What Educational Theory Offers Careers Work

It may be a generalisation but on the whole careers work pays a greater debt to psychology than to educational theory. Most careers advisers I know feel more at home with Jung, Myers-Briggs & Karl Rogers than with Montessori, Vygotsky or Mayer. This is surprising as one of the things that careers work has in its favour is that it equally embraces the counsellors office, the classroom, the library, the stock market, the internet and the “real” world with greater ease than anyone other discipline.

What is even more puzzling is that where I work in HE in the UK there has been a shift with the “employability agenda” out of the counsellors office and into the classroom. Careers advisers no longer are seen by the university hierarchy as support for some who lose their way but as a central part of every student’s educational experience.

In response to this, I thought it may be interesting to outline 5 big schools of thought around what the educational process is and what use careers work can make of these ideas.


Behaviourism may be seen as a Pavlov’s dog approach to education. The basic theory is based around stimulus and response, the idea is that the mind is a black box, impregnable to inquiry, but educators can observe what forms of stimulus leads to certain response. This often leads to a form of conditioning and repetition of actions to build up ability in a domain. Military training, sports drills, music practice, repeating maths times tables these are all forms of behaviourism.

In careers work behaviourism is powerful in terms of developing the exact actions that individuals need to make use of. Activities linked to employability such as applying for jobs, job interviews, assessment center activities and networking have distinct skills that can be developed through behaviourism and more abstract behaviours such as resilience, curiosity, creativity and reflection could also be potentially developed. One drawback of a behaviourist approach is that in educational settings careers workers tend not to have enough time with students to make use of the repetition associated with behaviourism. Also, it is difficult to know what value behaviourism brings to more cognitive tasks such as decision making. Finally, behaviourism puts control squarely with the teacher, it’s questionable how much this would allow for the personalisation often associated with careers work.


As the name suggests cognitivism is tightly linked to cognition, to thinking. In contrast to behaviourism, cognitivism is very concerned with the internal thought process and how the mind works. The key way that learning is described in a cognitivist approach is through concepts which are first summarised as a whole to students and then broken up into smaller more manageable tasks. This works on a similar logic to “anyone can eat a whale if they take small enough mouthfuls.” There is big influence from cognitivism on learning design; sharing aims and objectives with students, breaking a concept down into parts, creating opportunities for students to recall and use the concepts they have been learning are all elements of cognitivism.

Cognitivism lends a hand particularly towards some of the more complex learning tasks associated with careers work such as understanding LMI or developing an understanding of theory as in a career learning approach (see MacCash). Cognitivism works best where there are clear packets of information that need to be learnt. It tends to be the most common approach that I come across in careers work especially around LMI. The problem is it does not have such a clear pathway for the more personal or behavioural parts of careers work.


Constructivism is concerned how individuals construct meaning out of experiences. Constructivism looks at the other two theories and say they focus too much on the teacher and content and not enough on the student. Constructivism points out that students have previous experiences and constructs which they interpret new information in light of. We all experience the world differently and create different constructs out of it, learning should be linked to building experiences and recognising and developing constructs. Teaching should, therefore, give space for students subjective experiences rather than following a single track and should build on the idea that experiences are vital to learning by making students active partners in creating learning events they participate in rather than just receiving them.

Unlike the other theories, constructivism is a term that often appears on careers literature. If behaviourism deals with actions and cognitivism with concepts then constructivism deals with the personal. The appeal of constructivism is its focus on the personal, creating powerful routes for the individual to engage with who they are through their experiences. This can be seen as powerful when linked to the experiential nature of work and career. The key problem that constructivism creates for the task of careers education is if it can deal with the more structural elements of the world of work or not. Its claim that personal experience is the foundation of reality does not fit easily with some of the major structures of the world of work such as entry requirements, job specs, progression routes and so on.


Connectivism could be summarized by the adage “it’s not what you know but who you know that counts”. Based on the work of Siemens and Downes connectivism is very much a learning theory for the age of the Internet. Connectivism points out that information is no longer held by the expert teacher but often freely available online or through contacts, we can form on social media. Connectivism describes this process of supporting students connect to information sources and digital networks online. This is seen as necessary due to the scale and rate of change of information in the digital age, connections allow people to keep learning. Connectivism is very much a theory for the real world, the job of the teacher is less to deliver information but to coach and support students in becoming connected citizens able to engage in learning for themselves.

Connectivism appears to offer great potential to the careers community and I feel would warrant further investigation to understand its benefits. Connectivism aligns itself with a number of key features of interest to the careers community; firstly it is based around web 2.0, one of the new frontiers of careers work, secondly it links in heavily with chaos theory, another frontier to careers work and thirdly it aims at self-sufficiency over the life-span and thirdly it focuses on informal learning and the “real world”, a central learning domain for the developing world of work.

Critical Pedagogy

Critical realism aims to highlight and expose the political nature of education and how power and oppression are lenses to understand the classroom and the society at wide that the classroom prepares the individual for. Paulo Freire often sees as the founder of critical pedagogy, saw society divided by the oppressor and the oppressed and education as a tool in this. The oppressor currently uses education as a control mechanism to direct the oppressed and fit them into a social space which continues their oppression. Education alternatively could be used to move the oppressed out of silence and instead give them tools to engage in their situation. This is particularly done through allowing the oppressed to understand and to see their situation, to think critically about it.

Critical pedagogy comes a challenge and indictment to much of careers work but one with the potential to reform and renew careers practice. Freire and his focus on education as banking model or control mechanism is a description that much of careers work is guilty of. Careers works focus on matching people to opportunities and its avoidance of political challenge would be a concern for the student of critical pedagogy. That said because of its focus on freedom, dignity, and emancipation (values careers work has been variously aligned to over its history) there could be freedom here to approach practice in a new light from this standpoint.


I feel there is great room for careers work to embrace more of an educational dimension and I feel that for its future this is vital for the changing nature of the profession. Hopefully, you can see elements of your practice in the above theories, can gain some new ideas for reforming your practice and note some ideas to explore more.

I would thoroughly recommend http://infed.org/ and http://www.learning-theories.com/ as starting points for more research.


9 thoughts on “What Educational Theory Offers Careers Work

  1. I enjoyed reading this not least because it’s been a long time since I did any reading on Ed theory from my PGCE! I’ll throw another suggestion in the hat and suggest careers work is also influenced and draws upon humanistic philosophies, values and approaches.

  2. Thanks Tom – nice post. As a researcher, I take a critical realist approach, so you can imagine how cross-purposed the conversations can be with behaviourist school career practitioners (though, I must admit, I haven’t found too many of those :-D)!

  3. Thanks for this Tom. I am particularly interested in your comment about the work we do coming “….into the classroom. Careers advisers no longer are seen by the university hierarchy as support for some who lose their way but as a central part of every student’s educational experience.”
    Enabling individuals to learn about career through classroom based activity is central to our work and encouraging staff to do this as effectively as possible should be in our professional development. The quality of our work can be continually improved by informed critical reflection. Your blog helpfully digests the some learning theory which can support the design and development of this teaching and the HEA publishes practical guides to the pedagogy of employability which nicely complement your summary.
    Thanks for keeping these interesting blogs coming!

  4. Feeling more at home Jung, Myers-Briggs & Karl Rogers than with Montessori, Vygotsky or Mayer is a telling observation. In Ireland, in my work with school guidance counsellors, when exploring ‘work experience’, I have found that constructivism and critical pedagogy can offer very rich perspectives.

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