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.
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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