the use and abuse of narrative. Careers workers are educators - we help people to learn. Education is emerging from the grip of three-decades of regularising control - much of it called for by demand-side interests. But there is now wide-spread understanding that we need more creative ways of enabling learning-for-life. That search is embarked not only by teachers and their advisers, but also by politicos and theirs.
And, yet again, our metaphors need reworking (1 - below). It's easy to think of career as positioning - as if in 'a race’. But it is becoming more useful to think of career as traveling - as if on 'a journey’. The term 'coaching' derives from the race metaphor. But it’s getting harder to see how fitting people to be winners in a well-regulated race stays as useful as it once might have been. A person needs first to find out what events are still being run, to ask what else is possible, and to figure out which is worth the effort. The term 'exploring' derives from the journey metaphor. It is easier, now, to see the usefulness of enabling people to embark a not-entirely-predictable journey. They need to be up for unforeseen possibilities, to venture into unexplored paths, and to find routes that - until now - nobody ever thought might be there.
A race is an event, a journey is a story. As a species we pay a lot of attention to narratives. One of the most effective ways for making sense of a muddle is to recount it as a story (2 - below). This is a pattern-making activity. And media, politics and education are accumulating evidence that people most readily learn from narratives. So much so that we actively seek out stories - every soap, every lyric, and every bit of gossip is devoured on a daily basis. All are narrative forms.
But there is more to the uses of narrative than may, at first sight, be obvious. People are interested in stories because they give us each a clue to our own. So we want to interrogate them. We enjoy finding out how one thing leads to another...
‘what did he do?’
‘how did she react?’
It’s the plot. It’s also an anecdote. But wait a minute - can an anecdote be a reliable guide to action? Do anecdotes offer generalisable patterns? It would mean that one person's past can become another's future.
That possibility can be inspiring. Barack Obama’s inauguration was moving - more than anything for the joyous tears, on black faces, turned towards dawning hope...
‘if this can happen for one of us, it can happen for any of us’.
Don’t dismiss it - with that kind of hope anything is possible. But does that mean that the way it worked out for him will be the way it will work out for you. The hard-headed say ‘no!’, because...
‘you can’t generalise from an anecdote!’
But suppose the hard-headed have missed something. To find it we need to go back a couple of steps. We are on unfamiliar terrain, where exploratory journeying is more useful than positioning for a win. And - while raising questions in the middle of a race is not a good idea - not exercising curiosity on a journeying is missing the point. The key concept here is finding flexibility for dealing with an uncertain world. And that means probing the irregularities - for they are the pervasive reality of this terrain. We move on less by tightly-concentrated competition more by widely-searching exploration...
‘find new paths’ / ‘be curious’ / ‘put old learning to new use’ /
‘take nothing for granted’ / ‘be intuitive’ /
‘know when you’re being lucky’ / ‘not just for you but for yours’ /
‘be interested in the likes of whom you’ve never met before' /
‘watch for the unexpected’ / ‘notice turning points’
‘see things differently / ‘change your mind’ /
‘get a grip’ / ‘bounce back’ / ‘find another way /
‘see how one things leads to another’
It’s narrative talk, but not in a way that tries to cut-and-paste somebody else’s story into your own. It’s probing the journey at a deeper level. And - here is the pattern - it is that scrutiny which gives our work its new ‘rules’. The rules are not now about asking what happened - they are about asking...
‘why did she do that?’
‘would I deal with it that way?’
‘how would me-and-mine feel about it’
‘and how would that work out for us?’
It’s motivation, not plot, that drives this story. To set out to inspire people into believing that they can import other people’s stories into there own - that is an abuse of narrative. To figure out what that other life can mean for me - this is to learn from narrative. The patterns of how to learn from narrative in this way have bee worked out - so that what is most useful in one person's story can be used in another's (3 - below).
Such learning is for flexibility at a deeper level than putting people at the labour market’s beck-and-call, deeper even than fitting work around family needs. This is flexibility which takes account not just of domestic but of civil, ethical and environmental frames for working life. It re-examines deeply-rooted habits-of-mind. It awakens inner life, confronts inconvenient truths and re-negotiates structural realities. It gets-to-grips at a level of application as demanding as any that we have ever faced. And, this time, none of us is exempt.
The implications for what we do to help are radical. This kind of programme design calls for creative thinking on the partnerships we make, the materials we use and methods we engage. It call for a more-probing research-and-development programme. And carries us way beyond edge-of-timetable careers education and hit-and-run guidance (4 - below).