The Sacred Cow Series – Labels Limit Learning

People have an amazing ability to live down to your expectations.

In their book, Remote: Office Not Required, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson explore the world of remote work and associated issues.

Published in 2013, they could not have imagined that the ideas they explored would become relevant to a wider audience under a pandemic.

In light of recent experience, their remote working ideas transfer easily to education.

The sacred cow series aims to explore some of the principles and beliefs that inform the way we teach and learn.

Which leads us to the next sacred cow – the habit of labelling our students.

Weak. Lazy. Bright. Clever. Gifted. Talented. Dumb, Dim. Best student. Worst student. Average student.

If there is a teacher out there who has never used, or does not use these labels for students, kudos to them.

This sacred cow is not so much a flawed principle of education, rather a bad habit.

Like many bad habits, its origin is difficult to pinpoint. Certainly, there is influence from the very human need to categorise and chunk things together. It is also a cognitive action which allows us to sort and retain lots of information.

There are historical influences at work too. One function of education was to sort and filter students into groups. The act of setting and streaming students reflects this. As did the varied division of schools into vocational or academic institutions.

Educational theory also promoted the labelling of students. Piaget’s child development theory was still prominent in my pre-service education, twenty five years ago, and while it is simplistic to say this encouraged teachers to place students into boxes under this theory, it did.

So, the development of the labelling habit is the result of many forces working together, none of them malicious.

Let’s forget the blame game and get down to looking at the impact of labelling in schools. Hattie’s research into effect size indicated that teachers not labelling students was a really impactful on student achievement.

This is intriguing. Could what we call students, our descriptions of them, really have that much impact on their achievement?

Of course it does. Regardless of our level of self esteem, human beings really care about what other people think about them. Feedback influence self talk, and soon enough

Students working through puberty, forging their identities and trying the world on for size, are arguable the most susceptible to being limited by the labels placed on them.

Once I began looking and listening, our habit labelling of students was obvious. It was like buying a new model of car and then seeing it everywhere. ‘Wow, I never knew there were so many Subarus on the road!’

We label at the beginning of the academic year. We label in staff meetings. We label in student reports. We label in casual conversations with colleagues. We label in parent teacher interviews.

We label when we plan. We label when we assess.

‘My class is so weak! That kid is lazy. This kid will never pass. That kid is my best student. This kid is really clever…’

At the most extreme, there are nastier implications. I once had a colleague who labelled students according to which university they thought they belonged: ‘That’s a Latrobe, that’s a Melbourne, that’s a Monash. Uugh – that one will be lucky to get into TAFE!’

It sounds even uglier looking back, though at the time it looked little more than a eccentric affectation.

I wonder how much damage those labels did…

I’ve even had colleagues come to me and ask for assessment to be reviewed because ‘they are my strongest student and there is no way this mark reflects their abilities.’

In the spirit of eyeing cows, we need to look beyond why and how this habit emerged and decide if it is something which adds to the optimal environment for learning.

Labelling students sets boundaries that are very hard to exceed. The habit makes our lives easier as we sort and process our students, but the negative impact of labelling is something we should take seriously.

Of course, if you are a person who likes proving people wrong, then labelling presents less of a problem. Most people prefer compliance over rebellion, however.

Too many of these labels are outdated. They were formed in a time when the British Empire spread around half the globe.

If we were planning a trip to Africa, would be pull out an Atlas from 1901 for guidance? Good luck finding Rhodesia and Nyasaland.

If we are to recognise current best practice, supported by long term evidence that incorporates what is being discovered about learning and the brain, how can we persist with the labels we use?

It is not the act of naming that is the problem, it is the branding of students for life. It is limiting their capacity to grow beyond the boundaries we set for them.

This is not only bad practice, it is morally and ethically wrong beyond being unprofessional.

Piaget himself admitted the limitation of his theory in terms of the fixed nature of the developmental stages. It was wrong to suggest that students progress on a continuum, fixed and linear.

fMRI scanning has allowed for huge advances in our of the human brain and how it works. The understanding of Neuroplasticity means we know that learning can and does continue and no student has to miss the boat.

Which says we need to take account of our habits and decide if they still fit.

If we follow the research, if we believe in individualised learning and we believe that learning is a lifelong pursuit, then our labels need updating.

Labelling students with generic, stereotypical monikers can no longer be seen as best practice. It is a bad habit we must change.

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear built on the work of Charles Duhigg in his exploration on the impact of habit in our work and lives. Clear argues that in order to identify and change bad habits, you start by making them visible and calling them out. He uses the analogy of the Japanese railway system, who use a ‘pointing and calling’ method to ensure safety.

When a train approaches the platform, for instance, the operator will point and say ‘signal is green’. The platform attendant will point to a door and say ‘doorway is clear’ before the train departs. This is seen as a way to make things visible and identify problems before they become too serious.

The time has come to point and call our habit of labelling students. If nothing else, they create barriers to learning and restrict the growth and development of young people in our care.

Labels speak to our bias and also our unconscious habits, allowing us to process huge volumes of information.

In light of current understanding of impactful approaches in education, our habit of labelling students in perpetuity can finally be challenged.

In doing so, we might provide the space for students to live up to expectation, not down.

As Aristotle mentioned, we are what we repeatedly do. Therefore, excellence is not an act, but a habit.

Published by charliehynes76

Learner. Teacher. Writer. My aim is to nourish and share a curious mind so that we might honour the gift.

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