Using the Lens of ‘Possible Selves’ to Explore Access to Higher Education: A New Conceptual Model for Practice, Policy, and Research
Policy and Practice Context
2. The Theory of Possible Selves
‘The working self-concept derives from the set of self-conceptions that are presently active in thought and memory. It can be viewed as a continually active, shifting array of available self-knowledge. The array changes as individuals experience variation in internal states and social circumstances’.
‘Possible selves […] can be viewed as cognitive bridges between the present and the future, specifying how individuals may change from how they are now to what they will become. When certain self-conceptions are challenged or supported, it is often the nature of the activated possible selves that determines how the individual feels and what course the subsequent action will take’.
‘An individual is free to create any variety of possible selves, yet the pool of possible selves derives from the categories made salient by the individual’s particular sociocultural and historical context and from the models, images, and symbols provided by the media and by the individual’s immediate social experiences. Possible selves thus have the potential to reveal the inventive and constructive nature of the self but they also reflect the extent to which the self is socially determined and constrained’.
‘Possible selves give specific, self-relevant form, meaning, and direction to one’s hopes and threats. Possible selves are specific representations of one’s self in future states and circumstances that serve to organize and energize one’s actions’.
‘possible selves are not likely to become elaborated and thereby either motivationally or behaviourally effective unless valuing them and believing in them are supported or encouraged by significant others’.
‘an individual’s estimate of the probability of certain possible selves, both positive and negative, considerably augmented our ability to explain current affective and motivational states’.(Markus and Nurius 1987, p. 167—original emphasis)
2.1. Possible Selves, Educational Outcomes and Intergroup Differences
2.2. Summary: Possible Selves and Aspirations
3. Building a Conceptual Model
‘Horizons for action both limit and enable our view of the world and the choices we can make within it. Thus, the fact that there are jobs for girls in engineering is irrelevant if a young woman does not perceive engineering as an appropriate career’.
4. Implications for Practice
- Intervention Point 1 relates to the palette of possible selves that is available to the individual: what is the pool from which they are able to pursue like-to-be selves or identify like-to-avoid selves? While the size of the pool may not differ markedly between advantaged and disadvantaged young people (Oyserman et al. 2011), the latter are likely to envisage fewer possible selves that are predicated on requiring a degree. This is in part due to their horizons for action, which inform their concepts of what it is possible to be in their own sociocultural context. An intervention at this point would seek to expand the pool of possible selves available that have a relationship to higher education—or to education more generally. These may be occupationally-driven or focused on demonstrating how wider possible selves (e.g., ‘me as homeowner’) are reliant on educational success. In particular, such interventions might seek to strengthen the perceived relationship between education and wider life outcomes. For example, Oyserman et al. (2002, pp. 317–18) describe an activity where young people choose from a selection of images of adults as a vehicle for group discussions around ‘work, family, lifestyle, community service, health, and hobbies’. This sort of activity provides an experiential opportunity to engage with possible selves that have not previously been considered and to potentially add them, perhaps only in outline, to the palette of futures that might be available; what Archer et al. (2014, p. 77) call ‘diversifying’ aspirations. Importantly, such activities would not over-emphasise possible selves as ‘me as a student’ or ‘me as a graduate’, but rather the wider selves to which these states give access. Perhaps more controversially, these activities may also seed conversations about like-to-avoid selves (Ruvolo and Markus 1992; Oyserman et al. 2015).
- Intervention Point 2 relates to engaging with the young person’s beliefs about their ability to exercise control over their future and their ability to succeed at tasks that are important to them. As discussed in the previous section, these are hypothesised to be important vectors in determining the likelihood of a possible self coming to pass and, whereas the wider sociocultural context cannot readily be influenced in the short-term, interventions that challenge these personal beliefs are likely to be successful in shaping what selves appear probable. This is perhaps most important where the probable selves identified by the young person are negative (i.e., like-to-avoid), but where they expect that they will not be able to avoid them due to structural constraints and their own inability to exercise effective agency over their future. Successful interventions are likely to focus on reinforcing the young person’s perceived ability to be successful through supported short-term tasks and a process of reflection that actively demonstrates their potential for more sustained forms of success. Such interventions are likely to be longitudinal in nature, focusing on self-efficacy and/or locus of control or be more academically-focused on the development of a ‘learning orientation’ (Watkins 2010) and metacognitive skills that help young people to understand how they learn; what St. Clair et al. (2013, p. 736) call a ‘day to day process of supporting students to learn how to attain what they want’. They may also engage particularly with parents and teachers as key influencers to ensure that their own expectations are positive, realistic and transmitted to young people (Cummings et al. 2012; Harrison and Waller 2018).
- Intervention Point 3 comes when the young person is beginning to elaborate like-to-be (or like-to-avoid) selves that they feel are probable in their context. This process involves translating their vision of themselves in the future into something that is vivid and detailed in order to provide the motivational impetus that results from integrating this vision into their working self-concept. Oyserman et al. (2002) argue that it is important that young people are allowed to elaborate their own possible selves, rather than passively receive insights from adults about how they should visualise them and what their roadmaps should be. Instead, based on their own experiences of devising and evaluating an intervention, they advocate for a process of providing supported space for young people to identify why their like-to-be selves are important to them and how they might be achieved; this is cognate to the reflecting and growing steps advocated by Hock et al. (2006). Specifically, this is less directive than traditional approaches to careers guidance, with a wider scope beyond the occupational. Activities might include workshops where young people are encouraged to produce actions plans and opportunities to engage with adults embodying the like-to-be selves or to ‘try on’ these selves—for example, through work experience programmes (St. Clair et al. 2013; Waller et al. 2014) or mentoring (Packard and Nguyen 2003; Cummings et al. 2012). The conceptual shift here is away from directive guidance that seeks to coerce young people and towards guided individualised activities that enable them to explore their own futures and devise self-relevant strategies to align their like-to-be selves with their probable selves (Yowell 2002).
- Intervention Point 4 specifically comes as the individual is considering higher education and comes closest to echoing existing aspiration-raising practices with their focus on making higher education appear desirable and realistic. Typically, this includes exposure to a campus environment, involvement in inspirational experiences, collaboration with current students, and information about graduate careers and other opportunities to envisage oneself as a student and/or graduate (Harrison and Waller 2017, 2018). These activities still retain value under a possible selves approach as they form part of the process of elaboration and reinforcement that embeds like-to-be selves involving higher education within the self-concept. However, these activities are unlikely to be transformational for disadvantaged young people without the wider context and individualised strategies provided by the earlier interventions.
5. Implications for Policy
Conflicts of Interest
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Harrison, N. Using the Lens of ‘Possible Selves’ to Explore Access to Higher Education: A New Conceptual Model for Practice, Policy, and Research. Soc. Sci. 2018, 7, 209. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci7100209
Harrison N. Using the Lens of ‘Possible Selves’ to Explore Access to Higher Education: A New Conceptual Model for Practice, Policy, and Research. Social Sciences. 2018; 7(10):209. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci7100209Chicago/Turabian Style
Harrison, Neil. 2018. "Using the Lens of ‘Possible Selves’ to Explore Access to Higher Education: A New Conceptual Model for Practice, Policy, and Research" Social Sciences 7, no. 10: 209. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci7100209