Learning Identities, Education and Community: Young Lives in the Cosmopolitan City
reviewed by Natalie Keefer - October 05, 2018
Title: Learning Identities, Education and Community: Young Lives in the Cosmopolitan City
Author(s): Ola Erstad, Øystein Gilje, Julian Sefton-Green, & Hans Christian Arnseth
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1107046955, Pages: 274, Year: 2016
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Set in a cosmopolitan city in Norway recently impacted by changing demographics due to immigration, Erstad, Gilje, Sefton-Green, and Arnseths (2018) book Learning Identities, Education and Community: Young Lives in the Cosmopolitan City details their four-year study into learning identities among 60 school-aged youths. These students belonged to three cohorts, all in stages of educational transition: kindergarten and primary school (ages five to six), lower and upper secondary school (ages 15 and 16), and upper secondary school and the post-secondary choices of university, military service, vocational training, or folk high school (ages 18 to 19). The study involved a comprehensive analysis of the learning identities of children and young people gleaned from multiple data-collection sources. Narratives of the children and young peoples lives were constructed from surveys, interviews, videos, photography, and artifacts. This method allowed the authors to examine the fluid development of learning identities in multiple contexts, and among youth living in Norway from immigrant and non-immigrant backgrounds.
The authors introduce the study by situating the site of the study, Groruddalen, as a bustling cosmopolitan city experiencing significant shifts in demographics due to immigration from regions such as the Middle East and Southern Asia. The study focused on this shift as it relates socio-cultural considerations of Norwegian identity, especially considering that young people from immigrant and non-immigrant families are inducted into different value systems (p. 19). The authors discuss the concept of bildung as a rationale for public education to transmit culture and instill core values of citizenship in Norwegian society. The concept of bildung highlights values that Norwegian public education seeks to instill for the maintenance of a social democracy, specifically tolerance, respect, and learning how to relate to difference (p. 19). From this starting point, the authors investigate how children and young people build, negotiate, and perpetuate their learning identities through educational work throughout the community.
At the start of their investigation, the authors analyzed the performance of cultural identity and Norwegianness across educational sites and contexts. To exemplify this, the authors examined how the children in the first cohort utilized outdoor play in the snow, a reflection of the traditional Norwegian curriculum of the cold (p. 77). Not surprisingly, the middle-class Norwegian children seamlessly integrated snow into their play as they had been socialized to do. The school site they attended facilitated the curriculum of the cold for these students with spacious, sloping outdoor areas. In contrast, the schools attended by children from immigrant families had playgrounds enclosed by tall fences, playground equipment that hindered play in the snow, and gravel pathways that limited sledding and related activities. For children of immigrant families, the curriculum of the cold could not be actualized due to environmental constraints. The authors observed that immigrant families perceived snow as a constraint and saw it as having little relationship to their weekend activities (p. 85). This sentiment makes sense considering that most of the immigrant families in Groruddalen hail from low-latitude countries; the curriculum of the cold would not be an expected, foundational socializing concept for families from countries such as Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Pakistan, or Syria.
The authors also observed that in school and at home, children from immigrant families had a more structured and explicit educational experience, whereas children from non-immigrant families had more fluid boundaries between work and play (p. 110). The learning identities of children from immigrant families were constructed in a more formal, intentional fashion, with stricter boundaries between work and play. For these children, daily artifacts became pedagogized as educational tools (p. 105). Children from immigrant families also had more formal homework assignments. For example, they were expected to write formally about their families histories. The authors noted that children from non-immigrant families were rarely expected to complete this assignment. However, for children from immigrant families, this assignment served to formalize their learning identities, and in some ways foreshadowed their construction of a Norwegian identity and their educational trajectory.
There were aspects of Norwegian identity that immigrant children integrated into their other ethnic identities, in effect constructing a hybrid and global identity (p. 103). This new identity at times challenged the values of older generations, as illustrated by a Moroccan students desire to travel abroad in opposition to her parents norms and values. The authors noted how children of immigrants newly constructed sense of Norwegianness could be leveraged to negotiate for greater freedoms in their arguments and negotiations with parents and family members.
The authors utilize narratives from participants in the older cohorts to demonstrate how learning identities intersected with students reflexivity, agency, and choices and limitations for their future education. They found young people from immigrant and non-immigrant families were reflexive in their consideration of family history, personal values, and interests in and out of school. These considerations facilitated the construction and maintenance of their learner identities. However, as was the case with an immigrant girl named Amritha, family situations had a limiting effect on educational choices and opportunities.
The authors describe the importance and limitations of personal choice and engagement in Norwegian education, especially when considering secondary and post-secondary education. White flight out of Groruddalen, as well as transportation and zoning issues, constrained the ability of immigrant parents to integrate their children into the primary and lower secondary school that white, middle-class Norwegian children attended. As they grew older, this pattern of limited choice continued; immigrant youth had to consider whether it was worthwhile to spend hours commuting to the more prestigious secondary schools in central Oslo or remain in less academically desirable settings in Groruddalen.
Learning Identities, Education and Community: Young Lives in the Cosmopolitan City covers a large breadth of territory in terms of age groups, corpus of data, and the multi-faceted nature of learning identity, which makes providing a well-developed critical analysis of the data a difficult task. At times, the focus of the book on a society under stress (p. 41) seems unclear, and there are claims made that warrant further evidence or clarification. For example, the narratives about children from immigrant families would benefit from a richer discussion of the funds of knowledge that exist within immigrant communities. More evidence is warranted when the authors assert that one immigrant in particular, Sara, lacked agency. A more balanced consideration of race and how the process of white flight impacts immigrants in Groruddalen would strengthen the book, as would a critical discussion of how white privilege plays a role in creating unequal educational opportunities. Despite these minor critiques, this book is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in communities in transition in Scandinavia, or individuals who are particularly concerned with identity formation in formal and informal educational settings.