>> EdId99 >> Wrap-up on “Identity ” & Future of Education


This is my final article on my series of articles on Education and Identity as part of Twitter group #edsg’s  thematic tweets project.  However it will certainly not be the last time I talk about identity.  Today’s article is Identity as an Analytic Lens for Research in Education, by James Paul Gee.  (Again?!?  Yes!)  Gee goes beyond some peoples’ favourite view of identity as gender, race or socio-economic class to give four perspectives on identity, namely:-
1.  Discursive Identity     (D-identity)
2.  Affinity-Identity         (A-identity)
3.  Institutional Identity  (I-identity)
4.  Natural Identity         (N-identity)

A Framework for Identity in Education

We have learned that identity is important in education (see here, here and here).  I believe by combing insights from Gee, Sfard, Lave & Wenger and Holland, we can arrive at a Framework for Identity in Education, which is not just for research, but for designing and thinking about education in general.

In the real world, including institutions and affinity spaces, people figure out themselves how they fit in.  Figured worlds are what people make out their world to be, and they act/react accordingly, taking on different identities.  Learning _is_ bridging the gap between (current) actual identity and the designated identity.  But the latter is not cast in stone.  A lawyer may want to make a career-switch to become an entrepreneur, for example.  This sets up a new designated identity, and thus a new episode in a life-long learning journey.

Identity Mindmap

Identity Framework.  Please click to enlarge.

Natural identity arises from what one is born with (e.g. sex, race, and perhaps parents’ social class).  Gee’s Affinity-Identity comes from “who you are” in some informal/voluntary special interest groups, professional learning networks, or even Twitter group #edsg.  Institutional identity arises from one’s position in an institution (e.g. student in school, child at home, ADHD patient “certified” by the medial establishment). One’s role and participation in communities affect one’s institutional and affinity-identities.   One can, for example, choose to be a lurker, inactive or active participant.  Computer games as well as online forums discussing games are also spaces in which people can develop their A-identities (see here, here and here).  Discursive identity includes not only the way one talks (little “d” discourse), but also things like beliefs and values (big “D” Discourse).  These beliefs (what one regards as true and right) and values (what one regards as important) lead to choices/decisions and actions, which, when repeated over time, form habits (including habits of mind), which in turn, form “character”.  This gets condensed in the life story of that person, as if it becomes a solidified “real” object (“reified”).  In the final analysis, one’s identity is one’s legacy, what one is reputed for and remembered for.  This is quite a sobering thought, considering that when we are young, we do not like to think about these things.  The misbehaving kid in your classroom thinks he lives forever, and most likely does not give two hoots about about the legacy he leaves.  Unfortunately school systems worldwide tend to emphasise and just measure skills and content knowledge.  Skills are an outcome of deliberate practice, although luck and genetics might help a tweeny weeny bit.  Content now is cheap – a lot of it is just a click of a mouse away.  What educators should do actually is to focus on habits.

The Future of Education: Quo Vadis?

So where do we go from here?  Skills and content are only the tip of the iceberg.  It is also difficult to push down from the top, because we are fighting against the buoyancy of students’ identities.  (“I want to be who I want to be, stop telling me what to learn!”).  Even if educators are successful in drilling students with the skills and concepts, the learners may not have acquired the right attitudes, practices of metacognition (e.g. planning, self-regulation), processes of learning how to learn.  Worse, skills might get obsolete as the job market changes, and the learner would have nothing valuable to fend for himself/herself with.

iceberg 1

Educational desiderata.  Please click to enlarge.

Education should come from the bottom up, with teachers supporting students and getting their buy-in on how they want to develop their identities.  This is true especially in today’s ever-changing world.  Focusing on the learner’s identity as the core, learners should acquire the right values, dispositions (habits, habits of mind), epistemology (how to seek and verify knowledge, critical thinking) and adopt a multi-disciplinary approach to learning.  This is not just about knowing different subjects or topics, but about adopting the practices and worldviews of scientists, mathematicians, historians, authors, … etc (including collaborating and sharing ideas in a community), and bringing these to bear in real-life situations.  With identity as the core focus, the upper five layers (attitude, metacognition, processes, skills and concepts) ought to follow as a by-product, because these are learnt while doing things repeatedly in context, so it feels natural.

We also need to help students to figure out who they want to be and what role they would play in society and in the world, hopefully as a useful and contributing member and not as a terrorist or robber.

There is actually a lot more that can be said, but let us not drag on too long.  I hope the outline above can serve as a useful tool to begin to think about educational issues and/or education reform.

Questions to ponder
Q1)  Finland recently annonced a shift away from “subject” focus to “topic” focus.  Do you think this is the same as multi-disciplinarity?  Please explain.
Q2)  How would you analyse recent popular educational movements like the Maker movement and Coding movement?
Q3) If your country were to adopt an identity-based educational curriculum, what changes must there be made to teacher selection and teacher development?  Are your teachers ready?  Are the parents ready?
Q4) If an identity-based educational curriculum is adopted, what changes must be made to assessment?  How can this be implemented?
Q5) “I am not a maths person, because I am not Asian.”  Analyse this fallacy using the above identity framework.
Q6)  You are a career counsellor.  A 25-year old college dropout with poor maths skills and poor language skills (actually no skills to talk about) comes to you, habitually complains about his home, complains about the government, complains about his friends, and says he wants to get a job and earn as much as Mark Zuckerberg.  How would you advise him?
Q7)  Technology is an integral part of the 21st Century.  But, how does technology fit into the above framework?

[#Critique] What other slices of #PISA can there be?

Article (by Valerie Strauss, in Washington Post)
The tower of PISA is badly leaning. An argument for why it should be saved.


Answer to critics of PISA by Pasi Sahlberg (yes, _THE_ Pasi Sahlberg) and Andy Hargreaves.

The bad
– PISA provokes over-reliance on standarised tests and narrowing of learning
– bias in favour of economic vested interests in education
– technical flaws in test items, flaws in test administration, sampling and statistical analysis

The good
+ reveals truth, restraining hubris and misguided hegemony
+ calls the bluff of market competition between schools, less university-based training for teachers, more standardisation of curriculum
+ reveals the folly of Sweden’s for-profit free schools (i.e. free from government, but not free-of-charge)
+ shows other countries that quality education can come with social equity and less need for continual pupil testing, less need for competition e.g. Finland and Canada
+ highlights need for equity and influences equity agenda for various countries

The Ugly
– some inequitable Asian countries gaming the system

In their conclusion, Sahlberg and Hargreaves argue for
* PISA or something like it to be kept
* flaws of American education to be addressed
* children’s well-being and human development in all countries

My Critique

PISA measures only skills and content knowledge and maybe some processes — the first three layers of my iceberg.  It does not track things like identity, values and epistemology (how one learns).

Thus, if PISA can be kept pure of commercial vested interest (conducting research and tests and writing reports take up time, money and resources, and they need to make a living, we know), it measures, at best, only what is necessary, but not quite sufficient for the 21st Century.

One may be tempted argue that since PISA does not measure things like creativity and entrepreneurship, then just forget about PISA and forget about educational standards (involving skills and content knowledge). But then when you look at great creative entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg and even Steve Jobs, you find that they are not dimwits who know nothing. In fact, they are/were passionate learners who self-learn whatever skills and knowledge they need to do what they do.  But they go beyond that.  They use(d) their skills, knowledge and creativity to invent or create things that make a huge impact on our world.  But then, not every school or college dropout is like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.

Generally, I agree with Sahlberg and Hargreaves.  Because of the inadequacy of schools and colleges to produce job-ready workers, and the inadequacy of standardised tests, many psychologists and/or human resource consultants are already using various alternative assessments and psychometric tests for selection of job applicants.  PISA is not a piece of cake and definitely has its faults, but instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, my suggestion is to go beyond PISA’s current assessments and evaluations. Let us see how PISA can take more slices of learners’ 21st Century Skills, habits, dispositions, values, identity, life-long learning, epistemology (learning how to learn and critical thinking), creativity, entrepreneurship … etc, and analyse how well or otherwise educational systems cultivate learners in these aspects.  If PISA is not able to do that, then perhaps let some organisation(s) bake better, more well-rounded recipes for assessment and evaluation.

>>EdId10>> Identity & Learning Mathematics


Welcome to article #10 of my series on Education and Identity.  We have seen how identity is linked to mathematics learning in this discussion featuring James Gee and this article discussing Sfard and Prusak.  Today we delve more deeply into this issue.  Grootenboer and Zevenberg say that if the goal of mathematics education in school is the development of students’ mathematical identities, then the process as a tripartite relationship between the teacher, the student and the discipline of mathematics.  [As a gentle reminder: the discipline of mathematics is not merely the subject content, but also the processes of problem solving, the habitual practice of trying to discovering connections, basically the sort of things mathematicians do.]  Although the teacher’s role is temporary, but is important in scaffolding the learner’s relationship with mathematics itself, precisely so that this relationship can be sustained throughout the learner’s lifetime even when the teacher is no longer present.  It behooves the teacher, therefore, to first have a very solid mathematical identity himself/herself and then to help build the mathematical identities of learners in their charge, and gradually step back as the learners become more independent.

The authors mention that mathematical identity includes the learners’ attitudes, beliefs, emotions, attitudes and dispositions, besides skills and knowledge.  For me, I would also include epistemology (how one discovers/learns mathematical insights, figuring things out) and values (beauty, simplicity, attention to detail, rigour, carefulness, patience, persistence, respect for truth, patience, persistence, respect/appreciation for truth … etc.) in the concept of mathematical identity.

Actually, all these are “common sense” to me, but it seems that many people (policy makers, teachers, parents etc) just focus on tests and exam results, facts, formulas, short-cuts, tricks, expecting entertainment and short-term gains, making maths “easy” (promoting unhealthy attitudes in preparation for life), making maths “fun” (as if it were not already), dumbing down mathematics.  Then they wonder about the low participation and low engagement, and the anger and frustration in learners trying to learn mathematics.  As a result of their experiences of the so-called “mathematics” in school, not many people like mathematics or want to continue to pursue a mathematics-related subject/career.  The few very disciplined people who are able to “survive” school mathematics tend to view mathematics achievement merely as something to be endured but not enjoyed, and as a ticket to their choice of career (e.g. law, engineering, banking, … etc).  Psychogical, sociological or other academic approaches to tackle this problem fail to completely address the problem.  Only recently have educationists looked at identity (“who you are”) as a way of looking at the problem.  Note that Grootenboer and Zevenberg did not mention the role of family and culture in the formation of mathematical identities in this paper, but Sfard and Prusak did in theirs.

I want to conclude by noting that creative people like Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page exhibit well-developed mathematical identities. Although they are not mathematicians, they are able to use their knowledge (including science, mathematics and technology) to invent new things that transform our world. It is interesting to note that Steve Wozniak, an avuncular kind soul, even taught in elementary (primary) school for a while, to inspire teachers and the next generation of inventors.


Questions for all of us to ponder … and ponder real hard
1)  In the first place, is the development of students’ mathematical identities even the goal of “mathematics” “education” in school syllabuses/curricula around the world today?  Can you see the huge disconnect between current “mathematics” “education” and what an identity-based mathematics education would be like?
2) Is mathematics the same as numeracy?
3) Why do you think the efforts hitherto to get pupils to “engage” and “participate” in “mathematics” have not worked, or were not sustained, or even back-fired?
4) Do your teachers have well-developed mathematical identities?
5) Do you think teachers with well-developed mathematical identities tend to be less able to relate to students?
6) Do you think teachers who are able to relate to students have less well-developed mathematical identities?
7) Is the learning of mathematics (or any other form of learning) the same as passively consuming entertainment by the tutor/teacher?
8) Is mathematics boring?  Why / why not?  Could you be the boring one instead?
9) With so many resources and documentaries available on mathematics nowadays, do people bother to search for them?  Why / why not?
10) Are Asians and Jews really that special in excelling at mathematics?  Why / why not?  What aspects of personal, family and/or ethnic culture/values/beliefs are conducive to success in learning mathematics (or indeed any subject)?
11) What happened to all those people with well-developed mathematical identities?  Do they want to teach in K-12 schools?  Do they want to remain as teachers in K-12 schools?  Why / why not?
12) How can we help learners to see the “big picture” of mathematics, to see how mathematical topics are interconnected, and also how mathematics is connected to other disciplines?  In other words, how to avoid a siloed or compartmentalised view of mathematics?
13) In the tuition culture of countries like Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea, do you think learners can ever develop independence as part of their mathematical learner-identities?  Do you think parents and students even want to have a mathematical identity?
14) Should mathematics be viewed as merely a form of cultural capital or human capital?
15)  Is there a generation gap?  Do you think this current generation of kids are different?  How so, and why?  Is there a way to reach them, and their parents?

Yes, that’s some hard thinking to do.  But it is needful if we are mend the sorry state of mathematics education around the world today.