Uncertainty and diversity in 16-19 year old school life. Approaching the problem of ‘what do I want to be and do?’ in terms of creating capabilities and identity building.

Wimborne, Oliver, James (2016). 'Uncertainty and diversity in 16-19 year old school life. Approaching the problem of ‘what do I want to be and do?’ in terms of creating capabilities and identity building.' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

topics: Education and Empowerment, Ethics and Morality, Children and Youth

abstract: This paper proposes that identity formation is a central but overlooked functioning in young people, which has profound importance for their education. It considers how young people form their sense of self in relation to their educational experiences and how this enables them to make choices about what they want to be and do in the future. Presenting findings from a qualitative study based in an inner-city English school using the narratives of 16-19 year olds during their transition into and out of post-16 education (Grades 11 and 12), this paper argues that education policy can be more effective with an understanding of identity development. In particular, during the 16-19 phase, this focus would serve to enhance student wellbeing (from a social justice perspective) and improve young people’s chances for achievements they value during their later life-course (from an economic perspective). Melanie Walker (2005) comments that ‘education is (a) process of identity formation over the life course – of becoming and being this kind of person, rather than that kind of person.’  As a result, concerns arise in post-16 education in England where issues of post-adolescence govern student identities, aspirations and motivation (Maguire et al: 2001) and a crisis of employment can result from an extension of the youth phase and a reluctance to engage with adulthood (Ball et al: 1999). In this vein, particular issues surround the way in which post-16 students can enact their own social exclusion (Archer et al: 2003).  The capability for identity formation is thus crucial to wider concerns about social inclusion and successful transitions out of school and into adulthood and employment.  With this in mind, this paper proposes that the resources and opportunities which students have to build their identities during post-16 is wholly important from a capability perspective. It suggests that the ‘capability to build one’s identity’ is an essential ingredient of wellbeing that is grounded in the core features of a capability approach: democratic institutions, freedom of the individual, and the significance of diversity in human nature. Moreover, the capability ‘to be able to develop one’s identity’ is connected to the functioning of having ‘formed one’s identity.’ And this we might term a ‘fertile functioning’ (De-Shalit and Wolff: 2013) because it strengthens and enhances the capability to ‘develop one’s identity’ later in life. In an iterative fashion, we see how students who have worked on their identities and developed a stronger sense of who they are become well positioned to make use of future opportunities and responsibilities and repeat this practice outside of the school setting. The analysis in this paper presents findings on how a capability approach can draw attention to the cognitive and motivational processes of identity building. Specifically, it considers: How students use resources and opportunities to construct their identities in post-16 education. How the ‘capability for self-expression’ of this identity within school closely corresponds to developing self-respect. How a valued public identity within school, based on self-respect,  fosters a sense of belonging and esteem that encourages resilience and the ‘capability for self-control’ to work on this identity independently. How (3) enables students to critically reason about the kinds of ‘beings and doings’ they have reason to value, exercising a ‘capability for self-purpose’ centred on their view of who they are and what they aspire to achieve. The paper concludes by arguing that this cluster of capabilities enables students to identify with opportunities and activities around them that makes possible a (5) 'capability to value things in life as good or worthwhile,' presenting a view of the good life as a practice based on independnce and wholeheartedness. Each of these capabilities are particular to the process of student identity-formation but are more broadly connected to what I argue to be essential ingredients of a 'thick' description of wellbeing. This paper hopes to contribute to research on both the capability approach and education policy. Firstly, it highlights criticisms that the capability approach does not provide an adequate account of identity development or personhood (Gasper: 2002. Giri: 2000. Zimmerman: 2006). By centralising this concern, it hopes to show that the capability approach is a sufficient framework for social justice analysis that can go beyond utility or income measures and capture the diverse and multidimensional nature of human identity. Drawing on two concepts that are central to a capability perspective, freedom and diversity, this paper argues that special attention needs to be paid to how students make sense of who they are, their sense of self, before we can properly understand how they choose to make use of their capabilities to live a life they value. Secondly, this paper contributes to UK education research by introducing new ways of theorising how young people transition into and out of education as ‘very young adults.’  The traditional, linear understanding found in policy and the general understanding of non-specialists suggests that students’ initial choices (about courses of study or institutions) form a basic foundation upon which they build towards future choices about university or employment. However, this paper highlights the ways in which students explore multiple aspects of their identity simultaneously, often contesting expectations and responsibilities, and retreating from or resisting previous choices, in favour of experimenting with new-found freedoms to make iterative decisions – at one moment committing to one form of life and later giving up on that to consider a new form of life. These identity iterations, perhaps seen as failures according to a linear model, can be understood as valuable expressions of capability and functioning, of a ‘life being lived’ in diverse and unique ways. As students increasingly experiment with new ideas about themselves, critically considering the kind of person they might be and things they might do, they continually refine their sense of self in relation to their educational experiences. Understanding this process, it is argued, can form a basis for a capability-friendly institution that avoids the performative and depersonalising features that are incentivised by current policy models.

scroll to top