There seems to be two ways in which we use identity in everyday life; firstly, we identify with a particular group or practice - in this we seek to belong or to be a part of something and secondly, we develop an internal notion of our own identity - this is self-identity - and it is often used to compare ourselves with others.
It is not difficult to see how the two are intertwined.
Imagine a situation where you meet someone for the first time and you wish to get to know more about them - you might start by asking where they are from etc.. There follows an exchange of descriptive information usually in the form of identity signifiers: "I am from Dublin", "I am an educator", "I have teenage children".
In no time there is common ground and perhaps you find a mutual area of interest with your new friend.
Identity signals serve a useful function in social situations they help us to quickly categorise and appraise other people. They act as a kind of shorthand that avoids the need for detailed time-consuming descriptions.
What of our self-identity? We may also use this to categorise and appraise ourselves - we do this in reference to others.
Our self-identity is neither singular (we should say self-identities) nor stable over time. We have many self-identities and they are greatly influenced by context.
I am happy to say that I am a competent golfer when I am in the company of non-golfers but I feel totally inadequate on the tee-box when members of my club are watching on.
In fact, as far as golf is concerned, I have a very unstable self-identity concept.
In my opinion, I am usually much weaker at golf that others I see around me. However, my golfing identity is greatly influenced by my most recent experiences and so I might find myself feeling pretty smug if I just birdied the last hole.
I believe that we all have a learning-identity and that it forms an important part of our overall self-concept. This is true especially for adults and I believe that we need to give greater consideration to the influence of learning-identity when we talk about adult education, return-to-learning, skills in the workplace and older people using computers for the first time.
For many older people learning-identity is founded on school experiences and unfortunately these may not have been very positive for the individual concerned.
Recently as part of my my own research on adult learners I asked people (generally over 45 years of age) why they decided to undertake a basic computer course. In the first few sentences of their response many of them would refer to their experiences at school. Typically they would say something like
"well you see I wasn't very good at school - so I never really did any other courses but I found that I was missing out as far as computers were concerned - so I decided I'd try and give this a go but I'm really quite nervous."
This would be their first response - notice that when I never asked about school people always seemed to want to bring in their school experiences when they talked about any kind of course they were considering.
I suspect that what's going on is that these people have invoked their school derived learning-identity and are already nervous about a situation that involves any combination of the words like learning, course or college.
This is really a double whammy - if you did poorly at school you are less likely to have taken up a course in your adult life and therefore your learning-identity will be based largely on your school experiences. But because you did poorly at school your sense of yourself as a learner will not be very positive.
Just going back to my earlier example based on my self-identity as a golfer - it's as if I have not played any golf for the last thirty years and all I remember was that I was awful and had a horrid experience when I last played thirty years ago. How do you think I would feel when standing up to take the first shot.
And that's an example from a really trivial activity like golf - imagine how much worse I would feel when it comes to something that really matters like my learning-identity.
So what can be done?
Here are some ideas on how to manage your learning-identity
- Think about progress - how much has changed in terms of schooling between when you were at school and what happens in schools today. These changes were as a result of improvements in the craft of teaching and better understanding of what it means to learn. In other words the problem in the past may well have been with the system rather than the individual.
- Know where you learn - many people do not regard themselves as learning unless they have participated on a course. We learn all the time and throughout our lives. Your learning-identity should extend beyond your school experiences.
- Know where you teach - think about all of the situations where you have guided others as a parent, an experienced co-worker or as a mentor. Ask yourself -if you are naturally good at facilitating learning in others - how does this make you feel about yourself as a learner.
- Finally it's not like school! This is the most common description that adult learners use when they eventually participate in a course and describe their experiences.