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Possible selves: Using a strengths-based approach towards educational equity

Written by Dr Janine Delahunty, University of Wollongong

Illustrations by Kate Delahunty

Taking steps towards what we’d like to be doing in the future, the kind of person we’d like to become, or alternatively what to avoid doing or becoming, can be likened to a “bridge between the present and the future”.

For students from equity groups, and especially those intersected with multiple equity factors, pathways into and through higher education can be fraught; however, a non-linear or disrupted pathway towards achieving goals should not be taken to indicate lack of motivation. Bridges can be rickety, and out of action at times, with detours along the way, so it is important to consider the barriers that many equity students face in the pursuit of the futures they desire.

The bridge metaphor is useful for understanding how students from equity backgrounds navigate the “higher education bridge” and the steps taken towards achieving meaningful goals. This can be examined through a theory of motivation, called “possible selves“. Taking steps exercises agency, so imaginings of future selves become more than fantasies or dreams. Conceptions of self are drawn largely from things which have some personal significance: from within our realm of experience (sociocultural and historical contexts) and from the influence of others (our social world). Together these experiences help us to make the conceptual link between what others are now and what I could become (or what I could avoid becoming). On the way, goals may be specific, vague, “big picture”, highly personal, fluid or a combination. Steps taken, no matter how small or how few, move us along the bridge towards achievement; action which demonstrates motivation.

These are some of the reasons that possible selves was the underpinning theory for my NCSEHE Equity Fellowship which focused on students from regional, rural and remote (RRR) areas, and helped to dissect how participants’ biographies interacted with what they aspired to for their futures and how they were moving towards those goals.

Regional Student Futures Website

The theory of possible selves also informed the educational equity focus of the Regional Student Futures website.

Regional student futures website - 'About the Project' excerpt

This is an open resource designed for people from RRR locations who are planning for and working towards achieving their future goals and dreams, whether this is a career change, a long-held dream, a personal goal, a post-school pathway or a desire to apply knowledge and skills to contribute to society in some way. The online resource is also for families and others who support them as well as those who work across the school, higher education or youth sectors.

The resources feature the words and ideas of participants through direct quotes, student stories and vignettes. This deliberate crafting around RRR “voices” was to ensure that diversity across educational experiences, life circumstances, motivations and perspectives, was represented as fully as possible (for example, see Advice Tool “Within a Cooee!“). Another of these resources is the “My Future Self” reflective tool.

My Future Self: a tool for reflection

The Future Self tool was designed to facilitate reflection, which can enhance self-awareness and has potential to change behaviour, as John Dewey famously said, “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience”. When reflections have been articulated in some way, then conversations are likely to be more deliberate or meaningful in identifying the steps needed to fulfil those goals. This is because others (for example, family, friends and influential people) have a significant influence on what can be conceived as future possibilities.

Screenshot of "My future self" Reflective tool from the Regional Student Futures website

The main aim of the reflective tool was relevance for a diverse range of RRR people so minimising assumptions about future trajectories was key. The prompts are open-ended so that the range of different futures people envision are not limited, with the emphasis on these goals being personally meaningful.

The prompts were adapted from some used in the surveys and interviews conducted with students across Australia from areas classified as Regional/Remote (150 university students and 30 Year 12 students). The questions were effective in drawing out deep responses from students, even in the surveys (where responses typically tend to be brief). Some students also left feedback that confirmed this, such as,

The survey asked some very good questions that truly made me think about how to answer. It made me realise some things that I hadn’t really known beforehand. (Year 12 student)

How to use the reflective tool

The intention is for the reflective tool to be used in a guided situation with those who provide support in various ways and in a variety of contexts (teachers, counsellors, youth workers, family, mentors etc). Supporting resources sit alongside the tool (for example, Staff Guide) to encourage and promote conversations. However, My Future Self could also be useful for individual reflection and may even help solidify what is personally meaningful, also forming the basis for ongoing conversations.

There are five themes in the reflective tool, displayed as an illustrated card which flips when clicked. Each opens up to more nuanced prompts, followed by a selection of “Here’s what others have said” quotes to show the variation in responses from RRR participants, as well as give a sense of being part of a bigger and ongoing conversations.

  • Biggest vision

The first prompt is the “big picture” question: this is to tap into visions that are beyond the immediate future; often this is where values or altruism around the future can be articulated and reflected upon.

Screenshot from Regional Futures website with prompts relating to "biggest vision"

  • What I don’t want for my future

“What I don’t want for my future” offers an opportunity to reflect on what (if anything) to avoid doing or becoming because not everyone has an immediate response to the big picture question. Sometimes avoidance of something may be helpful in identifying what to work towards.

Screenshot of a flow chart from the Regional Student Futures website

  • How to get there

“How to get there” is to prompt thinking about the practical steps can be (or are already being) taken towards reaching future goals.

Screenshot of Regional Student Futures website

  • Barriers

“What might get in the way?” provides an opportunity to identify what might hinder goal achievement. Here a distinction is made between barriers within our control and external barriers beyond our control. However, recognising these barriers can help in thinking ahead about how to deal with them.

  • Overcoming

The final prompt focuses on challenges and what strategies people use to to deal with. This prompt uses the metaphor of a washing pile: Sometimes, like a growing washing pile, things can seem huge, but having different strategies in place can be like sorting through the pile and putting things away … What’s in your ‘washing pile’ and what steps can be taken to reduce the pile?

Student quotes on overcoming challenges

Closing thoughts

Exploring the experiences and perceptions of equity students through the lens of possible selves enabled the project to draw out some of the nuances of university participation that are unlikely to be reflected in statistical measures. Working through difficulties and hardship seemed to be taken as par for the course for many RRR students. Rather than resembling “failure”, disrupted, delayed or non-linear pathways were an indication of tenacity and strong motivation as the majority of these students were striving towards goals that were personally meaningful.

Janine Delahunty’s Equity Fellowship final report, ‘You going to uni?’ Exploring how people from regional, rural and remote areas navigate into and through higher education, will be available on the NCSEHE website in 2022.

Posted 12 December 2021 Posted in General, Regional, rural and remote