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The Development of Learner Identity during Life Phases

   School of Education

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  Dr M Beaton, Dr J Spratt  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Jenkins refers to identity as the ‘touchstone of our times’ (Jenkins, 1996, p.8) but identity is an ill-defined concept. It has been suggested that listening to the voices of pupils or learners might be a means of more fully understanding how those identities are formed (Rudduck and Fielding, 2006; MacBeath, 2006). In contrast to more traditional views of children, the ideas underpinning those theories known as the ‘new sociology of childhood’ afford children and young people a more active and knowledgeable role in their own lives (Corsaro, 1997; James et al., 1998; Wyness, 2006; Heath et al., 2009). Much has been written about the development of learner identity within schools and other learning contexts but fewer studies have explored the children’s or young people’s own perceptions of this process.
It is an aspiration of many countries, including Scotland, to promote education as a means of enhancing national competitiveness in economic terms. As such, it is essential to understand the experiences of young people at various stages during that educational process. This study would provide the opportunity for a wider and more complex understanding of how developing learner identities influence pupil or learner ‘career’ (Pollard, 1985). It has been suggested that when we construct a self or understanding of our identity, we simultaneously create a lens through which we view the world (Warin, 2010). It is therefore assumed that the identity held by the individual learner holds implications for future decisions the learner makes. For example, these future decisions might relate to engagement with learning opportunities within the classroom during compulsory education or whether to continue in further study post compulsory education.
In addition to the economic argument, a coherent sense of identity is viewed as essential to the development of well-being in individuals (MacBeath, 2006). However, on closer inspection a range of disciplines propose differing definitions of the term (Brubaker and Cooper, 2000). This situation can lead to confusion rather than clarity (Filer and Pollard, 2000). In particular, in educational contexts, there is discord between psychological theories that privilege an intra-psychological process of identity formation and sociological theories that locate identity formation within the social interaction of the classroom to provide both intra and inter-psychological processes.
Underpinned by a symbolic interactionist view of the development of identity (Mead, 1934; Blumer, 1969), this study would seek to further examine learners’ understandings of the constitution, construction and function of their learner identities (Falsafi, 2010). This framework is useful as it allows researchers to examine the social interactions considered significant by individuals in the construction of their learner identity. In relation to the development of learner identity, these social interactions are located within the learning context, whether that be in a primary school, secondary school, further education college or University (Jenkins, 1996). Understanding which of these social interactions are used by individuals to inform the construction of their learner identities can help to understand how the learning context can be adapted to meet the needs of the individual learner resulting in enhanced provision for all.
Previous research at the University of Aberdeen has examined these understandings about learner identity with pupils aged eight years old in a primary school. However, little is known about the constitution, construction or function of learner identities of other age groups in primary schools, secondary schools and post-compulsory education. The PhD student would be required to involve participatory methods with their chosen age group to establish trusting relationships and shared understandings of the development of learner identity. The PhD student would be required to draw on the research literature on ethnography with the appropriate age group and to develop age appropriate methods of data collection such as video diaries, photography, blogs and other interactive means of communication through which the young people could share their understanding of the development of their learner identities. In particular, it would be considered necessary to consider the power element of research methodology in relation to an adult working with children and young people (Mauthner, 1997) as only through acknowledgement of this essential element of working with children and young people will a space be created where they can express their understandings of this vital element of their educational experience.

Funding Notes

This project is funded by a University of Aberdeen Elphinstone Scholarship. An Elphinstone Scholarship covers the cost of tuition fees, whether Home, EU or Overseas.

Selection will be made on the basis of academic merit.


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