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Careers Education, belief and the hippo in the road

Careers Education, belief and the hippo in the road

You could hear a pin drop. It's a Wednesday afternoon and we're in the depth of a Professional Learning session with a dedicated group of teachers and leaders from a secondary school.

I've just presented data that shows how narrow young people's career aspirations are. As the international OECD big data - and the detailed BECOME Australian data show, most young people aim for just a few careers from a very short list. Overwhelmingly, teenagers' career ideas conform to an alarmingly narrow view of the world.

I've explained how all students regardless of demographic are facing challenges that limit their aspirations. We deep dive into their context and discuss; 'What do your students believe career success looks like?'

That word, believe is crucial in how we unpack limits to students' career ideas.

'What do your students believe career success looks like?'


Every school community absorbs and works around challenges that limit student aspirations. Regardless of that community's demographics.

Some challenges are invisible or unacknowledged. A rigid definition of academic and career success (high grades, high expectations, high anxiety) limits the career ideas students are willing to risk being interested in.

Other cohorts have no role models to follow or little to no networks to draw on. There may even be no or low employment in their area, so experience of work is limited.

For some, the logistics and expense involved in tertiary study represent huge barriers. For others with seemingly every resource available, the pressure is fierce to perform, not to 'waste your ATAR', to sign up to a high-stakes career and chase success ... without having checked whether it matches your unique personal qualities, your interests and desires for your life. Without having queried what success means to your unique self.


The biggest challenge of them all

All of these challenges are real. All of them lead to the biggest challenge of all: teenage apathy about careers.


Apathy often manifests itself as a shallow approach to thinking about the future. It's a passive approach - when feeling apathetic, you do very little to actively explore ideas.

It can be a big set of career expectations lying right in your path like a large, lazy hippo. It's a bit confronting. Sometimes a bit warty. You don't particularly feel invited to walk around it and take your own path to the pool. You might not even be able to see the pool!

Apathy about careers means following 'the rules'. So many young people believe they know what career success is, because they have been told what it looks like. Those 'rules' represent a large obstruction in the way, blocking them from taking agency.

This is what those teachers and leaders on that Wednesday afternoon were discussing so hard - not hippos! - they were debating: What do we do when the dominant belief about success in our community limits student aspirations? Despite seemingly having unlimited options, their  cohort overwhelmingly chose to avoid the careers question, to give the easiest answer.

When robust careers education is lacking, instead of each young person doing their own thinking and exploring, the student so often is just told or advised.

In the 'test and tell' approach, they're encouraged to be passive. Input person, apply tool or test, output answer, and another student does what is expected of them, for better or for worse. One more missed opportunity to encourage and teach Agency.


AGENCY beats apathy, every time

Those educators suggested that one way to start waking up student agency is to deliberately push debate about the definition of career success, multiple definitions of success, different perspectives and views on success. Because simply providing careers information is not the same as providing careers education. Apathy must be moved out of the road.

Moments of choice research shows that teenagers will use decision heuristics to get to an answer quickly if that’s what’s asked of them.

So when adults ask, with good intentions, 'What are you going to do after school?' the answer is the most obvious, the easy, the unexamined and passive reply. The reply comes from the unwritten list of approved pathways. By the senior years of schools it's a practiced defense against the question, not a genuine answer. Whatever the job or path they name, if it hasn't been examined, then it's a passive choice.

Furthermore, when given lots of career and pathways information without support, motivation or structure to make sense of it, we see all but the most motivated students take a shortcut to the easiest or most obvious route yet again. 


The cost of apathy

Overwhelmingly, the data shows that most young people choose from a list of about ten careers.

And yet research by Borg, Bright and Pryor found that within 18 months of leaving school, over 70% drop out of tertiary education or are knocked off their plan.

Getting it wrong costs a lot. The Foundation for Young Australians found it took between 2.5-3 years for these young people to get back on track.

There are higher stakes at hand. Inadequate examination of career aspirations can also include costs such as loss of confidence or belief in their own capability, loss of fees invested in tertiary education, and in some cases, negative repercussions on family support.

Students in aspirational schools worry about having a 'real job' as defined by limited, possibly conservative or outdated ideas about success. Kudos to the educators on that Wednesday who decided to shake up that paradigm.


Turning Apathy Upside Down

At BECOME we turn apathy on its head.

Teacher-led lessons are provocative discussions that non career specialists will love to have with their students because they lead to agency and excitement about the future.

For students approaching senior subject selections, when things are getting real, we've launched a special structured and supportive program.

BECOME Your Own Careers Advisor is designed specifically to push Year 10 (Year 11 in New Zealand) students to unpack the links between their next study steps and the career ideas they may hold, helping them to choose wisely but keep their options open. It will transform subject selections and help students take agency.


Taking charge

Whether at Year 7, Year 9 or 10 (or across multiple year levels in a whole-school approach), students' records in the BECOME.me app and their Agency Journal provide robust, valuable and tangible artifacts. 

They can see the many facets of their thinking and research.

We can assure them that this is what a real career looks like: made of many options and ideas, requiring us to test, talk to people and try things. And most likely a bit foggy beyond the next step.

But each one of us has to make sure that next best step is our own. That we've thought about it rather than been given it - however well meaningly - by someone else. That we know what it could lead to and which doors it closes.

Real careers education leaves each individual equipped with ideas for their future. Ideas that they have developed themselves. It gives them the adaptive skills and the motivation to continually explore and tweak their ideas as they live their fullest life.


Secondary montage product and lesson-1Cultivating agency


Find out more about the BECOME program for Primary students - keeping it wide open and seeding lots of careers ideas for the later school years.

Or explore what we do in BECOME for Secondary, including special programs for Year 10 students.

BECOME changes as students change and grow so that it is perfectly designed for a multi-year or whole school rollout.

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