Widening Participation; How Cooperative Learning can put Possible Selves into practice

We are an enterprise educator and a Cooperative Learning specialist developing a set of ‘confidence and resilience’ building activities for a Higher Education Progression Partnership. This post shares our experiences with putting the concept of “Possible Selves” to work for the Widening Participation agenda. 

[5 minute read]

Since embarking on our work for HeppSY+, Catherine and I have been looking for concrete alternatives to the almost universally accepted discourse of “aspiration-raising” within widening participation. This idea proposes that the problem with socio-economically challenged groups is not that they lack knowledge, skills and self-confidence, but rather their “low aspirations.” Recent research indicates there is good reason to turn that argument on its head: Isn’t it conceivable that young adults would have higher aspirations if they had these abilities in the first place?

The order of things

Note here the order in which I placed knowledge, skills and confidence. With a nod to the ongoing debate about the central position of knowledge in the new Inspection Framework, I want to make it crystal clear that the focus in this article on collaborative skills, identity building and confidence is in no way juxtaposed to concrete knowledge. We simply posit that concrete knowledge is useless if it cannot be used, as pointed out in my conversation with Ofsted’s Sean Harford earlier this year. No amount of memorising historical dates or appreciation of Mozart will help you if you cannot contextualise your knowledge, first within yourself, and then when you engage with other people. Metaphorically, knowledge is bricks, but its contextualisation is the building you raise.

Externally, from the teacher’s perspective, this contextualisation of knowledge can only – and only inadequately – be imparted through the carefully constructed progression in the curriculum that is causing every subject leader in the country to sweat blood. However, internally, from the student’s perspective, said contextualisation can only happen through continual negotiation of its meaning while the knowledge is being applied. “How does this actually relate to me, how does this work for me, with my understanding?” 

To develop oracy confidence and ability in our children is to expand their worldview, and thereby open up new vistas of possibility to them.

 – Steve Wright, Language, World & Truth, October 2019

This internal processing of input can only be developed effectively when the student has access to a range of different “sounding boards” which can be synthesised, repeated and interpreted using the individual’s own language. A single teacher in a class of 30 cannot do this. Using Cooperative Learning Interaction Patterns facilitates the expansion of this crucial dialogue across the entire class simultaneously and in doing so elegantly integrates skills building with knowledge acquisition (to say nothing of language development). This is why Cooperative Learning has a +5 effect size in the Teaching & Learning Toolkit and is especially effective for disadvantaged pupils. 

Possible selves

But Cooperative Learning itself is not what most people usually understand it to be. It is not “group work.” The learning that is espoused is the true learning — the development of the inner voice that negotiates and organises knowledge and the confidence to speak it freely in each individual. This issue of individual versus group is as old as the discussion of knowledge versus skills and brings us back to the discussion of finding alternatives to the aspiration discourse within widening participation. 

There is an increasing appreciation that focusing on low aspirations risks ‘blaming the victim’ by ignoring the very real structural constraints forged through sociocultural context, as phrased by Harrison & Waller.  We are grateful to Neil Harrison for his assistance. His 2018 article Using the Lens of ‘Possible Selves’ to Explore Access to Higher Education… has been a groundbreaking inspiration.

While the limited scope of HeppSY+ can do very little to increase subject knowledge or decrease structural constraints, Catherine and I have been extremely conscious about our theoretical underpinnings when constructing our resource packs. Out of all the alternatives, the idea of “possible selves” seems to us to hold the greatest promise.

The theory of possible selves asserts that we all envisage a range of possible identities for ourselves, framed by factors both within and beyond our control: “what [people] might become, what they would like to become, and what they are afraid of becoming” as phrased by Markus and Nurius in their original paper from 1986. These possible selves are part of building a wider narrative that we use to make sense of our lives in our own social context. Basically, the more limited our social context, the more narrow our range of possible selves. 

An original slide from our developing resource pack


With this in mind, each resource pack will feature targeted blocks of concrete information that will, so to speak, “widen the palette” of possible selves, e.g. by lifting the lid on specific organisations to recognise the limitations of what students know about ‘what’s out there’ and negotiating, through Cooperative Learning, the implications of that knowledge gap in relation to the possible selves they can envision. 

Me, myself and I

But there is another reason why Cooperative Learning complements the theory of Possible Selves so beautifully. A cooperative approach has the potential of addressing critique about the theory of Possible Selves that the construction of the ‘hyper-individual’ encourages the belief that one is entirely determined by internal capacities, ignoring the contextually bound ways that produce and sustain trajectories of disadvantage and advantage within education. 

In their 2019 paper, Bunn & Lumb call for ‘sustained engagement with alternative philosophies’ that counteract ideological commitments to hyper-individualism, choice and risk. For example, in enterprise education, Catherines area of speciality, it is assumed that confidence, resilience and other skills will be developed through competitive and challenge based activities. But teachers have said such activities can actually decrease the skills, knowledge and self-efficacy of lower socio-economic students, as pointed out by Heilbrunn & Almor.

As opposed to personhood being developed via the capacity to out-perform others, Catherine and I suggest that collective development and cooperation is a valid, timely and less exclusionary, alternative. We hope that these confidence and resilience building resources (with their focus on cooperation) might help filter these ideas into other contexts, including some classroom practices characterised in a particular competitive and individualised way which can be unhelpful for WP students. 

Inspectors will make a judgement on the personal development of learners by evaluating the extent to which: […] the curriculum and the provider’s wider work support learners to develop their character – including their resilience, confidence and independence

Ofsted, The Education Inspection Framework (2019), §28, p. 11

Useful links





Bunn, M., & Lumb, M. (2019). Education as Agency: Challenging educational individualisation through alternative accounts of the agentic. International Education Journal: Comparative Perspectives, 18(1), 7-19.

Harrison, N. (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(10), 209.

 Heilbrunn, S., & Almor, T. (2014). Is entrepreneurship education reproducing social inequalities among adolescents? Some empirical evidence from Israel. 

Sutton Trust /EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit, “Collaborative Learning” https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence-summaries/teaching-learning-toolkit/collaborative-learning/ (Accessed 11 July 2019).

werdelin.co.uk is the business end of cooperativelearning.works.

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