What theory is and how it’s of use

On occasions, criticism is levelled at career guidance practitioners because of their lack of knowledge of careers guidance theory. This is, undoubtedly, due to the fact that in Italy many sector workers, especially in the past, learnt on the job, but it may also be due to the nature of the theories themselves. Practitioners (in any sector) are constantly in search of theories which help them to do their work and do it better. If careers guidance theories are not very popular with guidance practitioners, it may be because they don’t find them very helpful. I will try to explain this more clearly.

What a theory is

A theory is a series of general principles applying to something. A theory is usually derived from the observation of actual situations from which general principles are ‘extracted’. They can be general principles which explain a particular set of phenomena (for example: atoms and protons colliding) or which guide a specific action (for example, how to conduct a careers guidance interview).

How theory is of use

When we want to learn to do something, theory helps:

  • 1. to reduce learning time
  • 2. to deal with the unexpected

For example, I can teach someone how to conduct interviews by simply allowing him or her to observe and/or participate in a large number of them (‘I’ll show you’, and/or ‘you have a go’). However, including some theory in the learning process has two advantages:

  • Less learning time is required because theory guides our observation. If it shows us which elements to concentrate on and which are the best methods to adopt, we learn them more quickly.
  • It makes us better able to deal with the unexpected, thanks to the application, where necessary, of previously tested general principles upon which the theory is constructed. Only after lengthy practical experience, or by being able to quickly develop one’s own effective theory from practice, does practice-based learning alone allow a person to cope equally well with the unexpected.

However, theory on its own is not enough. Theory is important but teaching cannot be confined to theory. Practice must be the predominant factor as theory alone does not enable the actual carrying out of specific tasks. Unfortunately, many courses concerning careers guidance are based entirely or mainly on theory.

Ineffectual theories:

1. There are ‘professional thinkers’ who specialise in extracting theories from reality, but theory as such, per se, is ineffectual. A theory is only effective if the general principles which constitute it are crucial for those having to utilise it, and if those principles are set out in an easily understood and practical way. For example, in a theory on how to correctly conduct careers guidance interviews, subdividing them into those in the summer and those in the winter is logical but of very little importance, and a theory setting out 15 basic recommendations for standardising one’s interaction with clients is equally ineffective as most advisers will find it impossible to remember all of them.

2. concepts constituting a theory can be formulated in sentences which have logically correct meaning but their correspondence to actual situations (and therefore their usefulness) can prove to be very limited, particularly when the concepts used are very general and far removed from reality. As theoretical elaboration increases, there is a greater risk of it not proving useful. This can give rise to debate which is only meaningful and of value in academic circles and of little significance to practitioners. In the academic world, the most important criterion for evaluating a theory seems to be its spread amongst intellectuals rather than amongst practitioners. This certainly does not help to develop well founded and useful theories.

Author: Leonardo Evangelista www.leonardoevangelista.it © Leonardo Evangelista. First placed in this website on the 11th of July 2007. Version of 11th of July 2007. This article can be reproduced quoting Author’s name and website and article’s URL.

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