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Other's perspectives on theory

A practitioner's perspective

It seems appropriate to revisit why it is that an understanding of career and guidance theory is so fundamental to any research into professional career guidance practice. There are a number of reasons, not least:

  • Theory influences practice. The theoretical approaches that careers advisers encounter during training are a major influence on how they work.
  • Theory provides a structure for interactions with clients to ensure they are purposeful and move towards identifiable outcomes.
  • Theory creates the shared understanding and terminology that is a necessary pre-requisite for discussion and debate of practice, research and research in / on practice.
  • ‘Old’ theories inform current practice, where they are found to be wanting ‘new’ theories can pave the way for progression and innovation.

Whatever the debate on the relative merits of particular theories: theory has helped to mould the way in which careers advisers have worked (Gothard et al 2001:35)

Research suggests that careers advisers are heavily influenced by the theoretical models to which they have been exposed in training, the 1994 survey by NICEC, found guidance theory to be particularly influential on interviewing style among practitioners. Certainly, access to theoretical insights is often dependent on initial training (Kidd et al 1993, Kidd, 1996:203), as this represents the most obvious gateway to professional knowledge.

The particular theory a practitioner subscribes to, whether consciously or unconsciously is therefore likely to dictate the manner of work, and it might be expected this will influence how any guidance intervention is approached, whether that is a traditional face to face guidance interview or information provision by email. An awareness of the differences in such ideologies will allow practitioners to make informed choices about which approach is most acceptable to them. Without this knowledge of theory, careers advisers may find themselves working in ways contrary to their own values. The compliant professional is after all no more politically neutral than the social activist (Irving & Marris, 2002:146). It was ever the case that:

Careers education and guidance is a profoundly political process (Watts, 1996:351)

model...provides a firm structure designed to achieve the desired outcome… without this firm base, the interview will resemble a cosy chat (Ali and Graham 1996:44)

Theory can help to ensure interactions are purposeful. Neglect of theory, can lead to client and practitioner frustration and a clouding of intent. Further, the inability to articulate intended outcomes of careers education and guidance hampers evaluation and makes it hard to argue the case in support of maintaining a profession of guidance practitioners. Theory can assist practitioners and policy makers alike in assessing quality of provision. Without the creation and maintenance of shared notions and values of the purpose and practice of guidance, evaluation is likely to be a flawed if not actually misleading process (McNair, 1993:57).

Whilst theory is not the only influence on practice, it does allow discussion of what is going on in careers education and guidance interactions. Equally, through an examination of what happens in practice it is possible to see what theories (intended or otherwise) might be evident. If the manner of working represents a progressive new departure, then recording this might be the beginning of developing a shared framework of reference from which other practitioners could learn. If it suggests actual outcomes are contrary to the intentions of the interaction, then theory can help open this to scrutiny, challenge and therefore potential change. It has been noted that:

academic research and theory will almost always come too late to be practical, so counsellors must engage in their own research and theorising (Collin, 1998:90)

As Kidd expresses it:

If careers counsellors are to become both effective practitioners and reflective professionals, using theory to identify particular techniques and synthesising theory to develop a personal counselling style are of equal importance. (Kidd, 1996:207)

If practitioners are to be reflective professionals, as opposed to functionaries who operate solely as effective practitioners, (Kidd et al, 1994:392) then it could be argued theory needs to take centre stage. If current theories are found wanting in some respects, that could be the impetus for the generation of new theoretical perspectives, rather than evidence of the irrelevance of theory altogether. Without a ‘good shot in the arm’ for theory, (Arthur et al 1989:7), there is an ever present danger of stagnation. After all, if a theory is articulated it can be discussed and debated, it may not (and perhaps should not) attempt to establish consensus, but might at least facilitate communication, comprehension and research (Norcross & Grencavage 1989).

Theory is therefore crucial not only because prior theories continue to exert an influence on current practice, but also because developing new theories might inform future practice and ensure careers education and guidance is able to evolve and incorporate goals and techniques that are appropriate to the new technological age. Many voices have raised the issue of addressing the limitations of theory (Collin & Watts, 1996; Arthur et al, 1989). As expressed by Maranda & Comeau, (2000:49) ‘The time has come’. Guidance workers need to develop their analytical skills in ways that allow them to develop new ‘dynamic types of intervention’, (2000:48) the role of theory is fundamental to such a revolution in practice and hence should form the basis of any research in practice!

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A trainer/researcher's perspective

Thompson (2000) argues persuasively for the use of theory, generally, in professional practice. All of his arguments are relevant to guidance. Some of them are summarised below:


Theory provides an alternative to relying, uncritically, on a common sense. This is necessary because common sense often perpetuates and/or reinforces discriminatory and oppressive practices (e.g. a women's place is in the home).

Continuous professional development

If practice becomes routine, the practitioner may fail to think about his/her work and fall into rigid repetition. Schon (1983) refers to this as `selective inattention'. Theories provide frameworks of explanation so that we can extend and develop our understanding of our professional context. Professional development is increasingly demanded of practitioners who are extorted to become `reflective practitioners', and theory must play a central role in this process.

Professional accountability

Guidance services are still very dependant on public expenditure. With this funding, comes a range of mechanisms to hold services accountable (appraisals, audits, reviews, etc.). When required to account for their behaviour and actions, it is essential that practice can be articulated in an explanatory framework which:

  • clarifies the basis of the intervention and the objectives set
  • explains the actions taken to meet the objectives and the reasons for doing so
  • evaluates the intervention

Inappropriate responses

Failure to draw on updated, theoretical knowledge may lead to inappropriate response on the part of the practitioner. While a theory-based approach does not guarantee an appropriate response, it does give a framework for analysing the situation and generating a number of possible options (i.e. as `reserves' to back up to the routine use of implicit knowledge).

This reminds us of the importance of our choice of theory for practice and the need to keep abreast of theory developments.

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A researcher's perspective

This contribution is based upon my reading of an article reporting on a study of career counseling practitioners and their reflections on theory, practice and research.

Although this article clearly links theory and practice, I don't think that Chris Brown explicitly makes a case for using theory and practice. It seems that this is a very complicated and inconsequential process for practitioners. However, he does clearly state that practitioners, theorists and researchers need to collaborate. Overall, some simple conclusions are suggested and I think these are worth exploring further.

To draw together and summarise his findings:

A clear definition of practioners and their types of services they offer is needed in order for clients to know who to ask IAG from. This links in nicely with the discussion 'what's in a name?' as the author is defintiely arguing that the 'name' is important particularly when this is linked to concepts of guidance, advice and guidance.

A constant colloaboration between practitioners and theorists is needed to ensure that both professionals are addressing the needs on practitioners and clients, the changing understandings of 'career' and the applicability of theory to practice. He makes several suggestions on how to do this, such as face-to-face meetings, encourage the practitioner to inform theory through reflections on thier own experiences.

As a novice to this field I found this quite an interesting article. I would love to know what other think of this article and perhaps recommend some further reading I can do!

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What do you think?

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