Students and Identity Building

The final of the three questions:

In your opinion, how do students build an identity?  What kind of learning experiences are necessary?  What is a school’s responsibility (or a teacher’s) in helping students develop character and identity?

“There are three ways of trying to win the young. There is persuasion. There is compulsion. There is attraction. You can preach at them; that is a hook without a worm. You can say “You must volunteer; that is the devil. And you can tell them, ‘You are needed.’ That appeal hardly ever fails.” Kurt Hahn

Parable of the Good Samaritan
Parable of the Good Samaritan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kurt Hahn’s genius was collecting together ideas surrounding helping young people be their best possible self. He was inspired by three things: A mother who implicitly believed in the innate goodness of people. The work of Plato who insisted it was more important that education build character than transmit knowledge. Finally, the parable of the Good Samaritan. Character is observable and based on behaviors. What do you do when faced with a given situation? The Good Samaritan obviously is a demonstration of impeccable character. Hahn like most teachers asked what allows someone to act in this way?

English: Simon Sinek speaking at TEDx Maastric...
English: Simon Sinek speaking at TEDx Maastricht in the Netherlands (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, I have enjoyed reading a book by Simon Sinek called Start with Why. Sinek suggests that there is a simple formula (the Golden Circle) that leaders can use to inspire others. He explains that while most people will tell you what they do and occasionally how they do it. Great leaders start by explaining why. They tell you of their values, the single cause or belief that serves as a unifying, driving force for them as an individual or organization. They then tell you how; the principles or actions that will bring their why to life. These are strategies and actions to be performed. Finally they tell you what. These are the results or measures which are tangible and obvious to others on completion.

English: A diagram of what Simon Sinek calls '...
English: A diagram of what Simon Sinek calls ‘The Golden Circle’. In his TEDx talk, he says ‘People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I like the model because it is a simple way of looking at something quite complex. How do you make sure that people understand you? How do you help a group to achieve significance? It also is a neat way of exploring identity and its result; character. Ultimately, identity is your why. When you know your values, when you understand your beliefs then, and only then can you make things happen in a meaningful way. Without them you are paralyzed. This paralysis is Erik Erikson’s Identity Crisis, a condition which seems to be currently rampant. The how depicts your character and the what measures it. Traditionally we think of identity as being who you are. It is framed by occupation, culture, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation. My belief is that we know who we are when we know why we do things and we align with people and cultures when we see similarities in our belief systems. Traditionally belief systems have been handed down to us by parents and communities (school, religion). At a later age we choose to accept or denounce them.  Increasingly, children are faced with defining their own beliefs at an earlier age because they are exposed to so many through television and other media. As Barry Schwarz suggests, choice is supposed to bring about freedom and yet the “Paradox of Choice” is that it is overwhelming and does exactly the opposite. We know who we are only when we understand why we feel the things we feel.

“It is not easy to construct by mere scientific synthesis a foolproof system which will lead our children in a desired direction and avoid an undesirable one. Obviously, good can come only from a continuing interplay between that which we, as students, are gradually learning and that which we believe in, as people.” Erik Erickson

IMGP1295So how do we help young people build their identity and what exactly is the responsibility of the teacher in this arena? For me the most important thing we can do is ask why? In the spirit of Toyota’s manufacturing process (the Five Why’s), exploring the answer to why with another why draws out richer thinking. When you ask why five or more times then usually the topic is explored more fully and a kernel is reached. I never want to force an opinion on a young person, I do however want them to explore their own ideas.

“Without self-discovery, a person may still have self confidence, but it is a self confidence built on ignorance and it melts in the face of heavy burdens. Self discovery is the end product of a great challenge mastered, when the mind commands the body to do the seemingly impossible, when courage and strength are summoned to extraordinary limits for the sake of something outside the self–a principle, an onerous task, another human life.” Kurt Hahn

IMG_0199I also align with Hahn concerning self discovery. I have learned the most about myself when I have had to struggle. Erikson and James Marcia; who developed his work, also agree that “crises” are required to move along the continuum of developing an identity. The groups that I have joined and found identity within were often based on developing large amounts of trust because I had to. When a student is rock climbing belayed by his / her classmates he / she is faced with addressing his / her trust of the people holding their rope. When they are safely lowered to the ground it is easy to know why they can trust them. This is a good time to ask the belayers why they wanted to be trustworthy and everyone how trusting and being trusted felt.

Will095.tifRobust identity is built when a variety of identities are experimented with and then one committed to. It can also change significantly given sufficient external influence. For instance value systems and beliefs are likely to be modified following a parental divorce or a violent assault.

As a teacher I am particularly interested in three sets of identities: the identity of the individuals in the group, the identity of the group / class and the identity of the school. Anything I can do to help pupils understand why:

  • They do the things they do
  • The group is valuable to them
  • The school reflects what the individuals like about themselves

IMG_0152Is a valuable lesson. The more experiences I can shape that have them reflect on these questions either formally or otherwise will help them figure out who they are and what they are going to do to show people who they are. If I ask how they want to be known and why and then what do they need to do to be seen that way, it will help them make good choices. I have always liked Steven Covey’s activity of thinking about your 80th birthday party, you are surrounded by those you admire and love. They are saying wonderful things about you. What do you hear them say? Likewise I often ask students to provide bullet points of what they will want me to write as a reference for them. I then hold them to the behaviors that reflect what they wrote.

My experience is that outdoor activities and nature always accelerates the process of creating identity and make it more poignant. Service especially when it means hardship for the person serving provides a realistic framework for exploring values. Given less time then well designed games and activities can serve as kinesthetic metaphors which help explore these ideas in a meaningful way, especially when I have chosen them using Sinek’s Golden Circle.

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2 thoughts on “Students and Identity Building

  1. The stress while receiving an education always seems to exist only because we are being forced to learn things that are often not relevent enough to understand the Why, How, and What. Higher importance in building character over the raw absorbtion of transmitting knowledge is well…you make the call!

    1. I completely agree with you about relevancy. If education focuses on teaching the importance of why, how, what then students will gain the same iron resolve as you.

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