Identity and invisibility in education

March 16, 2017

We struggle for identity and recognition each day; we are invisible to many made so not by our choice. The struggle for recognition is a prevalent concern for students. Their experiences with invisibility and their struggles to construct an identity, and understand who they are and who they are becoming, occur not only in the context of their classrooms, but also in the social and cultural contexts of their daily lives. When a student is not seen, or made invisible by his or her peers, it often leads to disengagement and marginalisation in the academic setting.

Untangling the ‘I’ in identity
Literature from social psychology has drawn a distinction between the personal self and the social self. This delineation posits that the personal self or individuated self-concept is defined as the person’s sense of unique identity, which is differentiated from others. Therefore, the personal self enables the individual to claim uniqueness and distinctiveness from others. This sense of self includes idiosyncrasies and attributes which differentiate the person from others. It also embodies personal history, shapes cognition, and anchors a range of goals, motives, and needs. On the other hand, social self has been understood as the extension of the self beyond the level of the individual and a sense of self as connected to others. The social self is often discussed in tandem with social categories (e.g. ethnicity or gender) and social roles (e.g. student or daughter). In other words, social self-concept depersonalises the self-concept, whereby I becomes we.

Both the personal and social self is fluid in nature, and are susceptible to change. The genesis of this fluidity has been purported to stem from the contextual frame of reference in which the self is embedded, resulting in certain selves being activated and certain selves being deactivated. This flexibility of the self allows the individual to adapt to various social situations and adopt various roles and group identities. This can be seen when as part of the interaction with salient reference groups, there are instances that require self-strategies such as self-enhancement, self-verification and self-protection. This fluidity also provides an explanation of the motivation behind group identification (or non-identification).

Identity in transition
A students’ identity, is transitional and developmental in nature. Which identity they project is contingent on the context in which they are embedded. Certain contexts will heighten the salience of personal identity, and other contexts will heighten the salience of social identity. In an educational context, when students are transitioning from one institution to another, their sense of self becomes more complex as they are exposed to new social environments in which they need to learn new roles, new rules and new expectations. In fact, the interactions that occur may require learners to develop new social roles and revise their current social identities. This often results is a sense of belonging or group identification (or non-identification).

Identity is also perceived as a cultural product and process. For this reason, the structure of schooling and what takes place within the public spaces of academic settings and the structures of the university largely influences the shaping of an identity. In fact, schools and classrooms are not neutral zones. The changing demographics of our classrooms reflect differences in students’ cultural and linguistic experiences. At times, the majority of teachers in culturally diverse classroom settings are not representative of the surrounding school community. It is also likely that the socio-historical aspects of the Malaysian context (e.g. position of English and great emphasis on academic importance) have further facilitated and nurtured a specific type of identity.

Creating a culture of recognition
Clearly, we need to do away with pedagogical practices or any structures of schooling that precipitate invisibility. There is a need to create a culture of recognition which embraces diversity and differences (learning style, individual differences). Teachers must recognize that their classrooms reflect the diverse sociocultural context of the community and allows for the presence of innumerable perspectives, possibilities and opportunities. There is a need to adopt curricula that realizes students’ capacity and potential in overcoming invisibility.

Recognition and acknowledgment is vital for students as part of their identity formation. An understanding of how identity relates to learners’ involvement and participation may thus contribute, in some way, towards a better appreciation of students’ learning experiences, be it their successes or failures. The unique individual differences represented by the students’ diversity means that the responsibility of an educator goes beyond developing their academic literacy. Since teachers are part of the learners’ ecology, there is an obligation to assist the learners to achieve a positive sense of self, as part of their individual and social development, in the hope that they will eventually become positive and engaged members of the academic community.

Dr Ida Fatimawati bt Adi Badiozaman is the Acting Dean, Faculty of Language and Communications, Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. She is contactable at