Review of Career Counselling: Constructivist Approaches


I have just finished reading “Career Counselling: Constructivist Approaches” as part of my reading scheme for the year. The book, edited by Mary McMahon and Wendy Patton looks to give a theoretical introduction to Constructivism and discuss its application to the field of careers work. Though the different articles written by the authors have different focuses and different perspectives there is a lot of common ground across the articles which I am going to summaries as part of this review.

The first common point made by the majority of the articles is that constructivism is a counter and in some ways a response to what is seen as the status quo in guidance work. This status quo is probably best seen as theories and ways of practice based around a matching model of careers work. There are three main critiques of this approach that run through the book.

  1. Firstly that matching is theoretically immature because the logical positivism that it is based on is increasingly being challenged and superseded by more post-modern views of reality. These give less space to notions of being able to scientifically observe and measure and fixed reality.

  2. Secondly that these matching models are unethical (or at least undesirable) because the test-measure-direct model of a guidance intervention places too much emphasis on the perceived expertise of the practitioner and in some way denies the voice of the client.

  3. Thirdly that the modern world of work is filled with a lot less conformity and certainties than the matching model makes allowance for. The claim is that increasingly modern life is complicated, various different aspects of life (leisure, family, work, politics etc.) mean that the linear, one-size-fits all methodology that matching creates is no longer relevant.


These critiques lead to three main aspects of constructivism that in many ways are a response to the above:

  1. Meaning Making – this is the belief that individuals construct their own reality and especially their own view of themselves. Rather than being made up of easily accessible and measurable attributes individuals instead construct their own view of themselves. This makes career work less about experts observing who someone else is but instead enabling someone to construct their own views.

  2. Active Agency – This idea of enabling someone else to construct their own reality ties in with the next point of active agency. In a matching model the client (in the most extreme cases) is reduced to a specimen that is observed and analysed by an expert, this makes them entirely passive. In contrast constructivism imagines the practitioner as an enabler and supporter of the clients own construction. The most important is not to get to the right answer so much as to enable the client to reach their own answer.

  3. Holism – Holism is the claim that individuals can not and should not consider one area of life in isolation from others. Building on the work of Donald Super in particular constructivist claim that career is a multi-faceted construct embracing all of the individual rather than being limited to some areas. This means that items such as someone’s ethnicity, culture, worldview, family and leisure pursuits are as much part of their career identity as more traditional items such as attributes, knowledge and motivations.

I want to take this review in a slightly different direction. Rather than provide a direct critique of constructivism as articulated in this book I want to look at how does constructivism challenge the current HE agenda in the UK? I work in this sector myself I thought it would be interesting to see how these ideas may challenge and inform some of the prevailing winds around HE and careers in the UK.

  1. Results- Increasingly the student experience in the UK is dominated by measurements, degree classifications and student destinations form the major output measures while the NSS creates the main way the internal student experience is quantified. In careers work the destination measure, DLHE is the main measure I work with. This focus on measurement creates and obvious point of conflict with a constructivist worldview. Constructivists would be keen to ask if a universal measure actually represents a positive outcome for students. They would be keen to point out that how we view and value the world around us is a personal matter and assuming a positive DLHE outcome is positive for everyone is not the case.

  1. Client Relationship- I feel that the challenge of producing positive DLHE figures creates pressure around the client/ practitioner relationship. I feel that there exists an unsaid pressure that the best way to get a fixed result (in this case a graduate level job or further study) is by becoming an expert and happening out a set path for someone to follow. In practice I find this leads to a feeling of frustration when students don’t do what they are told. I think constructivism offer an attractive alternative to this in the form of active agency. The idea of engaging students in constructing meaningful futures aims to create self-sufficient students with a sense of agency, activity and momentum in their careers. The challenge with this again though is making trying to enable someone to become a construct of a meaningful future may lead to not everyone pursuing the result the institution was after. I guess the question is would you get better results by acting as an expert directing everyone to the same goal or acting as an enabling helping everyone towards their own goal.

  1. Defining Career- Mark Savickas helpfully points out that often a career is simply a form of “middle class salvation” where middle class values of affluence, status and progression are persuade. This appears to be an apt definition of what is described in a graduate scheme or a graduate level job. In contrast constructivism would point out the individuals have different social backgrounds, different world views and not everyone will have the same set of values. Constructivism would ask of the whole enterprise around HE of if it is a place of free thought and personal development allowing individuals to build something that is worthwhile or does it just dictate the values of some (what you might describe as a neo-liberal elite, if you’re into that way of thinking) to the many.

  2.  Practice- I feel constructivism creates a new and interesting approach to practice. I don’t have much to back this up beyond anecdote but I feel from how students respond to me that often careers work is seen as a necessary evil and is in essence dull. It doesn’t have to be but it can be and students often expect it to be. Constructivism because it aims to engage with clients where they are and build space for clients to construct their futures will by nature be more creative, varied and divergent. I feel this can really support the general employability agenda in HE by creating more interesting, varied and engaging work for clients to participate in.

What I have found interesting about thinking about contextualising Constructivism in my context is how in some ways COnstructivism challenges existing patterns and goals but also offers new ways to approach these goals and achieve them. I find this as an interesting dichotomy and really resonates with how I find my work.




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