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a search for meaning

Michelle Stewart,
career-guidance practitioner

The author is in search of new thinking for her work in Connexions. Does the use of narrative offer any clues to what that might be?

I was just beginning to feel settled, comfortable and at-home in my new career, when - suddenly - with the arrival of the Connexions Service, my job title became ‘politically incorrect’. So, after some debate, confusion and finally consensus, may I introduce myself to you as a ‘specialist career-guidance practitioner’. Quite a mouthful in comparison with ‘careers adviser’, but it better explains what I do and, in part who I am, than the generic title of Personal Adviser (with or without the ‘Connexions’ prefix).

Another change is the focus on working with young people at risk of dropping out of education, training and employment. In my one-to-one work I have become aware that the tried and trusted three staged interview - known to many as Egan’s model of helping – is not helping. I am experiencing a sense of ‘nice person, different planet’. I find myself thinking that there must be other ways of communicating with these young people. Ways of gaining insight into their world; how they see themselves; how they feel; what they believe and value. It is my belief that the publication Challenging Biographies clearly points towards where the answer lies. If you like a good story, then read on...

The book is the outcome of a conference held in 2002 that brought together practitioners and academics to explore a narrative approach to careers guidance using biographies. I like that fact that it contains three essays, each offering a different but complementary perspective on the use of ‘story telling’. The fourth chapter takes the form of a dialogue between the editor, Andrew Edwards and the three authors; Linden West, Bill Law and Hazel Reid . Also, unlike some theoretical tomes I have struggled with, each chapter is written in an easy to read and fully accessible style.

insight into people

In chapter one, Linden West explores how adopting a narrative approach – that is encouraging clients to tell their story – can enable adults confronted with change to re-create themselves and move forward.

The exposition is based on research conducted among marginalised adults trying to build and manage careers with minimal resources in demanding socio-economic conditions. I thought the use of four case studies provided useful examples of how through active collaboration, the adoption of a narrative based approach provides insight into why people act and think as they do - what enables them to keep going in difficult and often oppressive situations.

For me, the studies reveal the role of significant others, the need to be listened to and the importance of ‘transitional’ space in the reconstruction of ‘self’ and rebuilding a career. All factors which I think are equally relevant to work with young people.

DOTS shortcomings?

In chapter two Bill Law helpfully explains the shortcomings of DOTS in addressing the social context of career learning, and sets out how biography can fill this gap – 'we need stories to help us see cause and effect'.

Like Linden, Bill highlights how narrative helps to understand the basis for sustainable action. I found his use of examples from literature, demonstrate how biography enables its author to communicate a unified account of ‘self-in-situation’, and provide a ‘scaffold for learning’. A clear line of argument here supported my understanding of the need for greater use of the narrative in preference to the more dominant goal-orientated models.

In particular, a break-down of the narrative into five key elements (‘people’, ‘setting’, ‘talk’, ‘events’ and ‘meaning’) combined with his description of how each moves beyond DOTS, potentially provides a new model which can support me in using story telling and its analysis.

from theory to practice

In chapter three Hazel Reid also recognises the need for finding news ways of working but, of equal importance to me as a practitioner, in considering the adoption of biography and narrative perspectives she helpfully moves from the theoretical to the practical.

Debating its usefulness, she considers issues around the investment of training, time and resources. Looking at the benefits and limitations, like Hazel, I conclude that there is no doubt about the potential of narrative-based approaches; 'working with narrative may be a better way of helping the client to enhance self-esteem, by working towards a positive self-identity in order to research life and career possibilities'.

However, in adopting an approach which allows the client to construct a career narrative that identifies with their beliefs and values, I also value her wise words of caution about when it may not be appropriate, and recognition of the need to develop an economically viable framework to support its use in career guidance.


In chapter 4 Andrew Edwards expertly draws the arguments of the three contributors together through the form of a dialogue. He anticipates many of my own questions, and he takes the debate forward.
One of these issues concerns the need for ‘realism’. Story telling does not exclude reality – because 'there is a hard world out there which never fails to intrude'.

All the contributors are agreed that people use biography to define direction and meaning. And this links directly to the sense of agency necessary to career planning.

beyond traditional boundaries

Biographical and narrative perspectives are not new, but perhaps their relevance to careers guidance - in an increasingly unpredictable world - has never been greater. Working in the Connexions Service, I frequently find myself grappling with issues beyond the traditional boundaries of careers guidance. During one-to-one work in particular, I find my thinking around a young person’s career options consistently intruded by ‘why’ questions. Why the poor self-esteem? Why the erratic attendance? Why the lack of motivation, the negative attitudes, the challenging behaviour? I know that many face the same questions.

By addressing these questions, Challenging Biographies has much to offer. My opening paragraph demonstrates the ease with which we naturally use ‘story telling’ in defining and introducing ourselves.

What remains open to wider debate is ‘how’ should it be adopted in career guidance work?. How can it be introduced into career guidance training? Can the model or framework proposed by Bill Law be adopted in practice? I like to think so. But will time and targets allow? I’m not sure.

Conversely, to meet targets and maximise the use of time, I sense that we ignore the need to extend the ways in which we work at our peril. Practitioners and academics alike have to pool resources and experiences to move this story forward.

After all, career is about constructing the future.


Andrew Edwards (Editor), Hazel Reid, Linden West, Bill Law
Challenging Biographies: Relocating the Theory and Practice of Careers Work.
Canterbury Christchurch University college. 2003
ISBN 0-9537258-4-7

of the Career-learning Café
in 'a good read'


Geoff Ford’s commentary on Challenging Biographies
an updated version of Bill's chapter ‘Guidance: Too many lists, not enough stories'
information about Challenging Biographies
biographical material with career use
practical implications

reviews front page

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