How are Social Identities Reshaping the Learning Landscape?

How are Social Identities Reshaping the Learning Landscape?


How fitting … today as I assimilate the second major theme emerging from our  synthesis of the LSC round table series – Diversity Among Today’s Learners – Google’s home page notified me that  it’s the 155th birthday of Nettie Maria Stevens – an early American geneticist who, in 1905, described the chromosomal basis of sex. This discovery was originally credited to another, male researcher who made a similarly-timed revelation, but now Stevens is rightfully recognized for making the larger theoretical leap.

How does this relate? Diversity in today’s education system has taken on a new and expanded meaning, and within this diversity, we see an increasing need to address unfair learning impediments driven by gender biases (i.e. women in STEM fields), racial stereotypes, learning disabilities, and a large variety of other social identities.  All the while, much of the trending in education design is focused on discovering “the new model for 21st century learning”.

I’m here to confirm that we must steer clear of neat, tidy “bucketing” of today’s learners. It’s a major pet peeve of mine, and while there are many “profilers” out there trying to define how Generations Y & Z learn, our own research continues to confirm that these students defy generational profiling!  Education design needs to become more sensitized to the individual needs of today’s vast diversity of learners.

The design of the UMKC Atterbury Student Success Center was conceived to help break down students’ intimidation to access services such as tutoring and advising. We organized space to blur the lines between administrative, academic and support services using vibrant lounge space as the binding medium (image credit: Mike Sinclair).

The UMKC Atterbury Student Success Center was designed to reduce students’ intimidation about accessing tutoring and advising services. Vibrant lounge space is a binding medium that blurs lines between admininstrative, academic and support services  (image credit: Mike Sinclair).

Take a moment to think about some of the following questions posed within the round table discussions:

  • How is our planning influenced by research on how students from diverse backgrounds and with different career aspirations are motivated to persist and succeed in acquiring essential work-related skills?
  • What is the appropriate blend of learning modes to support today’s diversity of learners? How can content be delivered to optimize the knowledge capture for diverse learners?
  • How can we value identities and diversity in the classroom? How can our learning environments celebrate the diversity of learning styles and multiplicity of intelligences (popularly described by Howard Gardner) represented by this diverse population?
  • Will growing ethnic diversity and language skills in the American classroom impact learning approaches and the design of learning spaces?
  • What are the unique inhibitions of students in a diverse class and how can design of the space mitigate these to enhance learning?

How can educational institutions begin to address these tough questions? They must draw solutions from their own distinct cultural conditions, and those of their surrounding communities.

You can start by creating a campaign to bring greater awareness of these as pressing issues on your campus. Be sensitive to a range of social identities: those commonly understood, as well as those less commonly discussed, including:

  • Gender
  • Sexual identities
  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Nationality
  • Religion
  • Disability identities
  • Mental illness identities
  • Socio-economic identities
  • Age
  • Profession
  • Political affiliation

Keep in mind that all of these identities come with “social identity contingencies” – the constraints that individuals have to contend with because they have a certain social identity.

Before mechanical computers, the “Rocket Girls” were considered the U.S. government’s first “computers” in 1942. These women manually calculated the trajectories of the early NASA space missions. Image credit: Nathalia Holt, "Rise of the Rocket Girls"

Before mechanical computers, the “Rocket Girls” manually calculated the trajectories of the early NASA space missions (Image credit: Nathalia Holt, “Rise of the Rocket Girls”).

Another layer for consideration – which may have direct implications for the design of learning spaces – is the environmental background of learners:

  • Where did they come from and how has that past prepared them for this current learning environment?
  • Do they come from home-schools, private schools, inner-city public schools, Montessori schools, or some other experience?
  • Are they adult learners returning to school after a prolonged tenure in their career?
  • Are they proficient at the “game of test-taking”, or are they natural, hands-on learners who learn by doing?

Also consider how you are assessing your students:

  • Do your assessment methods accommodate this broad diversity of learners?
  • Do your methods take away the risks of group projects and biases within teams?
  • Do your methods assess students’ soft skills?

So back to Nettie Maria Stevens – the role models are out there, regardless of the social identity classification(s) your students might identify with.  We must raise awareness about others who have overcome social identity contingencies in order to encourage and motivate all students to succeed in whatever field they exhibit natural talent for. Women in science is a great example, and beautifully portrayed in a new book called “Rise of the Rocket Girls” by Nathalia Holt. Other examples include immigrants who have changed America and the world, poor children from the slums of India who taught themselves advanced topics such as DNA replication, and many others.

The “Hole in the Wall” experiment allowed disadvantaged students in India to teach themselves advanced topics.

The “Hole in the Wall” experiment allowed disadvantaged students in India to teach themselves advanced topics (Image credit: Fast Company.)

There’s truly no room for a “one-size-fits-all” solution in today’s education setting. Factoring diversity into the learning culture has yielded real-world, positive results in our STEAM Studio, which has proven invaluable to diminishing social identity associations and helping all learners feel equally empowered. The diversity of study and work environments within the studio, and the self-directed nature of the instructional format, allows each student to find his or her own preferred learning setting.

Parents of STEAM Studio students who are easily distracted have commented on how engaged their kids are while at the studio and how eager they are to return, which differs greatly from their remarks about their children’s’ frustration and sense of oppression felt in typical school settings.  These testimonials are evidence that students’ physical environments, coupled with differentiated learning models, can have a significant impact on their perceptions of limitations brought on by social identity contingencies. What power, when students can focus all their energies on learning, rather than being preoccupied with “fitting in”!

STEAM Studio 2_credit Gould Evans

The STEAM Studio provides students with a flexible learning environment to explore their creativity in Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics (Image credit Gould Evans).

What are your thoughts on encouraging diversity in the learning culture? Do you have any examples of people overcoming social identity contingencies? Share your thoughts with us below!

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