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why we need a career-learning theory now

learning-to-learn features in four steps to reforming learning-for-living

Cloud created by:

Bill Law
16 October 2012

Bill Law
the career-learning café

Career-learning theory was first published in 1996.  It argues that the most important features of careers work are those which enable people to think for themselves.  This is learning-to-learn, sometimes called ‘metacognition’.  It is applied here to careers work, but it’s features are designed to be useful to all education professions.  It is a questioning technique, and there is no topic on any learning programme which can escape the importance of asking not just...

 ...‘what do you know?’

but also...

...‘how do you know it’

What-you-know may be soon discarded, contradicted or outdated.  But, once learned, how-you-know can be applied to any task, and need never be lost. 

These ideas are applied here to careers work and to other educators who take learning to be a useful preparation for life - not just for passing exams but learning for living.

There are other formulations of metacognition - characterised, for example, as ‘learning circles’ and ‘learning styles’.  But few have the depth and breadth of research-based thinking invested in career-learning theory.  It is a meta-analysis drawing on a wide range of behaviour-science - largely from sociological ethnography and psychological  learning theory.

All that has happened since its publication reinforces the importance of its ideas.  It can readily be applied to today’s experience of economic, cultural and environmental change - both world-wide and local.  The need for ‘how-do-you-know?’ questioning has never been greater.

The ideas are built into Bill’s invited presentation on career-learning theory, for the Danish VUE conference in November.

                                 note: the links you'll find here are to immediate sources in Bill's work,
                         but each contains extensive references to the sources which inform that work

The ideas signpost how educators can... 

  1. see where career-learning theory belongs in education thinking
  2. apply it to the processes of learning-for-living
  3. appreciate why enabling such thinking is now more urgent than ever
  4. claim a place in the reshaping of that work


1. who says what?  - a distinctive perspective

Careers-work professionalism has, over a century, collected a range of ways of talking about how working life develops.  We have theories about...

 ‘matching’ and ‘chaos’ - 'community’ and ‘capital’ -

 ‘mindfulness’ and ‘nudge’ - ‘development’ and ‘boundary-less’ -

 ‘constructs’ and ‘dissonance’ - and ‘attribution’

There are issues: for example ‘chaos’ does not naturally invite ‘matching’; ‘community’ works differently for those who have little ‘capital’; and why take trouble with patiently enabling mindfulness when a conditioning ‘nudge’ is quicker and easier?; also, can we set a framework around development if career is actually boundary-less’?; are ‘constructs‘ more or less useful when they are ‘dissonant’; and, anyway, where do student and client ‘attributions’ figure in any of this?  You’ll know other theories, and they will raise other issues.

Stacking finding upon finding doesn’t resolve any of the issues.  We need another way of organising our ideas.  And career learning has a place in one of three distinctive perspectives on learning-for-living.  The perspectives are ...

  • learning development, calling on our theoretical knowledge
  • programme delivery, calling on how we practically help
  • learning-for-living, calling on student and client experience

Career-learning theory is in the third line - it is what students and clients do, which is different from what we think and what we say.  People conduct their lives with or without the benefit of our theoretical expertise and practical help.  And career-learning theory distinctively seeks to understand how people make use of whatever they find - whether they find that with us or in some other way.  Its authority is their experience rather than our expertise.  Career-learning thinking completes a partnership between our theory, its practice and their reality.


2. learning for living - part of a wider understanding

Everybody is capable of framing and reframing what they learn.  It is part of our species’ fingerhold on survival - finding out what is going on and figuring out what to do about it.  It is a constant process of linking what people find to what they do - on the savannah, on the street and on-line

A requirement for such learning is transfer (pages 19-21): it means that what is learned in one place is used in another.  It links reminders in the learning to experience in the life.  Without those links learning is not carried from where it is learned to where it is used, and - therefore - is not learning-for-living.

There is more: that internalising and embedding of experience becomes part of an embodied identity (pages 21-22).  It is manifested in the physical presence of one person with another - we call it ‘body language’.

And so...

 ‘learning reminding me of life - and life reminding me of learning’

‘what I find in experience’ - ‘becomes as much me as a fingerprint’

and means ‘finding out’  - ‘sorting out’ - ‘checking out’ - ‘figuring out’

Career learning is a third element in that triad - here set out in conversational terms.  In that position career learning is part of a day-on-day entwined process - learning something useful..., embedding it..., transfering it to where it will make a difference....  

The technical account of that conversational process is...

  • transferring learning to life
  • gathering and internalising a way of seeing
  • sensing and then sifting and then focusing and then understanding

How distinctive is the career-learning process?:  it is progressive - each step preparing the way for each succeeding step.  And that progression expands the ‘how-do-you-know?’ question into a bases for self interrogation...

 ‘enough to go on?’  > ‘sorted out?  >  ‘what needs probing?’  > ‘how it can work out?’

It is also generic:  there really is no boundary to how many ’who?’, ‘what?’, ‘where?’, ‘when?’, ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ questions that search can generate.  And everything else that happens in that triadic process depends on the effectiveness of that scrutiny - ‘what is fact?’, ‘...opinion?’, ‘...useful?’, ‘...credible?’.

But this is not a content-free process - there is no such thing.   A person is reminded in the learning of how it can concretely be used in life.  But the person is invited to pose the process questions - thinking less about ‘what do I believe and do?’, more about ‘what makes it worth believing and doing?’. 


3. working through confusion - out of the comfort zone

Learning is never entirely comfortable, and significant learning can be seriously disturbing.  One of the primary research-based sources concerning learning-for-living is Jean Piaget (page 10).  He sets learning in a context of experience, he sees what happens as a process of construct building, and he sets out learning as a stage-by-stage process.  It is not surprising to find his work constantly revisited.  And he sees confusion and discomfort as an essential  feature of learning - he calls it ‘disequalibrium’. 

Some of that discomfort concerns other people.  An extensive collation of evidence on community influences shows how people take account of other people's needs, feelings and interests in managing their own careers - even where it may limit their own life chances.

However internalised learning may be, talk of ‘decision-making skills’ takes too little account of real-life struggles.  It is not easy to let go of attachments to others, in trying to accommodate a promising new future.  And it is no less of a struggle to assimilate new ways of seeing things, when the need to hold on to what the past has valued still feels so right.

Career learning does not evade such disequalibrium, it works through it.  And it does so to a point where, whatever is held onto and whatever is let go, something new becomes possible.  Whether experience is chaotic or just complex and confusing, it enables people with ready-for-anything flexibility.  And without that kind of adaptability there is no prospect of social mobility... 

 ‘change in my life’ - ‘..neighbourhood’ - ‘’ - ‘...the planet’

‘my people...’ - ‘background...’ -  ‘experience...’ - ‘...overlooked’

‘bad feelings...’ - ‘...question' - ‘...hold-on if I will - ‘...let go if I must’

The career-learning part of this process is a critical and self critical tool (pages 11-13).  It equips people with a willingness to interrogate one’s own life in such terms...

  • from the personal to the planetary
  • for ready-for-anything flexibility
  • in holding on and letting go

Education must not allow itself to fall into a position of helping most those whose experience best positions them to cope with change.  It would mean helping least those who most need our help.  The need for flexibility in dealing with unforeseen change is greatest among the poor and the dispossessed (pages 16-20).  

And for education professionals, not working with the career-learning processes of both holding on and letting go, means that twenty years of experience can be no more than one year of experience repeated twenty times.


4. re-positioning careers work - claiming your future

There is no future for this work in trying to revitalise twentieth-century answers to twenty-first century questions.  What people face is different, the sources they go to are different, and whom they defer to is different.  And if they are changing the way they learn then education must change the way it helps.

But there is here an issue for independent professionalism: what people find immediately credible is not all that careers work has to offer.  And, as every dietician knows, what people seek is not always what they need...

 ‘coach me for the race’ - ‘invite me on a journey’

 ‘following others’ - ‘wondering about celebrities’ - ‘making a distinctive self’

 ‘gut dealing with conflict’ - ‘heart speaking to chaos’ - ‘my story finding its point’

The word ‘career’ has its own metaphors for this: one conjures images of ‘careering’ around a race-track, another pictures people travelling in a ‘carriage’.  But the people are more likely to buy the more immediate rewards of winning a race.  Yet it is journeying which finds the richer and deeper experience of life, and it is journeying which is more inclusive.  A journey can contain a race, but a race will not contain a journey.  There can be dissonance between what people seek and what we offer.

The uses of narrative may be a way in.  Experience can only be set down as narrative.  And it is plot or genre which gives a story its meaning, and meaning that gives a life its point.  Indeed, there are said to be ‘basic plots’ (pages 10-11), and they are thought to relate ready-made meanings.  It is what myths, legends, parables, fables and fairy-tales do.  But, however many fairy-tales a person might indulge, the spur to purpose in life comes from how we each learn to tell our own story - and attribute our own meaning to it.  Even recruiters understand that they do not need to listen to another fairy-tale, they need to hear something which is about this person as it is about no other.  Like it or not, that will attract their attention and stick in their memory.

This is why career-learning thinking is not completed, until a draft autobiography is probed with those ’who?’, ‘what?’, ‘where?’, ‘when?’, ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ questions.  The questioning philosophy of career-learning thinking invites people to construct their own story.  They can tell of instinct and intuition, meaning and purpose and springboards for action...

  • of mainly a journey, sometimes a race
  • in an autobiography, not a fairy tale
  • established through critical, and self-critical, questioning

This is a basis for claiming one’s stake in society.  And, once learned, it is indefinitely re-usable, for learning in any sphere of life.

Returning to an educator's role, its life-long and life-wide scope makes career-learning theory applicable to any topic, for any programme, in any setting.  And if management constraints on programme development will not allow the space-and-place this works needs, then learning-for-living can move out of conventional ‘education’ settings (pages 24-27), into others more realistically linked to what is going on in people’s lives - from the personal to the planetary.

Re-positioned students and clients means re-positioning the helper.  And one of the most valuable skills that a trained career adviser and educator can bring to that programme is the ability to pose and enable awkward questions (pages 10-13)- which is at the heart of career-learning theory.

It’s going to be a long job, so there’s no time to lose.  But innovation in education does not mean being 'kwick-and-eazy' - it means being useful, appropriate and sustainable.

Wouldn’t you say?


                                                                      animated presentation
                                             ’why careers-work reform needs career-learning theory’

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