The Power of Labels in Education

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: Act II, Scene II

Some years ago when discovering the work of John Hattie and his meta-analysis of impactful effects on achievement in learning, two things jumped out from the list and lodged in my brain like a splinter.

Teachers not labelling students had an effect size of 0.61. Teacher expectations had an effect size of 0.43. If the hinge point, representing a year of learning, is 0.4, then both elements represent important factors that impact student learning.

What stood out was that students weren’t the influence here. We were.

This knowledge rumbled around in my thinking for some time. I thought about the labels we assign students. I thought about the labels and names I used when describing students. I listened for the words and phrases colleagues used to describe students.

Giving something a name is a completely normal aspect of human cognition. It helps us sort and organise our thinking and cope with the vast quantity of stuff and guff that comes across our mental desks. 

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And this naming, or labelling process is varied in impact, ranging from positive or neutral to downright ugly and wrong. These are the battlegrounds of contested value and attitude, where the ugliest part of humanity resides. This is where racism, misogyny and hatred live. There is no question of the power of names and labels in our world.

These names and labels appear when we speak about students in meetings or in the staffroom. They are shared openly and officially, but also whispered in meaty, informal teacher gossip when trawling class lists for names on the first day back or sharing war stories over instant coffee and hot, milky tea. They pop up during the moderation and benchmarking of student writing. They appear in reports and emails. 

For whatever reason, many times after learning about it I found myself hearing student labels and thinking about those impacts Hattie identified. 

So what kind of labels did I hear and use? In the main, they were well intended and usually euphemistic. Each mixed ability class stretched a continuum of struggler to star. They included grinders, plodders and the competent and capable. They had your flighty, sloppy and dopey ones, the lazy and shiftless; the bright, the dim and the flickering. We knew the gifted and talented, weak, limited and less able when we saw them. 

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Honestly, there were nastier and more nefarious descriptions done in private. Whether apocryphal or not, one story stuck with me of a former colleague who labelled students according to which university they would attend, or not. “They’re a Melbourne, they’re a Monash…oh, they would be lucky to get into Latrobe!… or they are destined for the overalls or the cash register…!”

While there may be varied intent at these extremes, it was the habit that bothered me most. 

In time, this reflection led to the question of exactly what is within and outside my control. I made the choice to be rigorous in determining what I could and could not influence and how this might lead to developing habits and behaviours supporting a process for delivering the best outcome for students as consistently as possible.

The Hattie reference was a catalyst for making me conscious of the impact of the labels we give our students. 

Logically,  I also wondered how students could ever escape them, particularly when I noticed they tended to carry labels across years and groupings, no matter how they performed, grew, developed and changed. These labels weren’t just names, they were often brands and stamps on the permanent record.

More worryingly, official and common practices tended to enshrine these labels, having them stick like mud to a blanket. Again, while the intention was often noble, it was hard to see many opportunities for students to grow out of the labels we’d ascribed.

This led me to the problem of labelling during assessment. The first time I noticed it was when I asked teachers to bring samples of high, medium and low students to moderation. One common habit emerged of teachers going through a pile of papers and digging out students in that band, sometimes before any papers were marked. 

This phenomena also stood out in conversations, where teachers referred to their ‘70 students’ or ‘90 students’ and would worry when they did not fall into that category. Often enough teachers would say “I need you to check this paper because this student is a 90 and they have not done very well at all in this essay.” 

More worryingly, some teachers branded whole classes as weak, often early in a school year, and it would then come as no surprise to find those classes achieve low standards throughout the year.

I saw it all over the place; not only in my colleague, but in me. 

“Think you can, think you can’t; either way you’ll be right.” I started to think about this Henry Ford quote, and the implications of our actions on student achievement.

This was a vague uneasiness rather than a firm picture, but something felt off kilter. 

Then I stumbled across Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which revealed the world of cognitive biases and heuristics. It explored and unveiled the completely normal human habits in cognition that leave us stuck in loops and ways of thinking that are often not rational, reasonable or based in evidence.

Confirmation bias was one that stood out. This is the tendency we have to only see the things that confirm our views about the world. 

The itch about our tendency to label students and the possible impact grew itchier. As my role exposed more and more evidence of this habit in education of labelling, classifying and naming our students, I wondered more about what we could do. 

And while it felt like progress, something was incomplete; I even wondered if this phenomenon might be confirmation bias itself. Several times, I almost made it an agenda item in faculty meetings, determined to complete a reflection activity with colleagues. 

Unsure of the hunch, I waited.

That said, I worked hard to minimise the labelling of students in my own work. I consciously caught myself using labels and challenged their validity. I adopted the principle of ‘mark the writing, not the writer’ and experimented with ways of minimising bias. 

This involved blind marking, shuffling papers and asking colleagues to cross-check samples. I looked to benchmarking more than moderation, taking the time to de-identify student writing to give the best chance of fairness. I collected excellent samples to work from, hoping to systemise the standard and reduce the chance of bias driving judgement.

But is it possible to ever eliminate bias? I don’t think so – but we can reduce the level a little. This is what Olivier Houde calls cognitive resistance; taking steps to minimise or be aware of our biases. 

The puzzle was not complete until I read Rutger Bregman’s ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History’ where he made reference to Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobsen’s study ‘Pygmalion in the Classroom (1968).

The study was named after a mythical Greek sculptor who became so enamoured by an ivory statue that his obsession brought the figure to life.

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This study uncovered an ‘expectancy advantage’ during a year long study of a school, where teachers were told that some students had been identified as likely to be ‘growth spurters’ after completing a school wide test to identify them. This was actually misdirection on the part of researchers, as the identification test was simply an IQ test and the ‘growth spurters’ were selected at random.

In essence, the study found that students who were expected to do better actually did, but they also found that these ‘growth spurt’ students were treated differently by their teachers.

In essence, because their teachers expected students to do better, they did better, therefore,  the ‘expectancy’ or ‘Pygmalion’ effect was identified.

Furthermore, the opposite of the Pygmalion effect in psychology is known as the Golem effect, where low expectations lead to lower achievement. 

Both effects fall under the category of self-fulfilling prophecy, and the study by Rosenthal and Jacobson appears to confirm such a thing exists, despite strong debate over the validity of the original study.

As Bregman contends, further investigation since has suggested the size of the effect outlined in the study was questionable, but the existence of it is beyond doubt.

One comment by Rosenthal stood out. He thought it “shocking how much teaching is done by teachers who think students can’t learn.”

Which leaves us with an uncomfortable question. What do we do about it?

The first step is to acknowledge that evidence suggests the labels we assign students impacts on their achievement. 

The locus of control here then is us, the teachers, not the students.

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This implied responsibility says we must work to limit the negative impact of our labelling, adopting and embedding strategies and habits that build cognitive resistance to the natural biases and beliefs we hold.

We will never be perfect in our use of labels and names, nor should we strive for perfection. Instead, we should build a process to minimise the impact of these labels over time. 

We should explicitly aim to reduce and maybe eliminate subjective and negative labels that endure without evidence.

How are our students meant to grow beyond these labels if we confine them? If we know that prophecies can be self-fulfilling, and these prophecies live in the names and labels we give students, then why not work to challenge their origin and validity?

We don’t have to believe everything we think. Labels and names are powerful things in the realm of education.

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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