I’ve been arguing with a few people online about the issue of evidence and research. Given that government investment in careers is relatively low, and given that practitioners say that they are stretched in trying to provide the services that people need – is it a waste to spend money on research? As someone who has worked as a professional researcher focusing on career guidance and largely funded by government for over ten years, you would expect me to disagree. But, my commitment to evidence and my belief that government should be spending some time and money as a core part of careers funding is hopefully not just motivated by self-interest. In this post I’m going to try and explain why I think that it is important to continue to attend to the evidence.
To try and illustrate why let me tell you a story.
Fred and Burt are lost in a maze. Fred decides that enough is enough and starts running. He’s pretty sure that if he runs fast enough he can find the way out. But this isn’t what happens. Within an hour he is back where he started, out of breath and angry. Meanwhile Burt has pulled out some paper and started to draw a map. When he goes wrong he knows why and heads back to the junction where he took a wrong turn. Within an hour he has slowly but surely mapped enough of the maze to find his way out.
This may seem like a bit of a silly story, but the logic of it transfers to the education system (and to most other situations) pretty easily. Energy, activity and endless innovation are admirable, but only in as far as they lead you forwards. If you don’t notice what is going wrong and learn from the past you will end up making the same mistake over and over again.
Some people might argue that they already know what the right answer is when it comes to their practice and to career guidance. But, part of a commitment to evidence is recognising that you might be wrong and that the evidence provides you with a tool for re-examining your beliefs and allowing you to improve your practice. To take another silly example, you might be 100% sure that you left your car keys in your jacket pocket, but the evidence suggests that this isn’t the case. An intense period of research and experimentation (frantically turning out all of your cupboards and trouser pockets) enables you to find the keys (for some reason you’d put them in the knife and fork drawer). Evidenced based practice is not about saying how you think the world is or how you want the world to be, it is about finding out how it actually works.
This is the high minded reason for supporting evidence based practice. It is what has driven professions like medicine and teaching to treat evidence and research as increasingly central to their professional practice. It is this idea that has motivated a lot of my research throughout my career including writing things like the Evidence Base on Lifelong Guidance, contributing to the Gatsby research that led to the Benchmarks, and editing the What Works? series for The Careers & Enterprise Company. Throughout this work I have genuinely tried to develop and present the evidence in ways that are capable of supporting policy development and evidence-based practice.
But, I can’t pretend that an interest in evidence is entirely high minded. Evidence is also political and a tool that we can use to defend career guidance when it is attacked. During the period that the government was closing down Connexions I was frequently asked for the evidence and frequently told that it wasn’t of a high enough quality. This is what I (like many others) have been working to remedy in all of the work that we’ve been doing on evidence in career guidance. By both developing the evidence base and utilising it in our practice we strengthen our hand, make a stronger claim for the importance of career guidance and most importantly make sure that we are doing the right things and that we know why they are the right things.
Because of this I passionately believe that evidence is essential, that all career guidance professionals should be engaged with evidence and that careers organisations should always resource the development of the evidence base and the evaluation of their own programmes as part of their core activities.