Engagement through practice-linked identity in basketball and in mathematics class

By Clea Matson - April 2014


Nasir, N. S., & Hand, V. (2008). From the court to the classroom: Opportunities for engagement, learning, and identity in basketball and classroom mathematics. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 17(2), 143–179. doi:10.1080/10508400801986108


This article discusses the potential for learner engagement in the contexts of a basketball team and a mathematics classroom. The analysis centers on three aspects of each context: access to the domain, the integral roles available to learners, and opportunities for self-expression. The article examines how the structures of the two settings influence the engagement of two African American male students.

Theoretical Basis

The article cites a body of research that relates engagement in school to academic success. Engagement is defined by Furrer & Skinner (2003) as “active, goal-directed, flexible, constructive, persistent, focused interactions with the social and physical environments” (p. 149).

Nasir and Hand characterize practice-linked identities as being “linked to participation in particular social and cultural practices” (p. 147). These identities are connected to engagement in that practices more closely linked to one’s sense of self afford higher levels of engagement. This intersection of practice and identity fits with other cultural-historical theories of learning (link to glossary).

The authors define three aspects through which contexts support practice-linked identities:

  1. Access to the domain: the opportunity for participants to acquire knowledge and skills related to the practice (for example, of basketball or of mathematics)
  2. Integral roles: important ways to participate while learning

Opportunities for self-expression: ways in which leaners can make unique and valued contributions and so incorporate themselves into the practice

Research Design

A broad question that inspires this research is, “What is it about some out-of-school learning settings that makes them positive environments for the development of identities that support learning?” (p. 146). This study profiles students on a high school basketball team, comparing the team’s structures and supports for engagement to those in the students’ mathematics classrooms.

The study involved eight African American high school varsity basketball players who were also students in various math classes at a school in Northern California. The article is a case study of two participants. Vaughn was defined as an average achiever in math, while Kevin was as a high achiever. Data included observations and video of basketball games and practice and of math classes, as well as interviews of participants, coaches, and teachers.

The findings show that the structure of the two contexts resulted in different levels of engagement for the two participants. Both demonstrated access to the domain of basketball: They could assess their own performance as players by evaluating their progress in building the skills they associated with being a good basketball player—skills they understood and whose constituent subskills they could describe. However, when asked to assess their own ability in math, neither student mentioned any knowledge or skills in the domain of mathematics. Instead, they based their assessment purely on outside measures of success, including their grades and feedback from the teacher.

The positions assigned to players in games and in practice are an opportunity to take on integral roles essential to the success of the team. In basketball, roles were available to players of all levels. Because novice players were involved on the court, they remained engage while watching more skilled players while sitting on the bench. The number of roles and students’ involvement in the practice was more limited in the mathematics classroom. Active roles were primarily available to students who had successfully completed problems and could answer specific procedural questions. There were no integral roles for students who were building skills. These students consequently paid little attention to activities during either discussions or group work.

Finally, self-expression was not acknowledged as valuable in the classroom; in fact, it was often actively discouraged as “disruptive.” In contrast, both players and their coaches talked extensively in interviews about the ways the players’ personalities contributed to the team. One study participant was “the rock” of the team, while the other was seen as an example of a devoted and hard-working team member.

Implications for Practice

The authors do not argue that math class should be structured like a basketball team; in fact, they acknowledge that different types of practices must be associated with different structures. Instead, the authors suggest that educators broaden the three aspects of participation, perhaps by first considering how this might look in the mathematics classroom and informal education settings. Practitioners could, for example, design activities that incorporate multiple easy-to-assume roles or that have obvious points of entry. They might identify and clearly define for learners the specific subtasks that are necessary to successfully participate in an activity. They could also design activities so that tools must be shared, thus requiring learners to take on mutually supportive roles in reaching a goal or solving a problem. To increase access to the domain, educators might make skills and subskills accessible by giving students opportunities to discuss and challenge their importance or necessity, as well how they relate to learners’ previous skills and knowledge. Educators might also consider how to make room for discourse that allows for self-expression.


Furrer, C., & Skinner, E. (2003). Sense of relatedness as a factor in children’s academic engagement and performance. Journal of Education Psychology, 95, 148 –162.