Dialogical careers and employability learning

Photo by Juri Gianfrancesco on Unsplash

This article was first published on LinkedIn. Its adapted from my PhD proposal and describes an approach to careers and employability learning that I’ll be researching for the next several years.

Recently, I had the pleasure of adding the words PhD candidate to my LinkedIn headline, having passed my confirmation of candidature. It’s an important milestone, coming after more than a year of hard work, but I’m well aware that it signals the start of the real work. Over the next few years I’ll be taking a deep dive into the pedagogy of careers and employability, and in particular, evaluating an approach that I call dialogical careers and employability learning (DCEL).

What is dialogical careers and employability learning?

I use the term DCEL to describe ways that people use language to explore and navigate their careers, both between and within themselves. In the context of my work as a careers and employability educator, DCEL refers to a range of approaches that I and my colleagues use to encourage and help students to reflect on their careers, learn from others, and connect with their professional communities.

In the careers and employability literature, DCEL occupies a small but exciting space where Hubert Herman’s Dialogical Self Theory (DST) meets Bill Law’s career-learning theory. DST frames the self as a multiplicity of internal I-positions in dialogue with each other. The clinical or educational application of DST attempts to manage these dialogues, authoring empowering narratives and promoting proactive and adaptive behaviours. Career-learning theory was developed as an evolution of the venerable DOTS model and presented as a process model of sensing, sifting, focusing, and understanding career information, impressions, emotions, and influences.

One way that DCEL has been applied practically is Frans Meijers’s and Reinekke Lengelle’s career writing approach, which uses creative, reflective, and expressive writing exercises to help clients explore their professional identities and work through career challenges. DCEL has also informed research into how career conversations happen in educational institutions and to describe institutional cultures which are particularly conducive to career learning.

Three levels of dialogical careers and employability learning

DCEL can be applied at three levels in educational institutions: the individual, the relational, and the environmental.

The individual level

At the individual level of DCEL are the internal learning processes of reflection, decision-making, identity exploration, and positioning that are central to so many current career development theories, particularity those informed by social constructivism.
The pedagogical application at this level is in facilitating and scaffolding these learning processes, such as through career writing and other reflective tasks, to promote evaluative judgement, proactive behaviours, optimism, and adaptability.

The individual level is the focus of much careers and employability education, dialogical or otherwise, usually in the form of reflection. However, authentic reflection is a difficult skill that needs to be learned and practiced. DCEL is a particularly useful approach because its central process involves a managed multiplication of the self, which is an inherent requirement of true reflection.

The relational level

At the relational level of DCEL are conversations with others, such as peers, educators, and mentors. In these dialogues, the individual perspectives of students can be tested against and refined by those of others. The pedagogical application at this level is in providing abundant opportunities for students to engage and converse with each other, their teachers, and their professional communities, while also building students’ capacity to understand and make use of those people’s advice, anecdotes, feedback, and assessment.

Careers and employability services already do the first of part of that pedagogical application well, organising panel discussions, career conversations, mentoring programs and so on. However, I believe more needs to be done to help students learn how to engage in and make sense of career conversations, particularly when those conversations include an element of feedback, such as in mentoring or work-integrated learning supervision. Dialogical approaches to assessment and feedback offer particular promise in this area. Such approaches can be strongly linked to employability, as they frame assessment literacy and evaluative judgement as foundational academic and professional literacies.

The environmental level

At the environmental level of DCEL are the conditions, structures, attitudes, and institutional cultures that lead to careers and employability conversations being a normal and ubiquitous part of the educational experience. Most importantly, this means that careers and employability is delivered inside and throughout the curriculum, preferably in collaborative projects shared by careers educators and academics. The pedagogical application at this level is the cultivation of a culture of collaborative professional learning oriented toward student careers and employability learning, including the appropriate resources and recognition.

In England, Tristram Hooley, David Andrews and others have been advocating for the importance of a careers leader, a senior position responsible for the strategic leadership of quality careers and employability education, above and beyond the typical careers advisor role and distinct from the operational management of a careers service. Key elements of this distributed approach to career leadership are recruiting people inside the organisation to the mission of employability, connecting them with each other, and offering professional development and mentoring to ensure quality.

In San Diego, the Cajon Valley Union School District is an exemplar of a strong DCEL environment. By way of the World of Work program, the 17,000 kindergarten to grade 8 students receive engaging, high quality careers education. Students explore their strengths and preferences in a range of experiential activities that are a testament to their teachers’ creativity and enthusiasm. One of the most admirable aspects of this project is the evidence of parents engaging with their children’s learning, making it likely that the career conversations being fostered at school are continuing at home.

Promise and potential

DCEL provides an approach to career learning and development that has rich potential as a pedagogy for careers and employability education. It aligns well with a robust evidence base that students benefit from careers and employability education that includes written exercises, individualised feedback, social learning, and reflection on values. In addition, the principles that underpin DCEL can inform efforts to distribute careers and employability learning, deeply and widely, through knowledge networks, collaboration, and professional learning.

Helping students discover and achieve their career goals is an extremely satisfying profession, though not without its challenges. I’m looking forward to researching how I, as a careers and employability educator, can best serve my students, and sharing what I find with my professional communities.

Michael Healy
Careers and employability learning expert

I am the National Manager, Career Education for myfuture.edu.au. I hold a PhD in careers and employability learning, with several publications to my name. I am passionate about promoting the value and impact of quality careers and employability learning.