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Wednesday, October 16, 2019
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Students & YouthTips & Training

Infusing narrative into curriculum and practice: Strategies for educators and practitioners

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The future of work continues to shift – and most of us are not ready for the impact it will have on our work lives. Most individuals, including today’s university and college students, will hold multiple jobs across multiple industries; many will pursue different careers over the course of their lifetime. This uncertainty invokes a range of emotions, ranging from anxiety about perpetual change to the excitement of the unknown. What is certain is that all of us will need to embrace learning and cultural agility (i.e., learning to learn to prepare for new work contexts across diverse environments), and the ability to tell stories.

The ability to craft a good narrative is an invaluable skill that also aligns with employers’ shift in recruiting from credentials to skills. How can we teach good storytelling and become more effective storytellers and listeners ourselves? One strategy is to examine the influence of a narrative-based career management course. We want to share a snapshot of the outcomes from one such course, offered through the Institute for Leadership Education in Engineering (ILead) at the University of Toronto.

A gap in career education
This post is based on a recent article published in the Canadian Journal of Career Development, September 2019, vol 18(2): “Not Just for Undergraduates: Examining a University Narrative-Based Career Management Course for Engineering Graduate Students.”

Career planning courses, also referred to as career management courses, exist for undergraduates at some Canadian and US institutions. However, few career planning classes for graduate students exist. The assumption persists that graduate-level students enrolled in professional training programs know exactly what they want to do in their careers and lives. The reality is that many students remain unclear about their next steps in their professional paths. A graduate-level course based in career development theory and narrative approaches allows students to gain valuable information and tools that will guide them as they navigate the uncertainties of the future.

One of the authors (Franklin) identified the need for a course with engineering graduate students at the University of Toronto. With support from the ILead faculty, Franklin developed a credit-bearing career management course that uses a narrative-based framework. Narrative approaches in career development literature are relatively new when compared to other traditional vocational models. Franklin built the course on emerging literature that supports the notion that one’s life involves a story with multiple chapters, and that we are always writing and re-writing these chapters.

“The assumption persists that graduate-level students enrolled in professional training programs know exactly what they want to do in their careers and lives.”

The course

The course, Engineering Careers: Theories & Strategies to Manage your Career for the Future (scroll to APS1030), is grounded in four main conceptual pillars:

  • navigating one’s career involves a rigorous and uncertain journey,
  • making well-informed career and life choices is best supported by a two-step process of clarification followed by exploration,
  • satisfaction derives from making intentional choices after a clarification process based on deliberate reflection on past experiences and stories, and
  • tools and strategies drawn from theory exist that students can master and then apply as they move forward with their work lives.

Like many career planning courses, students engage in a variety of projects and exercises such as a group interview project with an industry leader, weekly reflection activities captured in a “logbook” and small group work. What makes this course unique is the application of narrative and gamified approaches to the life-career planning process. The students experience a tool called Who You Are Matters!, a peer-to-peer storytelling activity, and a web application, Online Storyteller, both from OneLifeTools. These tools aim to build upon the competencies articulated by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) that promote “career readiness” in graduates. One of the most valuable competencies identified by employers is career management.

In our study, we interviewed 10 students who completed the course, transcribed the interviews and performed a qualitative study, which led us to identify three key themes. When asked what they gained from the curriculum, the students reported that the outcomes allowed them to: foster career awareness and exploration skills, find affiliation with others who were uncertain about their futures, and develop optimism and confidence – despite future uncertainty. Students generally reported satisfaction with the class. The published article captures student voices in the form of vignettes that illustrate each of the three key themes.

What universities and colleges can do

Based on the outcomes of the study, we advise and encourage career educators to consider embedding narrative-based approaches into their own practices. First, educators employed at post-secondary institutions can design and offer career management courses for their students. These courses should be graded and for-credit and count toward a degree requirement or elective.

Career educators can encourage administrators to invest in curriculum development and hire career professionals who are well-versed in career development theory and practice. A movement exists in career services that calls on the entire academic community to show and document an interest in the career development of both graduate and undergraduate students. No longer is career development the sole responsibility of career services staff. As a way to gain further collaboration, career services professionals can reach out and establish partnerships across campus with other units – as well as form collaborations with organizations and resources off campus in the community. Examples of infusing narrative tools into curriculum and programs include the OPTIONS program at University of Toronto, which supports PhDs to explore non-academic careers, and a suite of career development courses at Conestoga College in Ontario.

Second, career professionals who work in other for-profit or non-profit career organizations can consider infusing career development modules based on narrative approaches into their existing work. These modules can take the form of specific narrative-based activities or readings that encourage clients to consider the role and merit of stories in their lives.

Third, career educators should consider adding narrative-based tools and gamified strategies into existing curricula and practices. These activities serve as opportunities to engage in the reflection and career exploration process that are both fun and educational. Numerous tools, inventories and products exist that promote experimentation and reflection through games, cards, writing and other non-traditional assessments. (Check out success stories of applying such resources on OneLifeTools.)

Finally, we encourage scholars and practitioners to develop further the inquiry around the effectiveness of narrative-based curriculum, with a focus on career management competencies for graduate and professional school students. Advocating for students and clients to become stronger storytellers helps them communicate their worth and contributions to multiple employers throughout their work lives.

Note: The authors acknowledge Lisa Kaler for her helpful feedback on previous drafts of this blog article.


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Michael J. Stebleton, PhD (steb0004@umn.edu) is associate professor of Higher Education in the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, USA. His research and teaching interests focus on college student success and career development with an emphasis on the undergraduate student experience. Stebleton is a recipient of the 2017 National Career Development Association Merit Award. Mark Franklin, MEd, PEng, CMF, (mark@careercycles.com) is practice leader of CareerCycles.com, co-founder of OneLifeTools.com and lecturer at University of Toronto. Franklin was the recipient of the 2015 Stu Conger Leadership Award for Career Development in Canada, and presents and trains worldwide. He developed the OneLifeTools/CareerCycles narrative method of practice and co-authored the Who You Are Matters! game, drawing on transferable systems-thinking and design skills from his first career in engineering.
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Michael J. Stebleton, PhD (steb0004@umn.edu) is associate professor of Higher Education in the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, USA. His research and teaching interests focus on college student success and career development with an emphasis on the undergraduate student experience. Stebleton is a recipient of the 2017 National Career Development Association Merit Award. Mark Franklin, MEd, PEng, CMF, (mark@careercycles.com) is practice leader of CareerCycles.com, co-founder of OneLifeTools.com and lecturer at University of Toronto. Franklin was the recipient of the 2015 Stu Conger Leadership Award for Career Development in Canada, and presents and trains worldwide. He developed the OneLifeTools/CareerCycles narrative method of practice and co-authored the Who You Are Matters! game, drawing on transferable systems-thinking and design skills from his first career in engineering.
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