What is identity, and does it influence learning?

I’m not sure I can fully embrace the idea of a “social identity” as described in Hollis (2002). While I will agree with Hollis that there are certain roles within society that I “play” and that each of these roles come with certain expectations or “rules” if you will, the idea that I am defined by roles that I play is not one I can embrace. I may think of myself in terms of being a mother and a wife and a daughter but it is not those roles that define me, it is the relationships behind those roles.

That is why I am much more fully invested in Hollis’s concept of a personal identity. It is true that my role as an instructional designer at Texas A&M University-Texarkana is an interchangeable role. I could leave and decide to do something else at any given moment, and should I do so by my choice or by the choice of my employers, although I might perceive myself to be a great and valuable asset to the school, I am sure I could be replaced without much struggle by someone equally capable. However, my husband and parents and children do not feel the same way. My presence in their lives is irreplaceable and irrevocable. They could not easily go on without me.

I believe we form our identity partly through the way others perceive us or the way we perceive others to perceive us. This is unfortunate, because I think sometimes it leads us to create unrealistic or untrue versions of ourselves. For example, I grew up believing that my mother would never be happy and accept me no matter how hard I tried or how good I did. It was clear to me that my younger brother was her favorite. I also got the impression that she did not think I was attractive. Our relationship left me feeling very rejected and orphaned by her. As a result, I had very low self-esteem and “settled” for the first man to show any interest in me, despite warning signals that he was abusive and a pathological liar. A year of living in an abusive relationship did not improve my feelings of self-worth. Fortunately I have faith and a Spiritual Father. I remember reading a scripture through tears that was meant just for me: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” (Isaiah 49:15, NIV) He has helped me see myself the way He sees me and I have been able to recreate my identity through Him.

I think our experiences also have an affect on our identities. When things come easily to us, it is easy to develop an attitude of success and confidence. My nephew has had everything handed to him easily. He is charming and good looking. He sailed through high school as the football hero and was given a new car for his 16th birthday. He just married his Barbie-doll girlfriend that he dated all through college, who is a neo-natal intensive care nurse. He graduated from college and began working at a prestigious job that had been waiting for him. I am concerned about what will happen the first time things don’t work out the way he expects. Does he have what it takes to get through in a struggle?

When we have to struggle and scratch for things, our identities may reflect perseverance, or we may be prone to give up easily. My oldest son was like that. For him it was easier to give up at the beginning. Why waste any effort on trying if you were just going to fail anyway? He had severe ADHD and things never seemed to go the way he wanted them to, but rather than persevere and try harder, it was his nature not to try at all. He has spent years of positive self-talk trying to get past that and write himself a new identity of confidence and capability.

I believe the identity we adopt for ourselves absolutely impacts what we can and do learn. A colleague of mine was traveling with me this past week. She confided in me that as an older adult with a masters degree in special education, she still believed herself to be stupid as a result of a negative experience she had in grade school. She’d been placed in a gifted program, but the program was badly run and designed. The program director thought the best way to challenge gifted children was to give them more work; not more challenging, just more. My friend had undiagnosed learning disabilities and the additional work was of the type that caused her to struggle with her disabilities. She could not do it. She finally begged her parents to get her out of the program but the experience left her feeling like a school failure. Years later, after she had obtained her Masters degree and had been teaching special education and understood her own disabilities, she mentioned to her mother that she wished she knew her IQ because she wanted to know why the school put her in that gifted program. Her mother confided that although they ordinarily did not share that information with parents, her mother had snuck into the school office and looked up her file and told her what her IQ was. The number was extremely high. My friend confessed that it was because of her mother telling her this information that she had the courage to go on and obtain her PhD.

My son is another example. Mike’s fear of failure made it impossible for him to commit words to paper in school. Whenever the class assignment called for him to write something, he would procrastinate and try to get out of it in whatever way possible. His public school teachers unfortunately often let him get away with it; giving him a zero rather than fighting with him to turn something in. When I began homeschooling him, he no longer had that kind of wiggle room. The assignment was not going away; only his chances of having afternoons off and a summer vacation. What we discovered is that he is a very gifted writer. He writes creatively and shows a fine command of the English language as well as a flair for active voice and realistic dialogue. Once he got past his fear he not only found something he was good at, he discovered that he enjoyed writing and was able to use it as an escape. He still writes fan fiction based on the Star Trek television shows and movies when he has free time.

We have many influences which help shape our identity. Other people, positive and negative experiences in our lives, faith in spiritual things, even the words we speak over ourselves can all impact who we are and who we become. Our identity influences our education,and our education also becomes a part of the experiences which impacts our later identity. I know that part of who I am has been shaped by the teachers who have had a profound impact on me throughout my education, and also the things I have learned both formally and informally as I’ve grown older. I also know that my success in school has helped shape my confidence and given me the perseverance I need to stick with my current degree plan through to the end.


Hollis, M. (2002), The Philosophy of Social Science: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Kindle Edition.

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