The art of the possible: supporting progression to higher education

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Encouraging disadvantaged young people to participate in higher education has been a priority for successive governments over the last 20 years.  Often the focus for this work has been on ‘aspiration-raising’ – built on the idea that they have low aspirations for education or their future lives.  We are increasingly understanding that this approach is deeply flawed, as I have explored in two recent articles (one with Richard Waller).

Most importantly, there is no evidence that the aspirations of disadvantaged young people are low.  The evidence for several recent large-scale studies is that they are generally high and that more young people want to go to university than actually do.  There seems little purpose to raising aspirations that are already high.

A possible (selves) solution

In the two papers, I seek to shift the discourse away from aspiration and towards the theory of possible selves – first advanced by Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius in the late 1980s.  The theory has been successful in explaining behavioural change in a range of social settings by encouraging people to think about their lives in the future and develop strategies for meeting their long-term aims.

Crucially, this approach takes account of the importance of the sociocultural context in which the young person is immersed.  It starts from understanding that we all have a pool of possible selves that we can imagine, both positive and negative.  From these, we decide which are desirable and assess which are probable.

However, the selves that we can imagine, and our assessment of them, are forged in the worlds that we inhabit – our communities, the physical spaces we visit, the labour markets of which we are part, the schools in which we study and so on.  Some young people grow up thinking it is likely they will be solicitors or doctors, others hairdressers or bricklayers.  Crucially, this is not about an aspiration, but a simultaneous assessment of what is possible and what is likely in their context.

Markus and Nurius argue our possible selves give us an impetus to act: we are motivated towards becoming ‘like-to-be’ visions of ourselves that are desirable and appear probable – or to avoid those that are undesirable.  The likelihood of achieving a possible self is as important as its desirability: young people may want to be a professional sportsperson, but few expect to do so!

Evidence from the US

The work of Daphna Oyserman has explored how a possible selves approach can work, based on after-school interventions in a disadvantaged area of Detroit.  She has rigorously demonstrated how a focus on helping young people to consider their possible selves has a positive impact on their motivation for school and their educational outcomes – indeed, this impact was found to persist for several years and to act in the absence of parental engagement.

Importantly, this approach is not based on influencing young people to see particular futures valued by adults (e.g. higher education) as desirable, but rather to help them to widen the pool of possible selves they hold in mind, to understand what’s needed to achieve them and to support them in devising their own strategies for meeting (or avoiding) them.  This focus on the individual and their ‘roadmap’ sets it aside from traditional outreach work based on aspiration-raising.

A new framework

Drawing on the theory of possible selves and Oyserman’s work, I have proposed a new framework for devising and delivering outreach work designed to increase the numbers of disadvantaged young people participating in higher education.  The grey arrows denote possible intervention points – these might be spaced over a period of time or clustered within a single extended activity:

Point 1: Activities for young people to learn about adult futures, especially those not familiar within their sociocultural context, thereby adding to the palette of possible selves from which they can choose.  This might include those predicated on higher education, but this would not be emphasised.

Point 2: Focused activities, probably over a period of time, designed to (re)establish a belief in their ability to exercise control over their future and their ability to succeed at tasks that are important to them, sometimes referred to as locus of control and self-efficacy, respectively.  They would emphasise a reflective and metacognitive approach to understanding how they develop their agency, even in the face of challenges.

Point 3: Developmental work to help young people to devise strategies for achieving things that are important to them – their like-to-be selves.  Importantly, this is not about adults dictating ready-made solutions, but facilitating young people to make agentic decisions that are authentic for them and their sociocultural context.  Part of this is likely to involve giving young people the chance to ‘try on’ possible selves through mentoring and work experience programmes.

 Point 4: Experiential opportunities to be exposed to a campus environment, involvement in inspirational experiences, collaboration with current students, information about graduate careers and other opportunities to envisage oneself as a student and/or graduate.  While these activities are more similar to traditional outreach activities, here they are the culmination of earlier work.

More information

This article is intended only to give an outline of how and why the theory of possible selves is likely to be useful for widening participation in higher education – for more information, see:

Author: Neil Harrison

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