Learn to discover your real identity

28th October 2005, 1:00am
Jon Swain


Learn to discover your real identity

Most of us agree that education can provide people with greater opportunities and make a difference to their lives. A recent study of adults learning numeracy suggests that studying can also lead to people changing their identities - who they think they are and who they want to become.

Almost three-quarters of the students said they had changed as a person.

The changes took different forms, but the most commonly reported was an increase in confidence. Other research supports this and reveals benefits to individuals and the wider community.

This is likely to have an impact on student attainment, attitudes to learning, aspirations and general social interaction.

Learning gives you confidence, because, you know that without confidence you don't do any good to yourself. Coming to college gives you self-esteem.

You know when you hear other people say things like "yes, I have this chance to do something better" that they really have gained some power.

Moreover, the qualifications and certificates that learners work for can give them a feeling of status, whatever the level they are working at, and many see them as a visible demonstration of their ability. Your attitude towards people changes because as you educate yourself, you don't allow anybody to treat you with disrespect. If our friends suggest we are stupid or dumb, I can say that no we are not - we've got certificates to prove it.

People's attitudes to learning and their perceptions of a particular subject are frequently affected by their peer group and can change when they are with another group of people at a different time or in a different setting.

Wesley was a 21-year-old who had been turned off maths at school and was rather disruptive, but now he had decided to change:

"Some people are just ready to learn at different stages. I just wasn't ready or mature enough before. I think I've just basically changed what I thought was cool," he says.

The research was funded by the National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy and charted 80 adult learners studying numeracy. Although many changes can be attributed to learning in general, some are directly related to learning numeracy. The increased levels of mathematical knowledge and skills have the potential to empower learners to understand, and take part in situations outside the classroom: to become, if you like, more active citizens. There are also perceptions of greater autonomy.

One adult, Rija, commented: "You start looking for patterns everywhere. I didn't know patterns existed before. I mean patterns were something you do in art. You know, at election time, I used to just read the commentary and leave the maths to someone else. Now I say, 'How many people were in that constituency, and what was the percentage of the turnout?'

"Suddenly I'm working on a different level - it opens up a whole new world.

It makes you much more involved, rather than relying on someone else to interpret the facts. You might have an opinion, but you haven't taken part in compiling the facts, so you're not in control of anything. You're just a swallower of other people's facts. It makes you a victim."

Sometimes, though, a feeling of greater independence can have unintended negative consequences and put a strain on partners' relationships.

Rija's husband did not want her to study numeracy, and felt threatened by her newly gained skills which made her less reliant on him. She got to the point where she became fed up having to always ask her husband about the bills and accounts; she wanted to do something for herself, and she saw that studying numeracy could be a vehicle for change:

"I wanted to do something with my life and I felt the only way I could do that was to come back and get some qualifications," she says. "And maths would be a big part of that because I want to go into banking."

Learning can be seen as part of an ongoing learning career and enables individuals to change their personal and professional lives. The research also shows that adults can begin to view and understand themselves, and their world, in a different way.

As teaching consists of a series of relationships between various identities, and as learners' identities affect how they relate to the teacher - and also how they learn - it is important to know who the learners are and explore the ways learning changes them.

Jon Swain works as a researcher for the NRDC

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