IDENTITY EDUCATION 1
Identity Education: A conceptual framework for educational
researchers and practitioners
Elli P. Schachter
Bar Ilan University
This article is a preprint version, before copy-editing, of an article that has been published as:
Schachter, E. P. & Rich. Y. (2011). Identity Education: A new conceptual framework for
researchers and practitioners. Educational Psychologist, 46(4), 222–238. DOI: 10.1080/00461520.2011.614509
The final published copy may have slight changes.
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Identity Education: A conceptual framework for educational researchers and
This article presents the concept of identity education (IdEd) referring to the purposeful
involvement of educators with students’ identity related processes or contents. We discuss why
educators may consider identity important to the realization of educational goals and choose to
target aspects of students’ identity in their pedagogical practice. We offer a broad theoretical
framework that organizes and focuses the extensive yet scattered discourse on identity and
education. Because IdEd is a concept that accommodates diverse educational perspectives and
concerns, we outline several parameters that can assist educators in making sense of this
diversity and provide a conceptual basis for pedagogical and curricular decision-making. These
parameters also provide researchers from different scholarly traditions a common framework
for constructive dialogue and can serve as a basis for generating focused and productive
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In this article we introduce the concept of identity education (hereafter IdEd). A detailed
definition of IdEd will be presented shortly. For now, we refer to IdEd as the purposeful
involvement of educators with students' identity-related processes or contents. Educators’
involvement is based on the premise that aspects of identity are instrumental to the realization
of educational goals and thus worthy of engagement. We will discuss the rationale behind this
premise and demonstrate how this idea could have significant implications for educational
research, curriculum, and teaching.
Presentation of IdEd as a topic for reflection and research is based on both theoretical
considerations and previous empirical research that link aspects of identity to educational
goals. However, the idea originated in our field-based experience as researchers and as teacher
and counselor educators where we came to realize that many educators link identity and
education implicitly, if not explicitly, and this affects how they practice their craft. Moreover,
concern with student identity is often a significant factor that underlies their motivations as
educators. This led us to begin formulating the conceptual framework of IdEd which includes:
a definition outlining the boundaries of a field devoted to educators’ involvement with identity;
an explanation of the possible rationales that might motivate this involvement; and an
exposition of parameters that can assist in making sense of diverse educational approaches to
involvement with identity.
This framework is intended to serve four purposes. First, a conceptual framework that
recognizes that identity issues are relevant to educators’ thinking can provide a powerful lens
to observe, identify and analyze aspects of teachers’ classroom practice and of policymakers’
and curriculum designers’ deliberations and decisions. Second, delineating a field devoted to
studying IdEd can facilitate scholarly efforts to conceptualize and evaluate empirical claims
relating aspects of identity to the attainment of educational goals and to examine philosophical-
moral claims regarding IdEd’s desirability. Third, identity is a complex concept. Different
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aspects of identity might be addressed by educators in promoting preferred educational goals.
However, addressing social identity in class is very different than addressing ego identity.
Attending to identity content differs from treating identity processes. Clarity of communication
and deep understanding necessitate delineating how different aspects of identity relate to
A fourth purpose served by formulating the concept of IdEd is that it can provide a broad,
vibrant organizing platform for previous and future scholarship. Identity has long been a topic
of interest in educational psychology and related disciplines. Since Erikson highlighted identity
formation as a developmental task in his classic works a half century ago (Erikson, 1950,
1968), his theory has become a staple in teacher education curricula (e.g., Meece, 2002;
Sprinthall, 1998) and has generated substantial research (see reviews in Côté, 2009; Kroger,
2007; Marcia, Waterman, Matteson, Archer, & Orlofsky, 1993; Schwartz, 2001; Schwartz,
Luyckx & Vignoles, 2011). Identity's intersection with education is now also extensively
discussed from a variety of theoretical perspectives embedded in other research traditions (cf.,
Eccles, 2009; Levinson, Foley, & Holland, 1996; Sfard & Prusak, 2005; Rex, Murnen, Hobbs
& McEachen, 2002; Wortham, 2003). However, despite this broad interest, the identity-
education interface has rarely been explicitly and comprehensively discussed as a topic
important to educational research and practice (see Kaplan & Flum, 2009 and Roeser, Peck, &
Nasir, 2006 for exceptions). Whereas many theoreticians and researchers have written on
issues bearing on education and identity [e.g., ethnic identity (Banks, 2008; Berry, Phinney,
Sam & Vedder, 2006), religious identity (King & Roeser, 2009; Wardekker & Miedema,
2001), occupational identity (Flum & Blustein, 2000), civic identity (Youniss & Hart, 2005),
self-esteem (O'Mara, Marsh, Craven, & Debus, 2006)], those particular aspects of their work
that might be relevant to a general audience interested in identity education are often difficult
to identify as they are discussed incidentally to the specific identity contents that are of concern
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to these scholars. In some cases authors mention identity but do not explicitly highlight it as a
central concept [i.e., character and moral education (Althof & Berkowitz, 2006; Damon, 2002;
Lapsley, 2007; Nucci, 2006), feminist education (Noddings, 2003), Positive Youth
Development (Lerner, Brentano, Dowling & Anderson, 2002), social-emotional education,
(Cohen, 2006)]. Thus due to the absence of a distinct area of scholarship aspects of this work
related to identity frequently go unrecognized.
Accordingly, it is important to outline an inclusive area of scholarship that transcends any
specific identity contents or educational goals presumed to be served by educational
involvement with identity; that creates a recognized meeting ground for discussing theoretical
perspectives; and that provides educators and researchers with a more precise and
differentiated terminology to analyze the interface of education and identity. In order to
explicate IdEd, this article will primarily be conceptual, based on previous theoretical
formulations and empirical work. Possible research directions will also be offered.
We emphasize that this article is not intended as a call for or against the practice of IdEd in
any form. This can be a highly controversial issue and debate is appropriate and important. A
comprehensive discussion of this issue is outside the scope of this article although we will
point to certain directions this discussion can take. However, since identity related practices
have important consequences for students and teachers, it is important to build a common
scholarly foundation that can serve as the basis for coherent and productive study and debate.
IdEd: Definition and Rationale
In this section we define identity education and spell out the reasons educators might find
identity instrumental in achieving their educational goals.
In order to define IdEd it is necessary to clarify how we will relate to identity itself.
Scholars have long noted that identity is a multifaceted construct, difficult to conclusively
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define, and it has been discussed very differently in various scholarly traditions (Côté, 2006).
For example, the concept has been used to refer to identification with ethnic, religious and
other social entities; personality traits such as the achievement of mature autonomy, self-
sameness or personal meaning; stories told about the self; and specific social positions or roles
performed in social interaction (cf., Ashmore, Deaux & McLaughlin-Volpe, 2004; Bamberg,
2011; Gee, 2001; McAdams, 1997; Sfard & Prusak, 2005; Waterman, 2004). The varying uses
of identity to relate to different phenomena have been a source of confusion, leading some to
suggest discarding the concept altogether (Brubaker & Cooper, 2000). However, it is more
reasonable to view the range of meanings attributed to identity as a natural result of the
concept's authentic relationship to a variety of human phenomena. Rather than abandon the
concept or limit ourselves to narrow aspects of identity we choose an inclusive perspective
regarding identity. When introducing IdEd as a scholarly field an inclusive perspective has the
advantage of enabling IdEd to serve as a meeting ground for diverse audiences that deem the
education-identity interface significant, and allow scholars and practitioners to benefit from
diverse perspectives. Nevertheless, in order to prevent confusion, it is also necessary to
carefully delineate how specific aspects of identity or particular perspectives regarding identity
have distinct implications for educational practice. These latter issues will be broached in the
second part of the article.
Accordingly, we define 'identity' as:
the individual’s dynamic self-understandings and self-definitions used to structure, direct,
give meaning to and present the self, that are negotiated intra- and inter-personally
across the lifespan within socio-cultural contexts, along with the psychosocial processes,
meaning-systems, practices and structures that regulate their continued development.
We then broadly define ‘IdEd’ as:
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the deliberate active involvement of educators with the psychosocial processes and
practices that are involved in students’ identity development.
The Rationale for IdEd: Justifications for Educational Involvement with Identity
Earlier we claimed that educators who are engaged with aspects of student identity likely
believe that this serves goals of importance to education. We point to five distinct aspects of
identity that could justify this premise: identity’s definitional, self-definitional, integrative-
holistic, cognitive-meaning and motivational aspects.
The definitional and self-definitional aspects of identity. The first two reasons that
educators might find identity instrumental to their work, are linked to the dual recognition that
definitions are important and that the self 's involvement in its own definition is important
(Roeser et al., 2006). To illustrate, consider two educators seeking to promote students'
knowledge. The teacher not practicing IdEd teaches students knowledge and knowledge
promoting skills. However, the teacher practicing IdEd might also be concerned with issues
such as whether students will or will not be recognized by others as ‘knowledgeable’ (i.e.
definition) and will or will not recognize themselves as ‘knowledgeable’ (i.e. self-definition), as
these in turn affect subsequent learning experiences and later chances of success.
First, regarding the importance of definitions, educational involvement with identity can be
justified by educators based on the well-established notion that any attribute, whether it be
knowledge, a skill, a value, or a trait will manifest differently depending on the way the
attribute is defined--meaning how it is understood, recognized, and used, both internally and
externally (Berkowitz, 1995; Kihlstrom & Klien, 1994; Leary & Tangney, 2003; Oyserman,
2001, 2007). Thus, regardless of whether a student meets the ‘objective’ conditions necessary
to be considered ‘competent’, ‘attractive’, ‘lazy’, ‘moral’, ‘Asian-American’, 'athletic' or
whatever, the psychological and social significance of this designation is dependent on the way
the semiotic label is appropriated, understood, negotiated, assigned importance, and used (e.g.,
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Rex et al., 2002; Sternberg, 2007). The distinction between the attribute and its meanings, and
the significance of the meanings, was noted by Erikson. He described how a child who has
learned to walk enjoys the walking itself, but also "becomes aware of the new status and stature
of 'one who can walk', with whatever connotation this happens to have in the co-ordinates of
his culture's life plan" (1968, p.49). Thus, focusing on the skill of walking without attending to
the processes that give it meaning would yield an incomplete understanding of learning to
Many educational movements endorse purposeful interventions intended to promote
valued attributes, be they student cognitions, skills, values, traits, or behaviors (e.g., character
education, social-emotional education, cognitive education, civic education). Successful
interventions likely have some effect on students' life trajectories and who they eventually
become. However, whereas such interventions might sometimes be IdEd, they are not
necessarily so. This would depend on whether the educator promoting such attributes attempts
to target or harness processes related to how the students define themselves or become defined.
Within the current educational literature these interventions are typically not framed in ways
that explicitly highlight the significant role played by intrapsychic and interpersonal mediating
processes that are responsible for how these attributes become defined, recognized, maintained
and meaningful nor to how such definitions affect subsequent educational experiences. Nor
does the literature typically address what might be the task of educators in these identity
processes. It is this omission we wish to deal with by introducing the concept of IdEd.
Second, the importance of self-definition for education that can justify IdEd is based on the
claim that the self is necessarily involved in its own definition and that individuals are active
agents in defining their own selves and in presenting their selves in social interaction. An
educator acknowledging this recognizes that students are active participants in selecting,
organizing and regulating the contents of education (e.g., cognitions, skills, values) targeted to
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themselves (Baumeister & Vohs, 2003; Roeser et al., 2006), and that identity processes are
central in the way this is accomplished (Oyserman, 2007). Sociologists have certainly
demonstrated that identities can be powerfully conferred through social structure and
educational institutions (e.g., Côté, 1996; Stets & Burke, 2003). However, IdEd is based on the
assertion that individuals also have a meaningful measure of initiative and autonomy vis-à-vis
identity processes and contents (see Holland, Lachicotte, Skinner, & Cain, 1998; Lightfoot &
Valsiner, 1992; Martin, 2007); that they can take part in negotiating and constructing their own
identity; and that this self-defining agency can and should be mediated and strengthened in
schools (Alexander, 2005; Harrell-Levy & Kerpelman, 2010; Kahne & Sporte, 2008; Youniss
& Hart, 2005). Recognizing both the student’s agency regarding self-definition and the
influence of social structure through social institutions including schools, is based on the
understanding of identity as a psychosocial construct, a view endorsed by classic Eriksonian
formulations of identity and by postmodern views of identity (Côté & Levine, 2002; Schachter,
2005b). Both positions recognize identity’s co-constructed nature and note how identity
develops through the ongoing interactions of an individual with other persons and with socio-
cultural institutions, and with the meaning systems within which all are embedded (Côté, 1996;
Penuel & Wertsch, 1995). Adoption of this complex view regards the individual as subject
while at the same time also acknowledging that identity is co-constructed with socio-cultural
agents. This view enables the field of IdEd to be sensitive to moral and practical issues of
power relations in education while also according students with agency and educators with a
robust position as potential mediators of the interaction between student and social structures.
The integrative-holistic aspect. The third feature of identity that may be used to justify
IdEd, the integrative-holistic aspect, refers to Erikson's (1968) idea that identity’s essential
psychological function is to foster personality integration. Erikson theorized that identity
processes are naturally oriented towards creating a self characterized by integrity, coherence,
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self-sameness, continuity and purpose. People participate proactively in creating and
organizing their selves as objects. McAdams (1997) calls this ongoing tendency selfing. The
educational significance of this integrative disposition is that the meaning of any new
experience will necessarily be related to how it is perceived, processed and integrated in
relation to the totality of the individual’s existing meaning-making system (e.g., Derry, 1996;
Richardson, 1997). Educators aware of this holistic aspect understand that students' new
knowledge and experiences are related not only to their previous knowledge but also to their
earlier identity constructions. Teaching is quite different when teachers make provisions for
integrative identity processes whereby previous self-constructions influence the acquisition and
integration of new knowledge.
The cognitive-meaning aspect. The fourth aspect of identity that can justify educators
involvement with identity is that identity serves its integrative organizing function by providing
meaning (Bruner, 1990). Identities present personally and socially meaningful systematic ways
of understanding the world, the self, and prioritizing what is of value (Markus & Wurf, 1987).
The definition of identity presented above emphasizes how self-understandings are embedded
in meaning systems. An IdEd perspective recognizes that the disciplines of knowledge taught
in school are also structured meaning systems that frequently have implications regarding the
self and its relation to the world. Furthermore, promoting a certain relationship between the self
and the world is often precisely the reason that educators deem the topics important enough to
be taught. Disciplines can be taught in ways that accentuate identity implications, for example,
by highlighting the worldviews espoused by the discipline, and by engaging students to
consider whether to adopt such worldviews as their own (Schachter & Galili-Schachter, in
press). Research has also recently shown that engaging knowledge, if done in certain ways,
facilitates identity formation (e.g., McLean, Breen & Fournier, 2010).
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IdEd’s focus on self-definition, holism and meaning suggests that a central value of
teaching knowledge, in addition to mastering the knowledge itself, is related to the meanings
emanating from the knowledge and the learning process that students adopt regarding who they
are and how these meanings relate to prior self-definitional conceptions. This has profound
implications for curriculum and teaching.
We illustrate with an example from the teaching of geography. Geography teachers who
implicitly or explicitly adopt an IdEd perspective connect geographical knowledge with issues
related to identity. In addition to instruction for knowledge acquisition, these teachers might
decide to engage students with diverse issues such as: “Where is ‘home’ and where do I
belong”? “What places in the world are central and which are peripheral and why? Where am I
in relation to them?” “What is ‘local’, what are borders and what does this mean about who
‘we’ are” “How are others who live far or close to me similar or different from me”? “How am
I dependent on the environment, and to what extent can I or should I manipulate it”? “Is what I
am learning consonant with the beliefs prevalent in my ethnic or cultural group and what does
this mean for me?” “Can I learn to find my way independently around different places”? “Am
I a good (geography) student”? “Do others recognize me as a good student”? “Can I master
difficult material”? “Do I like to do things a cartographer does and can I become proficient in
them?” “Am I willing to spend time and effort to become one?” All these questions relate to
identity aspects accompanying learning subject matter. Some are inherent to the meaning
systems promoted by the discipline whereas some are related to learning in general.
Regardless, a geography teacher with an IdEd perspective would consider questions that relate
study to the self as important and these topics would not be considered tangential to teaching or
obstructing knowledge acquisition. This teacher would likely choose to relate to self-related
topics in interactions with students and plan lessons accordingly. A curriculum designer might
choose to blend one or more of these themes in the design of a new textbook. Importantly,
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educators choosing to treat these questions need not sacrifice an academic focus; however, it is
quite likely that their pedagogical methods and interactions with students will differ from those
of colleagues who focus exclusively on academic skills and knowledge.
The motivational aspect. The unique motivational aspect of identity is the fifth feature of
identity that may appeal to educators. An IdEd perspective recognizes identity as an important
motivational factor in students’ educational engagement. In a recent special issue of
Educational Psychologist (Kaplan & Flum, 2009) several researchers demonstrated that when
subject matter and pedagogical methods engage students’ developmental and social needs
related to identity, educational engagement will be enhanced and more meaningful (see also,
Oyserman, Bybee & Terry, 2006; Paris & Paris, 2001; Ryan & Deci, 2003). Motivational
aspects related to identity are varied. Identity development has alternatively been described as
fueled by one's need for coherence, direction and purpose (McAdams, 1997), by one's need to
feel competent and masterful (Ryan & Deci, 2003) and by one's need for a sense of belonging
(Faircloth, 2009; Newman & Newman, 2001). Scholastic study can be designed to
accommodate such needs. For example, multicultural educators discuss how the ‘social
identity’ students attribute to curriculum contents triggers engagement or estrangement (Banks,
1995; Zirkel, 2008). Teachers recognizing this might inform their pedagogical decisions by
their understanding of the motivational processes stemming from student identities, or
encourage the formation of student identities that foster motivations considered conducive to
learning (Lee & Anderson, 2009).
The definition of IdEd stresses deliberate intervention and highlights intentional purposive
acts directed at identity in the service of educational goals. Intentionality is stressed so as to
distinguish IdEd from other scholarly efforts that focus on how identity is influenced
inadvertently by school practices. For example, research has shown that the division of
students from a heterogeneous school population into homogeneous study groups according to
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student ability or achievement may significantly influence students' self-perceptions (McLeod,
& Yates, 2006; Oakes, 2005). However, we do not consider this IdEd because this practice is
usually not intended to establish among students a sense of belonging to a specific ability level
group. Nor is it intended to develop student's awareness of their place on the social hierarchy
ladder. Stressing purposiveness also distinguishes IdEd from a branch of critical studies of
identity and education (McLaren, 1995) that attempts to uncover processes whereby
institutional social structures affect identity through schooling even if the social agents
participating in these processes are unaware of their impact on identity and would be unwilling
to retroactively justify them. Critical pedagogy might qualify as IdEd if educators intentionally
act to empower students to resist imposed identities and to create self-chosen ones (Kincheloe,
2008). Intentional involvement with identity can also be implicit and be recognized as IdEd.
Implicit intention means that if asked about the purpose of a certain practice, an educator
would retrospectively justify the identity element of the educational practice as serving a
valued educational goal.
To summarize the first part, the points emphasized explain IdEd's potential appeal as an
intellectually fertile concept. IdEd accepts the central place knowledge acquisition has in
education; however it reframes and broadens the motives for knowledge acquisition and
transmission. At the same time, IdEd does not belittle the importance of social, emotional,
moral or other aspects of education. Identity is not conceptualized as a specific area for discrete
educational treatment in addition to others such as academic, social-emotional and moral
education, but as an overarching issue related to all these aspects of education. However, IdEd
is not everything a teacher does. Excluded are practices that foster student attributes without
considering how they interact with student identity.
The Diversities of IdEd
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Under the conceptual umbrella of IdEd one can find a broad spectrum of ways in which
educators can think about and choose to enact their involvement in students’ identity. In current
educational literature the general term identity is often invoked by different authors though they
refer to different aspects of identity. Two educators might think that identity is a worthy target
of intervention, yet have quite different views of what it is about identity that makes it so. True
to their views, they may implement classroom practices that are antithetical to one another. A
research article exploring career decision-making skills among high school seniors and an
article discussing incorporation of cultural perspectives of elementary school children’s
families in the curriculum might both make reference to the concept of identity, but the
meanings of identity in the articles may differ considerably. This diversity of meanings is
bound to have detrimental theoretical, policy and practical consequences if the individuals
communicating mistakenly assume that the other’s concept of identity means the same as their
own or if important elements in the discussion are overly fuzzy. Therefore, the second major
part of the conceptual framework presented here describes several fundamental parameters that
can help educational researchers and practitioners organize, focus and communicate their
thinking about this broad and diverse phenomenon we call identity education. Reflecting upon
these parameters can assist educators and researchers to form a more precise understanding of
what they mean and are trying to accomplish regarding their identity interventions or
investigations. The major parameters we discuss are:
Overarching educational goals: Socialization, enculturation, or individuation;
Level of identity: Social, personal, or ego identity;
Facets of identity: Identity content, structure, or processes;
Processes of identity formation: Identification, exploration, commitment, positioning,
resistance and negotiation;
Contexts that affect IdEd: Macro, intermediate, and micro.
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These various parameters are interrelated, and it is difficult to discuss one without relating
to others. However, for analytic purposes each parameter is examined separately.
Overarching educational goal served: Socialization, enculturation or individuation
The first parameter examines the "why" of educating for identity. Earlier we asserted that
many educators are involved in IdEd because they see identity as pivotal in realizing their
educational goals. However, educators hold to many different educational goals and may
attempt to foster very different aspects of identity to attain them. The ‘why’ of IdEd is thus
important because it helps focus attention on the specific aspects of identity considered relevant
to the particular valued educational goal. The ‘why’ is also important because judgments about
the moral desirability of an IdEd practice need to be justified in relation to the ultimate
educational goals the intervention is intended to promote, and in relation to the internal
discourse of justification typically used when discussing such goals. For example, IdEd
fostering minority ethnic identity could be justified in relation to the philosophical discourse
regarding multiculturalism whereas IdEd that enhances career planning exploratory skills could
be appraised in relation to the discourse regarding the school's mandate in promoting life skills
and the examination of life roles.
Two prominent philosophers of education (Egan, 1997; Lamm, 1976) suggested
independently a similar threefold typology of the ultimate meta-goals guiding education and
educators. We adopt this typology for heuristic purposes to demonstrate the importance of
overarching educational goals in generating different approaches to IdEd. Other conceptions of
purposes of education (e.g., Goodlad, 1984) might also demonstrate this point. Henceforth we
will use Lamm's terminology regarding what he called the three conflicting 'logics of
education': socialization, enculturation
and individuation. Lamm posited that each term
In the English translation of Lamm’s work from Hebrew, acculturation was used rather than enculturation.
However, to avoid confusion with contemporary usage of acculturation we use the latter term.
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reflects ways in which educators throughout the ages talk about the ultimate purpose of
education, i.e., what they would respond if asked, “How do you justify what you do, and why
is it important?”
Lamm (1976) explains that according to the socialization logic, education is a necessary
tool to prepare the young to become efficient adult members of society and to guarantee the
perpetuation and effective functioning of society. The child is seen as undeveloped because he
or she has not yet learned the skills, norms or attitudes required to participate constructively in
social life or to assume significant adult roles. According to this logic the primary purpose of
education is to guarantee that the youngsters acquire these skills, norms and attitudes. The
second logic, enculturation, considers the ultimate goal of education as the inculcation of those
values, dispositions and bodies of knowledge that are deemed by educators to be true, moral,
holy, or beautiful regardless of their functional value. Children are seen as undeveloped to the
extent that they are not yet sufficiently knowledgeable about and appreciative of the culture's
ideals. Individuation, Lamm's third logic of education, is guided by the proposition that the
ultimate goal of education is to assist young people to develop their own unique personal
potentials. Children are seen as undeveloped to the extent that they have not acquired the
dispositions, attitudes, skills etc. that are necessary to advance towards fulfilling their freely
chosen and personally expressed potentialities.
Whether these three overarching goals are compatible, complementary or mutually
exclusive can be debated. Lamm (1976) and Egan (1997) warned that attempting to implement
the agendas of all three logics simultaneously in one institution will likely cause these goals to
confound one another and prevent their full realization. Lamm further contended that the
choice among the three is ideological in nature, and not subject to scientific analyses. Yet,
these three educational purposes do play a meaningful role in virtually all educational systems
and they wield major influence on educational practice, though they have been accorded
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different emphases in diverse eras and societies. Our central point is that since aspects of
identity are instrumental in realizing all three meta-purposes of education, educators are drawn
to deal with identity; however, each meta-purpose is served by different aspects of identity and
this translates differently into educational practice.
An educator championing the goal of socialization aims to promote those aspects of
student identity that contribute to a functioning society. For example, he might focus on
identity related concepts such as ‘commitment’ and ‘role’ as he views his job as transforming
students into citizens who are knowledgeable about and adept at performing particular social
roles, and who see themselves as committed to those roles. He educates students to identify
with society as a whole or with a particular niche within society that is important to society as a
whole and tries to inculcate them with the belief that committed individuals maintain society
for the benefit of all members. This teacher might strive to teach students how to actively mold
themselves to fit society's demands and to accept and even identify with this social outlook. He
would exploit opportunities to educate students to be able and willing to choose from among
the alternative roles that society offers, to make commitments, and to stand by them.
An example of the socialization perspective might be seen in inner-city school teachers
who try to develop those skills and traits needed by their students for sustained commitment
under adverse conditions, such as the ability to work persistently, or to accept authority and
abide by rules, or to delay gratification, all traits whose developmental benefit has been
underscored by research (Shoda, Mischel & Peake, 1990; Tangney, Baumeister & Boone,
2004). These teachers may try to convey the message that identification with a positive role
and sustained commitment to achieving it while avoiding negative identities (Erikson, 1968)
will ultimately be rewarded. They might have students meet role models who are positively
engaged socially involved citizens, and could invest effort motivating students to seek personal
satisfaction in a socially valued niche (Eccles & Roeser, 2003). In some cases the sense of
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identity that a student brings to the educational setting does not mesh with the educator’s view
of desirable identities, thus possibly bringing about intrapersonal conflict or friction with
school norms and authorities. Concerned socialization educators however might view this as an
important opportunity to educate students to find ways to form reasonably satisfying identities
that ‘work’ in society. This obviously raises thorny ethical issues.
Idealist visions guide the enculturation view of education. The educator's goal in this
perspective is to encourage students to seek out and become committed towards what is
eternally truthful, virtuous or any other standard as assessed by culturally embedded criteria.
Education guided by the goal of enculturation stresses aspiring towards excellence, virtue,
ideology and especially cultural erudition. Similar to socialization educators, enculturation
educators view identity as instrumental, but the specific aspects of identity that are valued are
different. These educators' assert that enculturation goals are served by the student's inherent
identity-motivated aspiration for integrity and meaningfulness (Wheelis, 1958). A prototypical
example of IdEd in the enculturation goal would be inspiring students to identify with cultural
ideals of excellence, virtue or truth (see Nisan, 1996). The pedagogy of this approach might,
for example, foster intellectual exploration and extol the virtues of the Socratic ‘examined life’
(Nussbaum, 1997). Enculturation oriented educators place cultural texts, debates and ideals at
the heart of the curriculum, whether these are deemed ‘universal’ classics or materials
specifically chosen to champion the ideals of certain ethnic, national or religious groups or
ideological camps. These texts are presented by educators as the common foundation upon
which all other educational activities are built, the veritable stem cells of education; they are
expected to become the standard for assessing what is good or valuable. For example, teachers
at certain private (Van Pelt, Allison & Allison, 2007) or charter schools (Bailey & Cooper,
2009) that advocate particular cultural, religious or ideological positions might champion an
enculturation agenda and emphasize activities that encourage students to identify with symbols,
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heroes, texts, concerns and ways of thinking characteristic of the specific cultural, religious or
ideological group, and to discuss current, historical or existential issues through reference to
such symbols and texts. Placing these texts at the heart of the curriculum conveys to students
not only what a cultured person should know, but also how he or she should relate to self, to
others and to whatever ideas and situations that arise in the future. Here too the sense of
identity that students bring to the educational setting might not be congruent with the view
espoused by the curricular materials presented by the educator. However, the educator may
exploit this discontinuity to challenge students to seriously encounter new ideas, and to
collaboratively enter the ongoing cultural discussion regarding these ideas.
Educators in the individuation tradition are interested in promoting growth according to
the individual's personally determined standards. Again, the specific aspects of identity
considered important here are different. The individuation approach holds that the individual
should be encouraged to explore identities of his or her own personal choosing leading to
personal growth. Waterman's (2004) eudaimonic model of identity development for example,
describes the essence of identity development as the individual's increasing ability to decide
about life commitments in a personally expressive manner, developing one’s best potentials
and pursuing intrinsic goals, based on self-guided exploration. This, he claims, ultimately
contributes to an individual's psychological thriving. In this tradition, educating for identity
involves assisting young people to realize their full potential by, for example, facilitating
exploratory activities in which they practice making reflective choices based on personal
standards and wishes. Teachers might see an important purpose of education as fostering
students' capacity to be self-directive and autonomous by making decisions based on thoughtful
exploration and sustained reflection based on their self-determined needs, desires and dreams.
These educators might champion educational programs that allow students substantial
autonomy to choose academic and personal avenues fostering personal growth. An
IDENTITY EDUCATION 20
individuation educator follows the students’ lead in creating identity, and might choose not to
challenge students’ prior identities. This is not a widespread approach. Research has shown that
many teachers may be quite reluctant to support students' authentic efforts towards achieving
autonomy (Reeves, 2009). However, research among college students based on Waterman’s
model (Schwartz, Kurtines & Montgomery, 2005) has also demonstrated the efficacy of
emotionally focused intervention strategies in affecting self-discovery identity processes.
Another example of the individuation perspective can be seen among critical-minded educators
(Freire, 1970; Kincheloe, 2008) for whom a primary educational purpose is to develop among
students a critical stance towards hegemonic social structures that cause social inequities and to
provide them with the skills and resilience to uphold their own desired identities rather than
accept society’s attempts to enforce debilitating ones.
Differences between these three logics of identity education have important curricular and
pedagogical implications. This is quite clear for subjects such as literature, history, and art. But
even disciplines which supposedly deal exclusively with ‘hard facts’ and ‘rules’ can show the
effects of different goal orientations on how educators engage aspects of identity (Skerrett &
Sevian, 2009). Take for example mathematics instruction. Teaching mathematics with a
socialization orientation might entail teaching the student to accept the idea that mathematics
provides knowledge that is correct, useful, and socially sanctioned. Identity becomes relevant
when, for example, students learn and accept that one's potential for upward social mobility is
linked to being recognized as one who’s “good at math” or when they are taught to accept that
society uses mathematics to define people and their social status. Within the enculturative
orientation mathematics instruction could be geared towards teaching a deep understanding of
the logic of mathematical rules so that students will adopt the perspective that one who masters
mathematics and appreciates its aesthetic, becomes a member of a cultural elite of thinkers.
Learning mathematics is then fostered by stimulating the students’ identity-based desire to
IDENTITY EDUCATION 21
become members of the community of mathematical scholars (see e.g., Putnam & Borko,
2000; Richmond & Kurth, 1999). Last, IdEd individuation teachers present the curriculum in
ways that foster students' exploration of themselves and their environment in order to develop
their unique talents and potential. Mathematics teachers, according to this logic, present their
subject in whatever fashion is deemed pedagogically sound while scaffolding the value of
learning mathematics in the hope that students might find it personally interesting, useful, or
aesthetically pleasing (see Brophy, 2008). Teachers devote class time to assist students to
acquire tools for exploration and reflection on personal meanings of learning experiences. Or,
critically-minded math teachers might help students appreciate how math can be used to
disenfranchise them and that therefore mathematical literacy can empower them (Gutstein,
2007). So different educational goal orientations bring to the fore different models of preferred
identity that in turn affect how teachers translate the curriculum for class use (see
Level of identity targeted: Social, personal or ego identity
Erikson (1968) distinguished between three levels of identity: social identity, personal
identity and ego identity (see Côté, 1996; Côté & Levine, 2002; Schwartz, 2001). Each of these
levels of identity is educationally significant, yet for different reasons. Following we explain
why and demonstrate how each might become a deliberate focus of educational practice.
Social identity refers to a person's sense of membership(s) in and identification(s) with
meaningful, usually large, social groups. Whereas the term has sometimes been used in the
literature as a factual marker, referring to a person's ‘objective’ place in a social structure or to
that person's actual membership in specific, meaningful social groups, many have noted that
this 'objective' membership is not a natural and irrevocable state of affairs. Rather, this identity
has actually been conferred or negotiated. This conceptual approach serves to heighten
awareness to the often unequal power relations involved in creating and maintaining social
IDENTITY EDUCATION 22
identities (Bingham, 2001; Gee, 2001; Ladson-Billings, 1998; Taylor, 1992). The term social
identity is also frequently used to denote a person's subjective sense of belonging i.e., the extent
of solidarity with a person's social position or group, and to the extent to which an individual
adopts this identity as central, important or relevant to his or her own self-definition (Hogg,
2003). This usage has been captured by Tajfel's definition of social identity as “that part of
individuals’ self-concept which derives from his knowledge of his membership of a social
group (or groups) together with the value and emotional significance attached to that
membership” (Tajfel, 1981, p. 225).
Personal identity refers to those unique goals, values, sentiments and preferences that are
claimed as one's own in everyday social interaction and that serve to distinguish people from
each other and provide a sense of uniqueness. Sometimes personal identity is used to refer to
those identifiers that other people recognize as distinctive; more often the concept is used to
refer to an individual's self-defining personal attributes used to differentiate oneself from others
in daily interaction (Vignoles, Chryssochou & Breakwell, 2000). So, for example, whereas
Dora's social identities might include being Hispanic and middle-class, her personal identity
might include markers she chooses to make herself known to others in social interaction and to
feel unique, such as guitarist, George's mom, joyful, etc. A person's personal identities can
provide a valued sense of singularity, and if these identities are recognized by others, they
invite others to recognize them as unique and valued individuals.
Ego-identity, as discussed by Erikson (1968) and his followers, refers to a person's sense of
invigorating sameness and continuity. This is the subjective feeling that one is the same
individual leading a life that is coherent, imbued with purpose, moving from a reasonably
understood past to a manageable future despite the diverse and often unpredictable social
situations, circumstances and life events one meets. Erikson claimed that ego identity is a result
of a complex interplay between individual and social action and is accompanied by the
IDENTITY EDUCATION 23
confidence that one's subjective personal and social identities are recognized and affirmed by
significant others and by social institutions. Ego identity has been conceptualized as the
underlying basis for the individual's ability to positively adopt, flexibly manage and freely
commit towards personal and social identities (Kroger, 2007; Schwartz, 2001).
Educators viewing any of these three levels of identity as affecting social and
psychological outcomes of value to students or to broader society might consider directing
their growth through educational intervention. One can conceive of educators targeting any of
these three levels or combinations of them in the interest of fostering educational goals. Efforts
to strengthen students’ social identity can be done with the purpose of serving the interests of
both individuals and groups. The individual with a strong social identity may gain a sense of
belonging, communion, meaningfulness and purpose (Newman & Newman, 2001). Society or
social groups may also benefit from individuals' commitment to the group’s welfare, thereby
bolstering group cohesion, solidarity, adherence to social norms and group continuity. In
contrast, strengthening social identity has been portrayed as having negative consequences
when it is achieved through exclusion of others, or when individuals repudiate parts of self, or
when they are overly conformist (i.e., Erikson’s pseudospeciation, see Friedman, 2001). Strong
personal identities may enable individuals to maintain a sense of uniqueness while allowing
society to benefit from their talents and abilities. Negative aspects have to do with the
weakening of social cohesion and commitment, or the intensification of pseudo personal
identities, excessive individualism and a culture of narcissism (Lasch, 1979). Strengthening
ego-identity can stimulate agentic, autonomous action which might produce increased
commitment among members of social groups, or conversely, produce critical uncompromising
members. Strong ego-identity could be valued in certain societies and cultures but less so in
others where flexibility is admired, or where there is a collectivistic ethos that frowns on highly
individualistic persons. Of course, these are but a few examples. We now briefly illustrate how
IDENTITY EDUCATION 24
these concerns about identity might manifest themselves in educational ethos and practice, in
aspects of the school’s structure of time and space, and in curricular decisions.
Some educators strongly committed to a specific social identity might try to reproduce this
commitment among their students. This may be done, for example, through celebrating
national or religious holidays or conducting field trips to sites with historic meaning with the
intent of inspiring positive sentiments and collective loyalties. Students at a Jewish school, for
example, might be encouraged to actively participate in Holocaust Day memorials where
Holocaust survivors are invited to interact with the children so that their struggles and suffering
will be meaningful to the youngsters. These and other informal activities might be
implemented so that children experience personal connections with Jewish history and
stimulate a sense of kinship with the Jewish people. Studying ethnic, national or religious
history or local geography has been documented worldwide in other schools and contexts as
fostering specific social identities (Korostelina, 2008). This may lead to controversy when the
curriculum is seen by some as favoring certain groups over others. When studying the
Holocaust in a Jewish school debate may arise regarding whether non-Jewish victims should be
highlighted when studying the Holocaust, and what that might mean for the construction of
students’ social identity. Teachers in other schools might debate whether to emphasize the
study of local over world history because of their deliberations about the meaning of that
choice for students’ social identity (Barton & Levstik, 2004; Korostelina, 2008). Individual
students might have their own particular understanding of their social identity which differs
from those that the school promotes, thereby raising challenging issues for educators.
Educators, however, might be concerned with social identity in other contexts besides
attempting to foster commitment towards a specific favored identity. For example, educators
holding to the logic of socialization might try to cultivate students’ commitment to social
identities in order to bolster dispositions towards communal responsibility (Arthur, 1998;
IDENTITY EDUCATION 25
Etzioni, 1995), solidarity, or normative behavior. Teachers might encourage students to
participate in the athletics program and to identify with the "athletes group" at school because
they believe that athletics does an exceptional job of teaching kids the benefits of discipline,
hard work, cooperation, teamwork and following rules, lessons that these teachers believe will
enable the adolescents to fulfill their potentialities in a relatively uncaring world. Enculturation
educators might also be concerned with social identity. They may try to foster identification
with cultural heroes, inspiring texts or noble ideals with the intent of strengthening students’
dispositions to engage with desirable ideas and models and to strive to realize the underlying
ideals. Thus, enculturation teachers might devote a study unit to Martin Luther King's "I have a
dream" speech not only to learn about the American civil rights movement, but also to
appreciate the lofty ideals Dr. King championed and his extraordinary oratory. Teachers
holding to the logic of individuation might collaboratively explore with students how their
social identities enhance or constrain the development of their individual potentialities, so that
they might be able to resist society's attempts to mold them in ways they deem debilitating, or
impose certain social identities while stripping them of others (Gutstein, 2007). School
counselors at inner-city schools know that for many early adolescents it is very important to
belong to local gangs; but they also know that many of them strive to gain a sense of personal
autonomy and to make decisions for themselves rather than to follow the dictates of gang
leaders. Counselors invest effort to deal with this dilemma by equipping students with social
skills and tools to cope with the difficult situations they encounter so they can blend their
desired social identities with their personal hopes and ambitions (see Rollins, 2002).
An educational focus on personal identity is different. Here educators are concerned with
issues such as how students form understandings of their own personal attributes, and how
these are influenced by educational practices or settings (Lannegrand-Willems & Bosma,
2006). For example, socialization oriented educators focused on personal identity might be
IDENTITY EDUCATION 26
interested in helping students fit their personal characteristics to existing social role demands in
order to promote appropriate and rewarding social functioning. Enculturative educators might
try to assist students to recognize their personal attributes that can be shaped into culturally
treasured virtues, such as humility, courage, or generosity, and to excel in them. Individuation
geared educators might assist students acquire reflective skills, allowing them deeper self
understanding and enhanced ability for self-expression (Flum & Kaplan, 2006, Fredrick, 2009).
Educational focus on the ego-identity level is also different. Here an educator would be
concerned with issues related to identity structure and the executive and interpersonal
processes involved in forming and maintaining it. Since we deal with these issues in some
detail in the next section, we note here only that educators might, intuitively or by design,
through instructional methods or curricular contents, get involved in structuring students’
abilities and preferred ways of structuring their own identity, for example, by scaffolding or
intentionally modeling processes of exploration, commitment, self-awareness, and the like. The
ego-identity level, as the social and personal identity levels, can be engaged daily in classroom
interaction, and might be seen by teachers as part of their educational task.
We end this section reiterating that these levels influence each other in complex ways
(Côté & Levine, 2002). In real-life settings, educators might employ certain practices at one
level of identity in order to ensure success on another. For example, educators at charter
schools oriented towards specific cultural groups such as Muslim or Hmong youth (Bailey &
Cooper, 2009) might debate whether their goal of fostering a strong ethnic social identity might
require a guarded structure of ego-identity and whether this is a viable and desired option.
Educators in a school with a multi-ethnic student body might debate whether promoting
multicultural education with the purpose of strengthening personal identities might cause a
breakdown of social solidarity in the school or, conversely, enhance social relationships
between students from different ethnic groups. These deliberations are not always explicit nor
IDENTITY EDUCATION 27
do they necessarily use identity terminology. Nevertheless they are common occurrences and
they play a role in many educational discussions.
Facets of identity targeted: Identity content, structure or processes
A second major distinction regarding the “what” of identity is between contents of
identity, structural aspects of identity and processes that constitute identity. Each of these
bears on the attainment of educational goals and may draw interventions from educators.
Identity content refers to the specific ideation that is the object of a person’s identifications or
commitments. These can be ideals, knowledge, institutions, people, etc. For example, the
specific content of Alan’s personal identity includes his job as an architect, his love of jazz, his
Italian ethnic history and his affirmation of Roman Catholic religious dogma. Identity structure
refers to the various ways identity elements are embedded, organized and related to one
another, to identity’s degree of complexity, and to its stability and flexibility. One may speak
of self-consistent identities versus fragmentary identities or flexible identities versus rigid
identities (Bamberg, 2011; Schachter, 2005b). Thus, the same identity contents could manifest
differently in individuals with varied identity structures. For example, Alan might experience
his Catholic identity as structurally consonant with his other identity elements, as irrelevant, or
as dissonant. If it is dissonant one may ask about the extent to which this identity element is
insulated from other identity elements and how, and at what expense, it is kept separate. Such
structural issues may influence the way Alan’s Catholicism is understood by him and
expressed to the outside world. These issues have been studied extensively in relation to
immigration and bicultural identities, also in relation to schooling (Benet-Martinez &
Haritatos, 2005; Greenfield & Suzuki, 1998). Last, identity processes refer to those processes
that are involved in the acquisition, maintenance and transformation of identity contents or
structures. For example, we may ask how one comes to identify with certain ideals and to see
them as self-defining, or how identity structures become more coherent or complex.
IDENTITY EDUCATION 28
Applying these distinctions to IdEd can help us understand the diverse approaches
educators could take regarding school practice. Clearly, many are attracted to focus on the
contents of identity--on how the specific curricular contents that students are exposed to affect
their emerging identities, whether in classroom or in other educational settings. An educator or
researcher might be interested, for instance, in the values and ideologies supported by the
curriculum contents, or in the affiliations that the contents promote towards particular social
groups, or in the ways learning is conducted which may or may not be congruent with preferred
ways of constructing meaning for individuals from different identity groups (e.g., Berry et al,
2006). Educators and other interested parties frequently debate what specific identity contents
are appropriate for inclusion in the curriculum. For example, a few years ago Israeli education
experienced vociferous debate over the inclusion of conflicting Jewish and Arab national
narratives in history textbooks recommended to teachers by the Ministry of Education (Al-Haj,
2005; Gordon, 2005; Podeh, 2002) and acrimonious debate has appeared in the US regarding
“evolution”, “creationism” and “intelligent design” in the school curriculum (Humes, 2007;
Hunter, 1992). These debates encompass more than determining the truth value of the
curriculum; rather, the passion of the arguments also stems from the symbolic high-stakes
value of the specific contents perceived as having a meaningful role in shaping students’
identities. Concern about identity content has been especially salient in the literature on
multicultural and minority education where scholars have debated the academic value of
curricular contents alongside the importance of these contents for shaping the identity of
students (Banks, 1995, 2008; Taylor, 1992). Of course, as mentioned earlier, merely knowing
certain bodies of knowledge does not affect one’s identity unless this knowledge is processed
in ways meaningful for self-definition. Thus, IdEd educators teaching content should also be
concerned about the processes of meaning-making based on the potential identity features of
the contents (Faircloth, 2009). This has important implications for teachers’ pedagogy as has
IDENTITY EDUCATION 29
been demonstrated in numerous settings (Rich, 1993; Rothenberg, McDermott & Martin, 1998;
Schachter & Galili-Schachter, in press).
Issues related to identity structure can be important to educators as structures form,
organize, and maintain identity contents. For example, a school counselor may encourage
graduating seniors to carefully explore their abilities, interests and aspirations and to consider
their vocational options before choosing a college major and then to “stick with it despite
difficulties” because she desires to promote the attitude that a good identity is based on
integrity, commitment and self-consistency. In contrast, a teacher may insist on hard
questioning of students’ assumptions in the classroom due to her conviction that they live in a
complex pluralistic world and it is thus desirable to foster identities that are comfortable with
complexity and ambiguity and are capable of resisting premature closure.
Issues regarding identity structure might also influence decisions regarding curricular
content. Research indicates that many children in particular ethnic or racial groups learn to
experience and express meanings in unique ways that are not typical of other groups and this
uniqueness may be a meaningful component in their identity development (Greenfield &
Suzuki, 1998). Thus, particular ideational contents may give rise to differential self-definitional
meanings among youngsters from different ethnic or racial groups (see Fordham, 1999;
O’Connor, Lewis, & Mueller, 2007) and be easier or more difficult to integrate in their existing
identity structures. This raises thorny issues such as teaching academic content in culturally
heterogeneous classes that has varied identity implications for different groups of students. For
example, what identity shaping messages does a science teacher impart when teaching a high
school class in which some students come from a modern Western background and others are
endowed with an indigenous cultural heritage that views the relationship between humans and
nature differently than in classic Western scientific thought (Kirmayer, 2007). Thus we see
how the sense of identity students bring to the class can affect their approach to new curricular
IDENTITY EDUCATION 30
material. As a result, identity concerns regarding structure can play an important role in
educators’ decisions as to the wisdom of exposing students to certain academic contents. Other
structural elements of identity might also be of educational concern including, among others,
identity’s complexity, differentiation, comprehensiveness or degree of reflexivity.
Processes of identity targeted
Self-regulatory or executive identity processes (Baumeister & Vohs, 2003; Oyserman,
2007; Roeser et al., 2006) can also become the target of educational intervention. This is where
educators, holding to certain identity-related beliefs in an intuitive manner, might be doing
their most influential yet least overtly articulated identity work. Theory and research relating to
identity processes are based in two psychological traditions: the Eriksonian developmental
tradition and the symbolic-interactionist tradition (SI). The developmental tradition focuses on
how a core identity develops across the life-span through psychosocial processes of
identification, exploration and commitment. SI focuses on how identities are dynamically and
locally formed through social interaction processes such as positioning, negotiation, resistance
and the like. These identity forming processes, from both traditions, might be considered
important by educators. Educating students how to benefit from them may become the target of
The developmental perspective views identity as a long term developmental task, where
processes build upon each other and on earlier accomplishments across the life course. In this
tradition identity is embodied and cross-situational and the essence of ego identity is precisely
one's ability to maintain a relatively stable sense of purpose and unity despite traversing
multiple contexts which vary significantly. Psychological processes of identification,
exploration and commitment direct the individual to create a core, integrative and invigorating
sense of self. By identifying oneself with external elements (people, ideas, symbols, etc.), by
IDENTITY EDUCATION 31
exploring different possibilities of self, and by committing to those that fit one’s significant
identifications, identity is consolidated.
Educators guided by a developmental perspective would presumably want to strengthen
all three of these processes, translating them to differential practices according to age-specific
groups (i.e., children, early adolescents, adolescents, etc.) and with reference to students'
unique circumstances and particular developmental stages, so as to advance each individual's
position on the developmental pathway. Identification refers to the process whereby one
perceives certain traits, characteristics or attitudes as attractive, and wishes to adopt them as
one's own and as self-defining. Significant identifications become the building blocks of a
mature identity. Schools can foster this process by designing opportunities for students to
encounter and engage with objects of identification (people, symbols and ideas) that are
deemed attractive, meaningful, inspiring, and worthy (Dreyer, 1994; Rich & Schachter, in
Erikson's classic developmental perspective claims however, that “identity formation,
finally, begins where the usefulness of identification ends” (1968, p. 161). He claimed that
identifications are sometimes rigid, archaic, perhaps not fully one's own, and may not be
appropriate in changing developmental settings. Therefore, mature identity requires that earlier
identifications be analyzed, refined, sometimes rejected, and their relevance to the individual
examined in light of other identifications and current societal conditions. Erikson called this
process exploration and described it as being partially unconscious, not exclusively rational,
and as often involving tentative commitments and extreme changes. In the neo-Eriksonian
tradition exploration has been referred to as "problem-solving behavior aimed at eliciting
information about oneself or one’s environment in order to make a decision about an important
life choice” (Grotevant, 1987, p.204). Others (Waterman, 2004) emphasized the more
emotional aspects of self exploration. Flum and Kaplan (2006) have recently called upon
IDENTITY EDUCATION 32
educators of adolescents to promote their exploratory orientation helping them to examine
earlier identifications by confronting them with their under-examined beliefs, by creating
awareness to alternatives, and by introducing them to new fields of knowledge that have
Last, commitment refers to choosing specific social and personal identities and developing
faithfulness towards them as a result of ego-identity consolidation. Towards late adolescence
some educators, often guidance counselors, work on student development of commitment
through activities aimed at helping students understand the meaning and implications of
commitment regarding their future planning of career, family and other social roles (Gali
Cinamon & Rich, 2005; Seginer, 2009). Other educators may develop commitment among
their students by emphasizing decision making skills and stressing the value of perseverance
and fidelity in the face of negative circumstances, or holding students accountable for previous
decisions. In the present era of economic uncertainty and powerful changes in many central
social institutions, researchers have found that adolescents and young adults often feel very
ambivalent about making long-term commitments regarding their social and personal identities
and their career and family aspirations (see Bynner & Côté, 2008).
Examples of educators intervening with students on an individual level with regards to
their identity processes are easy to formulate. A school counselor might recognize a student in
a state of identity diffusion and attempt to engage his basic motivation to create meaningful
identifications. Or, a literature teacher in a parochial school, upon identifying a student with a
tendency to commit prematurely and foreclose her religious identity, may encourage her to get
involved in an academic project that is likely to foster a more exploratory orientation. Or,
recognizing a student caught up in a difficult moratorium quandary, a home-room teacher may
attempt to assist with confidence-building or decision making skills.
IDENTITY EDUCATION 33
Conversely, the SI perspective focuses on the individual’s context and conceives of
identity formation as the result of local, situation-specific interactions. Individuals performing
roles in an interaction position themselves vis-à-vis other persons in ways that confer specific
identities upon them. One's identity at any moment is the result of the success of one
participant in an interaction to claim an identity and either to confer complementary identities
on the others or to negotiate tentative agreements with them regarding the meaning of the
situation and every individual's identity within this situation. From the individual’s perspective,
identity must be continuously and flexibly negotiated locally. Individuals must also learn to
recognize when others impose identities on them that do not serve their best interests and to
know how to resist such attempts. Although identities may become crystallized over time, this
perspective sees identity as open to negotiation and resistance. It also recognizes that the
broader context heavily influences the actors' ability to manage and express their identities in a
given situation. Power relations enable dominant social actors or institutions to determine
meanings and to constrain individuals' identities.
The SI perspective has been used extensively in discussing emerging identities in
classroom interaction (Paris & Paris, 2001; Wortham, 2004), and to demonstrate the harmful
effects of teachers’ and peers’ conferring hurtful identities. However, educators who are
sensitive to the linkage between students’ success and their ability to understand and navigate
power relations in society might have positive intentions and adopt a perspective based on SI.
These teachers may be aware that students will probably need to confront the tension between
asserting agency and accepting social constraints. Educators may deliberately engage issues in
the classroom in ways that express their beliefs and preferences regarding how to deal with this
tension. For example, a homeroom teacher might prefer that her students serve as their own
advocates in dealing with other teachers in order to promote their skills regarding negotiating
with authority and effecting change. Or, a math teacher might require students to solve
IDENTITY EDUCATION 34
problems using a particular method, discouraging originality, wishing to convey a moral
message that there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to do certain things, and that not everything is
dependent on individual discretion. Literature teachers may assign personal writing exercises
intended to help students find a unique personal voice (Faircloth, 2009), whereas other teachers
promote student collaboration and foster shared understandings with the intention of promoting
identity processes and structures that support interdependence (Markus and Kitayama, 1994).
To summarize, many processes of identity formation may become the target of educators’
interventions in routine school interactions and practices. Therefore any explicit discussion of
IdEd practices intended to foster students’ development would need to begin by clarifying what
processes are being targeted and to what purpose.
Contexts that affect IdEd: Macro, intermediate, and micro contextual considerations
The last level that we address is the context in which IdEd takes place. On several
occasions in this article we have used examples from schools from different cultural or
sociological contexts demonstrating that identity concerns are relevant and differ in varied
educational contexts. As has been demonstrated in earlier research, identity needs and goals are
framed differently in different contexts (e.g., Côté, 1996; Schachter, 2005a). Educators are in a
strategic place to serve as mediators of society to students. As mediators, their reflections on
educational practices regarding identity content, structure and process or social, personal and
ego identity, are dependent on their perceptions of students’ school, home and community
contexts and their expectations regarding future broad sociocultural contexts. Educators’
perceptions of these contexts will influence their choice of what and how they mediate to
students. A teacher in this spot could ask, ‘Given that my students are each endowed with
certain personal and socio-cultural identity elements and will grow up to live in a particular
society with certain presumed characteristics, how will their identities develop and what are the
IDENTITY EDUCATION 35
options open to the school and to myself to participate constructively in their formation?’
Following are examples of specific contextual issues that might be relevant on different levels.
On the macro-system level we could ask whether the social environment within which
education is being conducted is traditional, modern, postmodern or a mixture of these
(Schachter, 2005a), and what are the global cultural, economic and religious forces affecting
adolescence. These contexts likely influence, among others: whether youngsters grow up in a
relatively dynamic or stable environment; whether they are exposed to multiple incongruent
contexts or to relatively consistent harmonious contexts; and whether they develop in a cultural
milieu that is community-oriented or individualistic, emancipatory or controlling, globally or
locally oriented. Contextual influences may affect educators' decisions regarding IdEd
treatment objectives for different situations, such as the desirability of a consistent self image,
the degree of agency students should be encouraged to adopt, how individualistic an identity is
desirable and whether different levels or kinds of exploration should be sanctioned or
encouraged (Assor, Cohen-Malayev, Kaplan & Friedman, 2005).
On an intermediate level of context, we might for example ask questions regarding the
attributes of the community, family and school in which identity formation is taking place.
What are the identity issues that concern members of the specific communities to which the
student belongs? Family economic circumstances, religious beliefs, cultural understandings,
child-raising ideologies and many other conditions can be considered. What local economic,
cultural and religious resources do children and their families have that can assist identification
and identity exploration? Other relevant topics involve issues such as the IdEd setting--home,
public or private school, or an informal community setting. If at school, it is important to
consider possible school effects such as whether the student body is culturally or economically
homogenous or heterogeneous. We might ask what cultural, pedagogical and legal leeway is
IDENTITY EDUCATION 36
afforded to teachers in discussing and acting upon identity issues and whether identity
development is part of the school’s charter or ethos.
Last, on the micro-contextual level, we might raise issues regarding conditions enabling or
hindering teachers who seek to assist students individually in identity building efforts, such as
class size, variation in student background, special needs of students etc. Are the different
groups that a child belongs to in school congruent with each other, and what skills are needed
to manage the incongruence? What routine interactions does the student have with meaningful
adults, and is school structured so that students interact with the same adults extensively or do
they constantly see new faces? All these levels of context present important issues to educators
and researchers studying education and identity development.
The concept of IdEd can raise ethical concerns. Choosing to get involved with students’
identity, especially from an institutionalized base of power, may be viewed by some as an
educational stance with sinister Orwellian connotations, as an abuse of power inviting
indoctrination, minimally as an overstepping of the teacher’s legitimate social role. Whereas a
thorough discussion of this important issue is beyond the scope of this article, we wish to relate
to a few points (see extended discussion in Waterman, 1994).
First, we reiterate that in calling for the study of IdEd and highlighting some of its
potential benefits, we are not issuing an endorsement of any specific pedagogical practice to
enhance identity, or any specific content or over-arching goal. Rather, we recognize that there
are educators who are concerned about their students' developing identities in the context of
furthering educational goals, and we call for scholars and researchers to recognize this
phenomenon, to unpack it and to study identity-related practices. Examination of these issues
should also involve delineating the relevant ethical issues and debating the legitimate
IDENTITY EDUCATION 37
boundaries of IdEd practice. Moreover, we believe that making the examination explicit will
facilitate rather than obfuscate a serious analysis and debate of the ethical issues.
The most problematic general argument that might be raised against IdEd is the danger
that some educators will abuse institutional power and impose their own particular versions of
identity contents, structures or processes on students, families or communities that have
different views of desirable identity rather than working with them collaboratively and
dialogically. Alternatively, some educators may impose aspects of identity that suppress rather
than advance student development. Granted, there are downsides to IdEd if abused,
misunderstood, concealed or applied without critical reflection - much as is the case with many
educational interventions. However, the multiple examples throughout this article demonstrate
that we do not view IdEd as the replication of specific identities while stifling student agency;
rather, IdEd stems from recognition of the centrality of personal agency in determining
identity. Indeed, we believe that the practice of IdEd can contribute to the strengthening of
student agency. Because IdEd is a new dynamic concept whose scholarly and applied
directions are not fully predictable at this stage, as discussion of the concept develops and as
educational interventions are conceptualized in IdEd terms and implemented, it will be crucial
for educators to carefully scrutinize the ethical implications of each intervention, They will also
need to be transparent in their practices, and sensitive to the degree of cultural, communal,
parental and institutional support for IdEd practices. Disagreements surrounding this issue
among different stakeholders would require further ethical deliberation.
Finally we note that the diversity of goals, aspects, and levels of identity that were
discussed in this article, and the diversity of contexts in which IdEd can take place, require a
nuanced treatment of ethical issues. Whereas the ethical concerns confronting different
educators interested in IdEd may perhaps have certain commonalities that extend across
particular local contexts or preferred educational goals, it is nevertheless imperative to take into
IDENTITY EDUCATION 38
account the particular local considerations and goals that largely define the perceived meanings
of educational practices.
By presenting the IdEd concept this article has also called for greater research efforts to
investigate the purposeful involvement of educators with students' identity formation. As noted
earlier, much of the research that has been conducted concerning identity and education
examined particular student populations or particular aspects of identity. Some of this research
has focused on educational effects on identity formation and some has been concerned with the
effects of concern about identity on educational practice. Because there has been no field of
study relating education to identity, the knowledge gained from the individual studies has not
generated large steps toward a comprehensive understanding of these phenomena. We are still
largely at the stage of manipulating individual pieces of the puzzle. The conceptual framework
offered in this article is intended to contribute to a more systematic, programmatic, theory-
based approach to the study of the intersection between identity and education.
We believe that the IdEd model can offer a fertile research perspective. For example, one
might investigate how schools and educators affirming different educational purposes stimulate
varying identity formation processes among students with diverse characteristics and how the
processes relate to desirable student attainments. In this vein we used the IdEd model to
examine the relationship between the existence in secondary schools of different degrees of
identity formation processes, what we called the school "identity climate", and variables
associated with high school students' identity development, such as confidence about
successful future role behavior and engagement in exploration (Rich & Schachter, 2011). One
important result in this study was that students who perceived that their academic studies were
personally meaningful experienced enhanced engagement in exploration and greater
confidence in successfully filling future roles.
IDENTITY EDUCATION 39
In particular, we think it will be valuable to investigate how identity concerns might be
guiding educators' thinking and practice. One study using the IdEd model explored high school
counselors' overt and covert assumptions and understandings regarding identity development
and the strategies they used to shape student identity (Idan & Rich, 2011). This study found
that the counselors' assumptions about the purposes of education, whether held consciously or
unconsciously, served as master switches having a cascading effect on their attitudes and
professional behaviors toward student identity development. An ongoing study is exploring
how the instructional practices of teachers at a professional school for film derive from their
perspectives regarding student professional and artistic identity development. These are but a
few examples of the research possibilities afforded by the IdEd perspective.
Certainly different researchers will continue to focus on particular aspects of the identity-
education relationship. As noted earlier some researchers have studied motivational aspects of
the interface from the students’ perspective (Kaplan & Flum, 2009); others have looked at
language, personal and cultural identity and school attainment (e.g., Gee, 2001; Lee &
Anderson, 2009); and still others are carving out other worthy areas of study. We do not think
that it is appropriate now to prioritize specific topics of research. What is especially important
at this stage of developing this field of study is that researchers document carefully the
characteristics of the phenomena studied, among others descriptive information on the research
context including schools, teachers, students, community, as well as educational goals and
ideologies, and they delineate meticulously the aspects, levels, contents, structures and
processes of identity that are being investigated. This careful documentation should facilitate
the integration of findings from a variety of studies and lead to solid knowledge growth.
The purposes of this article were: to explain why identity might be particularly important
to the educational endeavor; to create a conceptual framework for discussing educating towards
IDENTITY EDUCATION 40
identity as a distinctive domain of inquiry; and to present how this framework might benefit
both researchers studying education and educators who wish to reflect on their goals and
To summarize briefly, we suggested an inclusive characterization of IdEd as the deliberate
active involvement of an educator in the development of aspects of students’ identity. We
focused on the distinctive elements of identity that explain why such involvement might be an
appealing goal for many educators, whether or not they explicitly frame their purposes in
identity terminology, and cited research that supports this way of thinking. By presenting IdEd,
we suggested making the implicit explicit and offered a conceptual tool to educational
researchers interested in understanding why educators practice as they do. Many commonplace
aspects of educational practice might be conceptualized, debated and practiced differently
when subjected to analysis sharpened by a perspective that views them as implicitly guided
towards identity formation.
This essay also presented parameters for discussing different perspectives that might help
practitioners tailor an IdEd perspective that fits their goals, values and the contexts in which
they work. Educators could benefit from thoughtful reflection on these and other questions:
What are my educational goals and what aspects of identity contribute to them? What are the
personal and educational implications for my students of the contexts in which I educate and in
which my students will be growing into, and what is my job in this regard? What level of
student identity should I concentrate on-- social, personal or ego identities-- and in what way?
What do I want to accomplish regarding identity contents, processes, and structure? What
psychological and social processes are especially prominent and should be addressed through
education? In what ways are these processes involved in the future regulation and growth of
student identity and how should this affect the pedagogical practices I employ? Using these and
other locally significant questions as guidelines can lead to deeper understanding of teachers'
IDENTITY EDUCATION 41
thinking and action as well as facilitate coherent communication among educators. These
questions highlight the especially complex nature of IdEd which suggests that educators'
ongoing deep reflectivity is a necessary component of practicing IdEd effectively. Certainly
IdEd also challenges teacher educators to consider whether and how this conceptual framework
should be presented to enrich the pedagogical thinking of students of education and to reflect
on the curricular changes that may be necessary if implemented. This is an important topic that
demands extensive attention.
The framework presented here is an initial suggestion intended to stimulate discussion.
Certainly there still remain many important issues and concerns that have not been adequately
addressed. Yet, we think that this attempt to delineate a distinct domain of study and to provide
some major parameters with which to understand the scope and diversity of this domain is
important. Efforts to integrate other theoretical perspectives and empirical work into this
conceptual framework should generate new perspectives and research directions that will
deepen our understanding of the identity-education interface.
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Elli Schachter's work on this study was supported by a grant from the Israeli Science
Yisrael Rich's work was supported by a grant from the Chief Scientist's Office and the
Department of Religious Education of the Israeli Ministry of Education.