How teachers can help young people question behaviour and identity

22 September 2017. The ways people act on our roads may reflect the identities they want for themselves or feel pressured to adopt. Here’s how teachers can surface and challenge the ideas which influence identity.

How young people develop their sense of identity could explain why simply teaching road safety knowledge and skills does not always get the desired outcomes.

Maria Kecskemeti says teachers can work with young people, through guided conversations, to get them thinking about the effects of identity on their own safety and their relationships with others. Here’s the background.

Why did they do that?

Maria says she’s seen school students take risks around roads, despite safer options being available.

“I think these young people know what to do. They know the rules, they have the knowledge and they probably have the skills of how to use the road, but why does safe behaviour not follow?” she says.

“My suggestion is that young people take risks because the identity which these risky behaviours support is more attractive to them than the identity of a responsible citizen.”

She says some young males could be said to idolise a certain male identity – what she dubs the ‘invincible person’ discourse.

“This is a person who is tough, has no fear, can attempt anything and can overcome the laws of nature.”

Maria says theories of identity development suggest that identities, and the behaviours that support them, are socially constructed. Her work is influenced by French philosopher Michel Foucault, Australian academic Bronwyn Davies and American academic Judith Butler.

Discourses enable and disable certain identities

“An individual’s behaviours are shaped by socially available discourses or ideas that people take up their identities from,” says Maria.

Discourses are stories we share about things in life. Discourses are the product of many factors at work in society.

Some discourses become dominant in a setting, such as the lives of secondary school students. Maria says these discourses make some things easier to do or say, while silencing some people and practices.

Normalisation

Maria says that in any social setting there will be a process of normalisation at work. Most people voluntarily regulate their behaviour to fit the dominant discourse. By doing so, they earn rewards and avoids sanctions from their peers.

For example, a young person taking risks around roads might see themselves as ‘doing what my mates do’ in order to earn approval from friends.

“But it is important to know that all norms rely on their opposites; they are defined by what they are not,” says Maria.

The idea of norms and their opposites is at the heart of Maria’s ideas for classroom activities to get students thinking more deeply about how their sense of identity relates to their behaviour.