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Pondering Careers – Edition 44 – You need these quotes about primary career education

Pondering Careers is back again, and this week I’ve been writing a rationale document for primary career education, so I’m going to share all the juicy quotes I’ve collected.

I’ve arranged them in a way which essentially makes the case for starting earlier with career related learning for primary/elementary school (or, potentially for even earlier), and shared some of my own thoughts on each quote and section.

My hope is that if you (like me) are wondering about primary career education you’ll be able to use these quotes to justify your position and potentially incorporate them into your own planning documents and rationale.

Curious about the little monster in the pic?

I’ve been working on a primary school program for what feels like years (seriously, this stuff takes forever), and we’re moving closer to a launch date for a pilot program. AweHunters is designed for teachers (not so much for careers advisors), and the program is designed to integrate careers into the curriculum without asking teachers to learn how to do anything new or increasing their workload.

We’re still pre-pilot, but I’m keen to hear from any schools who would like to try out the program once it’s good to go. If you want to learn more, you can register for the webinar on 23 May and come along for a chat.

What actually is ‘primary career education’?

“Activities in primary schools look different to the career education that may be familiar in secondary schools. The emphasis in primary is on diversity, exploration, and making learning fun. Activities excite children about the subjects they are doing and show them the relevance to their futures.”

Percy & Amegah, 2021

Education and Employers explain that it’s not just a dumbed-down version of what we deliver in secondary schools – children in primary school are at a different developmental stage, and they need a different set of learning experiences to achieve different outcomes.

It’s about broadening horizons and challenging stereotypes

From The Careers & Enterprise Company, written by the incredible Janet Colledge and John Ambrose:

“Career-related learning in primary schools is about broadening pupils’ horizons, challenging stereotypes and helping them develop the skills and sense of self that will enable them to reach their full potential.”

Colledge & Ambrose, 2021

This is really what’s at the core of the work we’re doing with AweHunters. And yes, some of this still takes place in secondary school, but we also know that occupational identity begins to crystallise at the end of primary/start of secondary (Skorikov and Vondracek, 2011), and at that point both broadening horizons and challenging stereotypes becomes significantly more difficult.

“Career exploration in primary school can help to limit biases students may absorb from parents, friends and society, such as gender stereotypes.”

Parliament of Victoria, Economic, Education, Jobs and Skills Committee, 2018

When we deliberately deliver career related learning earlier, we can avoid the development of some of the most insidious biases before they become incredibly difficult (if not impossible) to unpick.

“The term ‘career-related learning’ includes early childhood activities in primary schools designed to give children from an early age a wide range of experiences of, and exposure to, education, transitions and the world of work.”

Kashefpakdel et al., 2018

Primary school career education is already happening in a wide range of ways – the work conducted recently by CERIC and the team (Lorraine Godden, PhD, Nicki Moore, Stefan Merchant, and Heather Nesbitt, PhD) on the Exploring Possibilities Toolkit (which is an excellent resource) looked at how teachers are talking about careers in their classroom. They found that every classroom is different, but that 100% of the Grade 4 to 6 teachers they surveyed talked about careers, jobs, and the world of work with children.

It’s not about doing just one activity (like bringing speakers into schools), but rather blending a series of experiences to open their eyes to what’s possible. I liked how the OECD described this concept:

“A bit like throwing mud at a wall, the more the students experienced, the more likely it was that something useful stuck with them.”

OECD, 2021

In other words, try lots of things lots of the time, and give students lots of opportunities to find something that sticks.

This approach supports career learning through an ongoing dialogue between the student and the world of work – they have multiple opportunities to experience, learn, and talk about what could be possible, which places them at the centre of their career narrative.

This is an approach used to great success by Ed Hidalgo and the Cajon Valley team, and exemplified in this quote from an article recently shared by Ed;

“A learning environment aiming at the development of career competencies and a career identity should therefore be practice-based, and focus on dialogues with the students in which their thoughts and feelings have a central place.”

Draaisma et al., 2017

So, if we know what primary school learning is, let’s look at what it is not…

What we don’t do in the early years

“The purpose of primary career education is not to dissuade young people from fantastical aspirations or from using their imagination to dream big; rather it is about demonstrating new and exciting possibilities and preventing children from closing off possibilities.”

Hooley, 2021

We’re not asking them to grow up too quickly, to make decisions about their lives, or to stop being children – in fact, most of us working in this space hope that kids will dream big and think wildly about what might be possible.

We can talk about the world of work without needing to bring children ‘back to reality’ – the world (and high school) will do that for us, unfortunately. We’re also not asking them to define their identity or make any decisions, which would be entirely inappropriate at this age.

“In the elementary school context, engaging in career conversations is not about getting children to make decisions about what job they will have in the future. Rather, it is a time when we ask our young learners to begin the process of investigating themselves, find out more about their interests and aptitudes, and consider what type of life they feel they might want to lead.”

Godden et al., 2024

Which is one of the reasons why we try not to use the word ‘career’ too often:

“…In the primary phase there is a need to be cautious about the use of ‘career’ or ‘careers’. This is a period largely of exploration and children’s aspirations should, rightly, be tentative and imaginative. Yet there are a range of attributes, skills and behaviours that can be instilled in this stage of child’s life that will leave them in the best possible position as they begin their transitions to secondary education and to future life. The focus should be on broadening horizons and giving children a wide range of experience of the world – which includes the world of work.”

Kashefpakdel et al., 2019

I certainly agree with this statement, and the more I move into this space I feel like explicitly teaching about ‘career’ is not actually necessary. We can use storytelling and skill development to support positive exploration and help children develop accurate ideas about pathways, without needing to teach them explicitly what ‘career’ means.

And it’s this type of embedded, incidental, real-world learning that is already happening (albeit in a haphazard manner) in classrooms across the world.

Career-related learning right now

There’s no ‘switch’ that gets turned on to start the process – occupational identity development starts before children are even born. How many parents daydream about their unborn baby’s illustrious career?

Baby clothes and paraphernalia are covered with references to the work we hope our children will do as adults, and, while cute, all these premonitions mean in reality is that we take our first steps to build our occupational identity well before we take our actual first steps.

MidJourney AI generated image of a sleeping baby.
Not real (but very cute) MidJourney baby.

In other words, you can’t start too early.

“Career-related learning begins at a very early age. Children absorb ideas about careers from many sources including the work that they see in the home, the stories they read and the games that they play. Primary schools have a key role in ensuring that the more formal aspects of this learning provide opportunities for personal growth, enjoyment and challenge.”

Colledge & Ambrose, 2021

Children are curious – I know I certainly had days where I could go without all the ‘why’ questions when my three were little (and, on occasion, still feel that way now).

They’re interested in the world around them, but also in the adult world they hopefully will one day enter.

“Elementary school-aged children become increasingly interested in what adults do and how people get the goods and services they use. In the early elementary school years, developing an awareness and appreciation of the many kinds of work and workers is the primary emphasis; career exploration at this level is designed to create the awareness that work-tasks are applications of academic skills.”

Magnuson & Starr, 2000

We know children are already open to ideas about jobs and work, and that teachers are already incorporating these concepts into their lessons, so the problem is not so much that it isn’t happening, but rather that we’re not always aware it is happening.

“How early is too early? The response indicated by the child development and career development theories is “It’s never too early.” The early years are crucial in the formation of ideas and perceptions about self and the world.”

Magnuson & Starr, 2000

Teachers who are unaware of the impact of their influence on their student’s career development can inadvertently contribute to the development of bias and stereotypes, even though they would never intend to do so.

We can’t ignore childhood career development

This leads me to possibly my favourite quote:

“Ignoring the process of career development occurring in childhood is similar to a gardener disregarding the quality of the soil in which a garden will be planted.”

Niles & Harris-Bowlsbey, 2017

The entire concept summed up in 26 words.

The reality is that, despite what some people would like to think, children need positive and proactive career-related education if we expect them to have half a chance of building a career they enjoy.

“Childhood experiences are foundational in the construction of identity; observations of attitudes towards work within families, cultural stereotypes, and influence of the media may influence children’s meaning of work and in turn their occupational identities.”

Kashefpakdel et al., 2019

What happens in primary school is foundational, and if we want to have impact later on (in senior secondary school, for example) we need to prepare the soil, so to speak.

“Elementary school is a time when young people are exploring their environment and the roles of the people around them. We would be doing young people a disservice if we did not equip them with the tools and, in this case, the vocabulary to enter conversations, and to equip them to understand and interpret the world around them.”

Godden et al., 2024

Employers, universities, and secondary schools all need to think about how they support primary schools – sure, these children are 10 or 15 years away from even starting their career, but waiting until they are about to walk out the door to start talking to them essentially guarantees failure, because they made up their minds years earlier.

“Holding biased assumptions and having narrow aspirations can, and does, go on to influence the academic effort children exert in certain lessons, the subjects they choose to study, and the jobs they end up pursuing. Research has shown that early interventions can bring a lasting impact on children’s development and perceptions of different occupations and of the subjects thus enabling access to them.”

Kashefpakdel et al., 2019

In short, we need to start earlier.

You can read previous editions of Pondering Careers here.

References

Colledge, J., & Ambrose, J. (2021). Career development framework: Handbook for primary schools. https://www.thecdi.net/write/Framework/CDI_124-Framework-Handbook_for_schools-v5.pdf

Draaisma, A., Meijers, F., & Kuijpers, M. (2017). Towards a strong career learning environment: Results from a Dutch longitudinal study. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 45(2), 165–177. https://doi.org/10.1080/03069885.2016.1217979

Godden, L., Moore, N., Nesbitt, H., & Merchant, S. (2024). Exploring possibilities: Journeying through career-related learning in grades 4-6. CERIC.

Hooley, T. (2021). Career education in primary school (Myfuture Insights Series). Education Services Australia.

Kashefpakdel, E., Rehill, J., & Hughes, D. (2018). What works? Career-related learning in primary schools (p. 45). The Careers and Enterprise Company.

Kashefpakdel, E., Rehill, J., & Hughes, D. (2019). Career-related learning in primary: The role of primary teachers and schools in preparing children for the future. Education and Employers. https://www.voced.edu.au/content/ngv:81677

Magnuson, C., & Starr, M. (2000). How early is too early to begin life career planning? The importance of the elementary school years. Journal of Career Development, 27(2), 89–101.

Niles, S. G., & Harris-Bowlsbey, J. E. (2017). Career development interventions. (5th ed.). Pearson.

OECD. (2021). Career conversations: Why it is important for students to talk about their futures in work with teachers, family and friends (42; OECD Education Policy Perspectives). OECD. https://doi.org/10.1787/15b83760-en

Parliament of Victoria, Economic, Education, Jobs and Skills Committee. (2018). Inquiry into career advice activities in Victorian Schools. https://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/images/stories/committees/eejsc/Career_Advice_Activities/EEJSC_58-04_Text_WEB.pdf

Percy, C., & Amegah, A. (2021). Starting early: Building the foundations for success. https://www.educationandemployers.org/starting-early-executive-summary/

Skorikov, V. B., & Vondracek, F. W. (2011). Occupational identity. In S. J. Schwartz, K. Luyckx, & V. L. Vignoles (Eds.), Handbook of Identity Theory and Research (pp. 693–714). Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-7988-9_29

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