for realising claims on respect, freedom, confidence, and a fair stake in society – which is justice

If you would rather make your case face-to-face, you could register for the conference

More important, a successful conference can remind you of why you came into your work in the first place

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