Identity-Centered Learning (ICL) is a pedagogical and institutional framework that reflects the reality of schooling-- that a child’s educational experience has a powerful and indelible impact on their identity-- and seeks to center educators and schools on actively and effectively supporting student identity development.
Student identity is both the start and endpoint of ICL, which uses the diverse identities in a school community as the foundation on which to construct a nurturing learning environment and ultimately seeks to support the healthy ongoing growth of those identities.
ICL practices can permeate the classroom level, where teachers employ a wide range of skills to deeply understand and support students along their identity journeys; to the institutional level, where school leaders use their extensive knowledge of the community to build and empower a diverse staff of identity experts.
ICL also empowers students and educators to confront complex issues of justice and equity, utilizing their deep understanding of themselves, their community, and their world as a springboard to engage in nuanced discussions, reflect on their own privilege and biases, recognize injustice in its many forms, and take meaningful action towards rectifying it.
How Does ICL Define Identity?
There are numerous frameworks to describe identity and its many constituent parts. Identity-Centered Learning combines elements from several of these models to introduce a structure-- The Dimensions of Identity-- that both illustrates the identity’s immensity and intricacy while also making it digestible and usable for educators.
The first dimension is comprised of the Identity Aspects-- the different facets of (or ways to describe) one’s identity. Identity Aspects are perhaps the most recognizable identity markers-- Race(s), Gender Identit(ies), Culture(s), Sex(es), Disability/Ability, Nationalit(ies), Sexual Orientation(s), Language(s), Religion(s), Occupation(s), Familial Role(s), Age, and countless others-- simply put, an identity aspect is any word that describes who you are, and new descriptors continue to arise and form as human society evolves.
The second dimension is the Identity Journey-- the recognition that our identities transform over time and who we are now, in some aspects, is different from who were in the past and who we will be in the future.
The third dimension, Identity Perspectives, acknowledges that who we are is not only defined by ourselves, but also by those around us-- family members, peers, mentors, communities, employers, governments, media, and society as a whole-- and how those external definitions may or may not align with how we define ourselves.
Lastly, the dimension of Identity Diversity highlights the uniqueness of each human being-- past, present, and future-- and how each person has a distinct set of Identity Aspects, Journey, and Perspectives. This Dimensions of Identity model looks to encapsulate the tremendous complexity, depth, and breadth of the identities that inhabit our world.
Why is Identity Central in Education?
Identity-- as defined expansively through its dimensions (not restrictively or categorically, as is often done)-- is what education creates. Although some may point to “learning” as the obvious result of schooling, few of us remember the details of what we studied during our many years as students.
Rather, we remember (and continue to feel the effects of) the key moments and experiences that defined (or helped us define and construct) who we are. Playground experiences and relationships with friends defined our social identities, while academic tasks helped us form our sense of competence and ability. Teachers, and the language and literature they taught, conferred a cultural and national identity on us. Our relationship with different school subjects and activities helped us define our identity within the school community-- and later within greater society.
Simply put, education was a major force in establishing who we were, who we are, and who we continue to become along our identity journey.
Due to its massive influence on identity, the educational experience has the potential to be affirming and empowering, but also denying and oppressive. School structures, systems, policies, pedagogy, and practitioners, if not aware of or responsive to the diversity of its students’ identities, can cause lasting damage.
For instance, schools that do not recognize, openly accept, celebrate, and empower LGBTQ+ individuals will severely damage those individuals’ social, sexual, emotional, and intellectual development. Likewise, institutions with systems and curricula that disadvantage students of color will severely damage those children’s sense of racial, cultural, and national identity-- and countless other developmental areas. Teachers who exude or enforce restrictive gender expectations will cause students to internalize, reinforce, and perpetuate those expectations. Schools that lack disabled access or gender-neutral facilities simply make those students-- and their identities-- feel invisible and insignificant.
These are more egregious examples, but only scratch the surface of how educational choices can hold back (or reverse) the healthy identity growth of its students.
What Does ICL Look Like?
As student identity is the foundation of Identity-Centered Learning, ICL will look different in different environments-- even in different classrooms in the same school. Identity-centered educators adapt their practices and teaching to the identities in the room, working alongside students to support them as they explore, build, experiment with, and share who they are.
To be an identity-centered educator is to see education through an Identity Lens-- to view each classroom experience as an opportunity for positive and affirming identity growth, in its many aspects. While traditional pedagogy focuses on learning content and practicing skills, ICL focuses on a students’ personal connection with that content and those skills-- with the belief that the cultivation of such connections will lead to deeper and more meaningful learning, engagement, and ownership. While classic assessments serve as evaluators of student academic proficiency, ICL views assessment as a form of two-way communication between student and teacher, serving to deepen their personal connection and understanding of how they think. While it is a long-accepted classroom norm to avoid “politics” and other uncomfortable topics, ICL looks to create a space where important issues can be shared and difficult questions can be raised.
By creating an environment where each student feels pride and respect for their own identity and the identities of their peers, ICL provides a sturdy platform for nuanced discussions, deep questioning and inquiry, risk-taking, student agency, divergent thinking, creative endeavors, and social justice action.
There are a wide range of teaching practices that educators can employ in the classroom to affirm student identities and support their identity development. ICL practices can be generally categorized into four main objectives:
1) Creating a safe and patient learning environment.
Students will respond to their surroundings. If those surroundings are monolithic and monocultural, they will only share the aspects of their identities that fit those narrow standards. Likewise, students whose identities most closely align with the classroom "normal" will have a chance to truly flourish. Building a classroom where all students feel safe to be themselves and openly share parts of their identity, when ready, is the foundation of identity-centered learning.
2) Providing ample (and optional) opportunities for students to discover, craft, and share their identities.
Students feel ready to delve deeply into themselves and share who they are at different times and in different ways. By giving them a wide range of low-stakes opportunities-- in classroom activities, assignments, projects, discussions, and assessments-- teachers can make identity work accessible to all students.
3) Introducing students to the diversity, depth, intersectionality, and importance of our world's identities.
Students must see identities to learn how to value them-- including their own. ICL encourages educators to expose a broad and ever-growing set of identities to students, through diverse literature, classroom content, community outreach, and real-world connections. Students engaged in ICL will view themselves and others through an expansive identity lens, rather than a strict and simplistic categorization.
4) Modeling healthy identity development.
Teachers who place student identity at the center of their practice are willing to bring their own identity into the classroom-- not to impose that identity on students, but to model and share their process for developing their own identity. This includes highlighting identity challenges they have faced, mistakes they have made, important identity-affirming experiences, and lessons that they have learned throughout their ongoing identity journey.
ICL on an Institutional Level
Identity-centered institutions look to employ and empower Identity Expert Educators-- teachers who think deeply about their own identity and those of their students; and apply that wisdom to their daily teaching practice. ICL schools are also constantly reassessing their policies, structures, and curriculum with the identities of their students, staff, and community in mind-- and seek to be responsive to those identities.
These schools accept that they have blind spots in need of review, biases in need of readjustment, and a history in need of reexamination. Identity-centered school leaders are aware of the complex intersectionality of identities in their care and deeply reflect on this complexity when making decisions.