Two research findings from our University of Newcastle large-scale longitudinal study of the career aspirations of Australian children attracted a lot of media coverage recently. The first was that Australian children begin to form career aspirations from a very young age and the second that children have similar aspirations whether they are from low or high economic status families.
These findings are inspiring some rethinking around career education in Australian schools and how things might change to help children realise their aspirations.
But there is another aspect of our findings that has not yet been given the media spotlight, and it may be just as significant. It is the way children’s aspirations change over time.
Of course some change is to be expected, but as we unpack what is happening we can see patterns emerging and believe schools, teachers, parents and university recruiters should be paying much closer attention to what is happening.
What we found
In Year 3, children aspired most to having a career as Arts professionals (musician, artist, writer and so on), followed by School Teachers, Veterinarians, Architects, and Science professionals. These were the top five occupations where a university education was involved.
The next most popular careers were Engineering Professionals, Medical Professionals, Social and Welfare Professionals, Legal Professionals and Registered Nurses/Midwives.
However we found that interest in some occupations – arts, architecture and veterinary science – declines in the later years of schooling, while interest in others – engineering, nursing, and social and welfare work – grows.
Interest in teaching, medicine, legal and science careers is more stable across the school years.
In some occupational categories, interest appears to rise or fall towards the very end of high school. For example, students are less likely to aspire to be a vet or artist as they mature, but more likely to aspire to architecture, engineering, medicine, social work or law. Furthermore, significant interest in these careers is often expressed as early as Year 7, sometimes Year 5. In other careers, such as teaching and science, student interest is more consistent across year levels.
Why do children change their aspirations?
The data we have collected gives us a clearer view of how and when aspirations change. This evidence provides fertile ground for any policy maker or program developer involved in career education.
The variations we found across year levels might relate to ongoing assessment by students of their abilities and achievement levels as they age or, indeed, to a more realistic understanding of what is involved in certain careers.
However it is possible these patterns indicate a range of quite specific influences, such as: how a teacher communicates expectations of a child (whether they will continue on to university); or a family’s understanding of how paying for university education works (believing it costs too much and they can’t afford it); or even an understanding that university study is involved in the pathway to a certain career or belief that the pathway is possible.
The process of forming aspirations can have a profound influence on the life prospects of a child. Our ongoing research is looking closely at what is happening here, with the aim of informing teachers, higher education providers, and policy makers.
Jenny Gore is Professor of Education at the University of Newcastle. Her research interests have consistently focussed on the quality of teaching and learning, teacher socialisation, alternative pedagogy, power relations in teaching, reform in teacher education and pedagogical reform. She has been involved in and/or managed several large research grants, with research income over $5.9 million. Jenny was a member of the research team that generated the concept of Productive Pedagogy and, with Associate Professor James Ladwig, was co-author of the NSW model of pedagogy known as Quality Teaching. Professor Gore was Dean of Education and Head of the School of Education at the University of Newcastle (2008-2013) and and has held positions as President of the NSW Teacher Education Council, Executive member of the Australian Council of Deans of Education, Research Training Coordinator for the Australian Association for Research in Education, and Associate Editor of Teaching and Teacher Education. Jenny’s major books include The Struggle for Pedagogies: Critical and feminist discourses as regimes of truth and Feminisms and Critical Pedagogy (edited with Carmen Luke). Her current research programs focus on understanding student aspirations for greater equity and investigating teacher professional development through Quality Teaching Rounds.