café career magazine
in touch
Career-learning home page
Magazine - articles and activities Underpinning - basic ideas for the work
Memory - key articles archive Moving on

Research

 

UN-COOLING CAREERS WORK
a slightly-heated plea for practice-based evidence


Bill points to how the forthcoming National Guidance Research Forum will help bridge the gap between research and practice. But, he argues, we also need to wonder why there is a gap: and to see how a bridge can be built - from both sides.

So what might that mean for researchers and practitioners?


Some people argue, these days, that it doesn’t do to think too seriously - ...ask awkward questions, ...hope for progress. There are just too many conflicting points-of-view. A person can get confused and upset, ...over-excited, ...even argumentative. Such disturbances, they say, are so last-century; this century is ‘cool’. We are all stressed-out enough; and so the post-modern guru’s advice is welcome...

‘lay back, be happy - chill out!’

Not advice you may find it easy to take. Just take a no-more-than-vaguely-contemplative look at the state of guidance, and you might warm up a bit. Try as we might not to get heavy, when it comes to careers, Connexions and life-long learning, we start feeling the heat. You know, don’t you, that there are some settings where some of the words in this paragraph are actually forbidden! And ‘citizenship’ is not going to be easier on anybody’s blood pressure.


cool world?

In careers work we have, in the past, made much of providing neutral, economy-related information. And we have, accordingly, made self awareness hinge on employability. The underlying ‘DOTS’ formula is presented in untroublesome terms. But maybe it can only give us ‘guidance-lite’; and we now need the full-strength version.

Contemporary cool is unsettled by contemporary change. Information is outdated at release; so the most urgent learning needs are not only expressed as what people find out, they are also expressed as knowing how to learn more. And, because careers work is increasingly understood in the context of other social and learning needs, we need to work with other-than-guidance sources of help and influence. There’s more: we increasingly understand that everything swims - or sinks - in the currents and vortices of interpersonal feeling, attachment and allegiance. All of this demands serious new thinking, and poses awkward questions; and it may well lead us to a post-DOTS understanding of our work. For, much of what more-and-more people now need to learn, is no longer within reach of our conventional apparatus - or what we used to call ‘careers education and guidance’.

Getting warmer?

And so, before we kiss the twentieth century goodbye, take a moment to note this: to think seriously, ask questions and be in a position to search for progress is to risk having to listen to what you’d rather not hear. That may be un-cool, but - in careers work now – it’s where-we’re-at.


changing agendas

Research is about thinking, asking and – with luck - progress. At its heart is the ability to frame useful questions. And that can’t be left to academics, politicos and researchers. People closer to the point-of-delivery also ask questions. Many are provoked by contemporary change...

> why do so many learners turn away from us?
> who do they believe can better help them?
> how come?
> why are commercial interests moving in?
> could any of this other help be more use than we are?
> or could it do damage?
> any hope of coordinating this scattering diversity?
> what would it do to our roles?
> and where are the support structures we, with our new partners, need?

There is a lot of research worth doing here. And all of these issues are currently under scrutiny in a trial development of the forthcoming National Guidance Research Forum (NGRF). If they are your questions, you should have your say. If they are not, you should especially have your say. Disengagement from issues like these would not be cool, it would be frigid.

It is true that not all research is meant to be immediately useful to practice. Much recent work has been directed at showing why guidance is valuable; and it has been policy-driven. Conclusions are variations on the theme, ‘guidance is a good thing, and there should be more of it’. It is not hard to see why, ten-or-more years ago, we needed to defend the work in these terms.

But there has not been as much about how careers work helps, and – in changing conditions – how it can most significantly help. In current careers-work, the message ‘more of the same’ leaves us empty-handed on the issue ‘what next?’. Yesterday’s questions do not point to today’s answers.


inputs, processes and outcomes

So, how can practitioners usefully get involved? Research is centrally concerned with matters expressed in words like ’data’, ‘ethics’, ‘hypothesis’, ‘correlation’, and ‘ethnography’ - the language of methodology. It comes down to ensuring credibility. No room for manoeuvre here – and neither should there be.

But research method is a process - linking an input to an outcome. Things can go wrong at all three stages – what goes in, what goes on, and what comes out. But it is at the first and last of these stages that people - who may have so-far stood outside the research community - can usefully come in.

At the input stage there are issues about what is worth researching. The value of research depends absolutely on the usefulness of the questions it poses. The terms in which such questions are asked are often framed by politicos and their apparatchiks, as well as by managers and academics. But, in order to ask a really good question, you need already to know something about what is going on.

Furthermore, as research produces outcomes of research there are issues about how the knowledge can best be used. The research report usually incorporates an executive summary. The word ‘executive’ seems to imply that someone is going to know what to do about it. But this is not as straightforward a matter as might appear. We face recurring claims for evidence-based practice; but there is rarely a simple relationship between finding something out and doing something about it.

It is on the complexity of these input and outcome issues that people-other-than-researchers have something useful to say about research. If people are to recognise the usefulness of research in their work, then they need to be heard - both on the terms in which enquiry is set up, and also on the terms in which its findings and recommendations are framed.

Good researchers – many of them former practitioners - already do much of what is called for here. They talk about how most usefully to voice sponsors’ concerns, and they discuss how the new knowledge may be used. They design outputs, so that the people who need to act on the research know what the viable options are – and what makes them viable. But where they do not do this, research becomes a closed circle, framing the evidence with ready-made thinking.

From where the not-very-easily impressed practitioner sits, such research is a turn-off. It squanders the input; but, more seriously, it undermines belief in the value of research. It is a circle that the NGRF must not leave unbroken.


practice-based evidence

Making the critical step from ‘knowing’ to ‘doing’ is, itself, a further process – which is always taken locally. Research informs practice, sure; but it cannot do so as prescription. The way in which questions need to be addressed, and answers framed, is different in different places, at different times and for different groups. And so there is always some locally specific thing to be done about what is generally recommended.

Useful research signposts what is happening, what might happen, and what makes it happen. That means pointing not just to evidence, but to key factors, probable causes and reasonable anticipations. That work can never claim that its evidence shows what must happen everywhere; local complexity makes its task much more subtle than that.

The medics’ book on research, with its use of ‘indicators’ and ‘contra-indicators’, could be useful: research might do more to identify the indicators for the conditions in which ’what works’ works - because nothing works for everything; and research could also identify contra-indications - because even ‘what works’ can also have unwanted effects.

Some may suspect that observations along these lines are an attempt at ‘producer capture’ – professionals trying to protect their patch by obfuscation. It happens; but what is also true is that research needs practice as much as practice needs research. The deal requires that practitioners are not arbitrarily defensive and that they speak with a credible understanding of what is happening on their patch. Claims that ‘guidance is invariably a good thing, and there should be more of it everywhere’ are not going to help.

The authority of practice is certainly no less credible than that of politicos, academia and those other influential people that sponsor and shape the research agenda. Practitioner authority is not a lesser authority, but a different authority – and a necessary one.

In careers work, if research cannot lead to improvements, then it is not working. That is the value in the call for evidence-based practice. But it all carries a challenge to the NGRF: to enable all stakeholders to find their voice - for serious thinking, awkward questions and credible hopes. It will mean that we will all, from time to time, find ourselves attentively listening to what – in cooler moments - we might have thought we would never want to hear. But the resulting discourse will match the call for evidence-based practice with a call for practice-based evidence.

 

You are in the magazine section of
The Career-learning Café
www.hihohiho.com

WHERE NOW?

information about the NGRF
more about a Post-DOTS framework

back to the magazine front page

back to café career magazine - in touch articles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"‘Citizenship’ is not going to be easier on anybody’s blood pressure."

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Guidance-lite?"

 

 

 

 

 

"Much of what people now need to learn, is no longer within reach of ‘careers education and guidance’."

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Disengagement from issues like these would not be cool, it would be frigid."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Yesterday’s questions do not point to today’s answers."

 

 

 

 

 

"The value of research depends absolutely on the usefulness of the questions it poses."

 

 

 

 

 

 

"There is rarely a simple relationship between finding something out and doing something about it."

 

 

 

 

"Research can becomes a closed circle, framing ready-made thinking. Such research is a turn-off. It squanders the input and undermines belief in the value of research."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"What works? Nothing works for everything. And even ‘what works’ can have unwanted effects."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"We must match the call for evidence-based practice with a call for practice-based evidence."

Return to the top
Career-learning home page Magazine - articles and activities Underpinning - basic ideas for the work Memory - key articles archive Moving on