What makes a theory useful?

A classic concept in cognitive science is the magical number seven (plus or minus two). Introduced to the world by George A. Miller in 1956, this is all about the typical number of chunks of information you can keep in your immediate memory.  As you become more familiar with a topic you may be able to retain more information in each chunk, but the number of chunks you can handle at one time always seems to be limited to roughly the same number — somewhere between five and nine. Try to remember more than that and one of the chunks of information already in there will probably vanish.

If you are an academic, researching career choice and development at your leisure, this limitation on immediate memory is not much of an issue. You can record vast amounts of information in a large number of categories and analyse it a piece at a time. However, as a practitioner you are acting in the moment with a client. If you want to be responsive rather than formulaic, you are very much dependent on your immediate memory and prey to its limitations.

Some theories are just too much hard work.

For a theory or model to be useable under these circumstances it needs to be simple. This is almost the opposite of what an academic looks for in a theory — they want it to be comprehensive. For an academic, a good theory must encompass and explain all the possible significant factors in career choice and development — it will be complex.

For practitioners to even stand a chance of keeping a theory (or model) in their heads during a career discussion (without resorting to written materials) it helps if that theory can be expressed in fewer than seven main concepts. But that doesn’t even take into account the information about the client that you have to store in your immediate memory. That’s why it is so much easier to apply a theory or a model retrospectively as part of reflective practice.

There are a couple of theories that, whilst good, have always struck me as too complex to be truly useful in a live situation. One is Donald Super’s Segmental Model of Career Development (also known as the Arch of Career Determinants). Another is the Systems Theory of Career Development — even though I like the idea of applying systems theory to career development, I just can’t imagine ever remembering all the things on that diagram! Although it looks really useful for a post-match analysis.

It’s not just about what we can keep in our immediate memory, we should also be sensitive to what our clients can retain from any discussion. I always encourage them to take notes.

  • Are you trying to give yourself too much to remember during guidance?
  • Are you giving your clients too much to remember in one-to-one or group sessions?

Related post: Can careers theory be useful?

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  1. #1 by John King on 17 November 2009 - 21:08

    Despite trying to play devil’s advocate, I can’t find anything to disagree with about this post!

    Anything we can do to simplify the guidance process whilst maintaining rigour will be almost immediately useful. Such practice may help to challenge, refine and improve theory.

  2. #3 by Vinny on 26 November 2009 - 13:46

    A complex theory might be good for helping to disect a discussion afterwards. But how on earth is this going to help you in your next guidance discussion?
    We’ve already worked out that you need to remember what the client has already said, and a theory (possibly two or more). So how are you then going to be able to simultaneously recall the conclusions reached about the previous session, (which you have described in terms of a complicated theory), and then relate it to the current session (for which you are using a more simplistic model)?

    The academic theories with all their complexity serve as a nice way to show those outside and inside the profession that what we are doing has a worthwhile foundation. However, if you are in a session with a real person in front of you who is giving you a lot of information (both verbally and non verbally), then if you are spending too much time trying to remember Super’s opinion on the self-concept within his Archway model you have less brain space to listen properly to the person in front of you.

    So let’s keep things simple.

    People have to make decisions about their careers.
    People are really complex and individual and even complex models can’t really encapsulate all of them.
    Why not just listen really carefully to them, try to ask the right questions to work out where they are stuck with their decision making and rely on getting the answers from the person, not a theory.

    • #4 by David Winter on 26 November 2009 - 15:04

      Hi Vinny

      It is possible to keep complex, multifaceted models in your head during a discussion, but only if you are already really familiar with them. The more that they are incorporated into your everyday understanding, the fewer chunks of working memory they take up.

      I maintain that the best (if not the only) way to assimilate theories and models in one-to-one practice so that they become part of your natural repertoire is to apply them retrospectively – e.g. through reflection on a recorded discussion. This means that you don’t have to keep everything in your head at the same time. You can rewind and focus on different aspects of a theory or model separately or sequentially.

      Doing it once won’t make you immediately able to apply a theory live to the next client (nor would you want to). It’s an iterative process. Gradually you will find that during discussions you are noticing different things in what the client says, picking up on different clues that you might have missed previously, seeing different paths that the discussion could take.

      In this way, theories are tools that help you to conduct reflective practice in a more directed and structured way. In this situation they can be as complex as they like as long as you have the time to apply them!

  3. #5 by Vinny on 26 November 2009 - 16:33

    Fair enough (you’ve obviously honed your arguments well, in order to justify the time you’ve spent studying theories).

    So now the question is:
    Is it better to know one or two complex and comprehensive theories in great detail, so I can diswect things afterwards, or to know a some simple superficial theories which can be useful during a session?
    Obviously the best option is to know lots of them in detail, but since I’ve only just started learning the theories, should I initially get a general overview or really concenrate my efforts on one or two?

    • #6 by David Winter on 26 November 2009 - 23:00

      I don’t know if there is a right way to do it, but I would probably start by getting a bit of an overview by reading Kerr Inkson’s book (see the Books page.

      Then pick a theory that interests you and start with that.You might want to work on something that is at odds with your own natural assumptions about how things work in order to broaden your perspective.

  4. #7 by John King on 27 November 2009 - 00:25

    What might be useful would be a ‘theory of theories’ – a way to think about which type of theory might be appropriate for a particular client. Then we could direct them towards a certain resource if we didn’t know the detail of the theory ourself (eg, sortit for matching theories; perhaps handouts or other resources for other theories). I’ve alluded to this in my reply to the ‘in the right zone’ post.

    David covers this area in his Are Career Theories Useful? course, but only explains the theories rather than going into detail about how to decide when to apply each one. Diagnostic tools at this early stage would be useful. They would also be very rough, most likely frequently incorrect, but would at least give less experienced advisers maps with which to explore the somewhat uncharted lands of career theory!

    In many cases the application of the theory, once the most appropriate one is identified, can be carried out by the client his or herself. For example, certain clients who respond to matching theories will happily sit at sortit and solve their dilemmas. Others respond poorly to this type of theory, but may respond better to an alternative theory, and happily do the homework. It is helping the client (and the adviser) decide which theory should be applied, and when, that is the hard part.

    It seems to me that there are two ways to do this:

    1. Teach advisers lots of detail about each theory and allow them to practice using it so they are extremely familiar with it. Takes about a decade to fully train advisers (aka the proficiency approach)

    2. Give advisers enough knowledge of diagnostic tools which can help to indicate which theory to use and when, backed up with self-help resources and/or specialists in each theory. Advisers could be trained in weeks (aka the systems approach)

    The first is the dominant approach but seems to me to be inefficient, and certainly less appealing for those clients who get advisers in their earlier stages!

  5. #8 by Vinny on 27 November 2009 - 09:58

    David – I’ll read the book and get an overview. On your other point, I can see your point of view, but for me personally, Instead of choosing to concentrate on a theory which “is at odds with your own natural assumptions,” I would prefer to start with one which fits in with my assumptions. This would help to consolidate my knowledge and get me into the mindset of using a theory whilst remaining in my comfort zone before moving on to other theories after that.

    John – Do you really think that advisers can be “trained in weeks?” That surely isn’t right. Within a few weeks you might have memorised the names of some of the theories and got a vague idea of each. Also you might have then memorised the “diagniostic tools” and worked out which theory to use. However even if you could identify within weeks which theory to use, you wouldn’t be able to use the theory in a proficient way because:
    A) you couldn’t know it well enough by then, and
    B) You wouldn’t have fully developed your other guidance skills, which are as important (if not more important in your initial stages of training)

    If I was a client seeing an adviser in their initial stages, I’d much rather have one who was concentrating on listening well to what I was saying, contracting well, summarising etc than one who was constantly trying to diagnose which theory to box me into.

    Sorry to be argumentative this early on a friday morning!

  6. #9 by David Winter on 27 November 2009 - 11:39

    @John
    I’m not sure that theories can or should be ‘applied’ in such a mechanistic way. I see the primary use of theories as a horizon-expander for career practitioners. They get you to challenge and stretch your own natural assumptions about what is important so that you are likely to notice more and more varied implications in the information you are getting from the client. Look at the quote from Maslow in the box on the right of the page – I want to avoid advisers treating every client like a nail because the only tool they have is a hammer. As Vinny pointed out the first job of a good adviser is to listen to the client – I find that knowing about theories helps me to listen deeper.

    Let me put it another way. I see my role as helping clients to construct or improve their own career/life theories. Part of this is to look at the mental frameworks and assumptions that they are using to help them navigate through life and see if there are any dangerous gaps or misleading assumptions. Examining and questioning a range of formal career theories is good practice for this.

    @Vinny
    If it makes more sense to you to look first at a theory that chimes with your natural assumptions, that’s absolutely fine. It may help you to identify and articulate those assumptions better before going on to challenge them a bit.

  7. #10 by John King on 1 December 2009 - 20:43

    I’m not suggesting that a ‘mechanistic’ system which advisers could be trained to use in weeks should replace careers guidance – after all – look at the complaints the profession has received from students told to fill in boxes in a computer to predict their future career!

    However, systemising what we do is important for several reasons:

    1. It helps is assimilate our learning more quickly.
    2. It helps clients to understand what we are doing.
    3. It may help to improve our practice, especially for early stage advisers.

    It is important to avoid being too rigid in our approach. This doesn’t mean that avoiding all structure in our practice is OK, though – what results is:

    1. Many advisers will find a structure they like and stick to it – the ‘hammer and nail’ problem
    2. Others will thrive in the unstructured environment, creating their own navigational aids
    3. Others will flounder and be dissatisfied

    What I’m suggesting is a structure that may be easily taught that permits flexibility; a lattice rather than a wall. Not every client is a nail, but how will you carry all your tools without a toolbox?

    • #11 by David Winter on 4 December 2009 - 10:56

      I wholeheartedly agree with everything you say in this comment.

      I guess what I reacted against in your last comment, and what prompted me to use the word ‘mechanistic’, was the idea that a client can be matched with a particular theory. That there might be one particular theoretical approach that deals with all the issues a client might raise is just as unrealistic as saying that there is one perfect career out there for everyone.

      As one of the students said in Angus McKendrick’s study on introducing career theory into guidance discussions

      I think all of the theories here are compatible, its not a case of choosing between structuralism or development theory or whatever. In a way elements of each theory can be incorporated into- its not a matter of choosing between competing theories.

      Perhaps it’s the tool metaphor. My fault for bringing up hammers and nails! Theories are not like DIY tools that each have a clearly defined function. And clients are not DIY jobs like putting up a shelf. Perhaps I will post on this – watch this space.

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