Learning in Mind

Rethinking the Purpose of Education

Why Label Learners?

"Replace labelling others by discovering who they are."
~ Robert V. Taylor
"Judging a person does not define who they are—
it defines who you are."
~ Tumblr

What do labels mean?

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he term "labeling theory," first used in the 1950s and 1960s, was originally applied to studying how labels that described deviant behavior in criminals affected the behavior of those people. Deviant behavior is defined as the extent to which a person's behavior differs from expected social norms. In essence, labeling theory posits a "normal" behavior and then decides in what ways and to what extent an individual deviates from that behavior. In education, deviance is any kind of behavior that veers away from expectations of "normal" achievement. While there are certainly social norms, the idea of "normal" anything in regard to human behavior is highly questionable. In truth, "deviant behavior" in the education setting is anything that doesn't "conform" to the values and expectations of the Academic Achievement Paradigm.

Let's look at just a few labels popular in today's schools. Think about how the "deviant behavior" of students given these labels has been determined.

Slow learner: compares a learner to the rate at which others retain information. This is typically based on the "retention rate" of the "average" learner. No consideration is given to the depth of learning, or how long the learning is retained. The label is consistent with Edward Thorndike's belief (in the 1920s) that some people are born with brains that learned more quickly, while others are born with slow-learning brains. Given this obvious (to Thorndike) condition, he argued that schools should stop wasting resources on those with inferior abilities as soon as possible, and devote those resources to the advancement of the superior students. Thus was born the belief—disproven by extensive research on developmental differences—that children who learn to read earlier are "smarter."

ADHD: Defined as a chronic condition marked by a difficulty sustaining attention and hyperactivity, ADHD has become the "label du jour" for any child who doesn't conform to one-size-fits-all schools. The solution: medicate them to "reduce their deviation" and make them more compliant. I suspect that many of us who went to school before Ritalin and other drugs were available would now be labeled ADHD. In my case, I got D's in "Deportment" because I spent so much time looking out the window. This obviously meant I wasn't "paying attention." The fact that I got A's in everything else didn't mean a thing. I'm still not sure why children have to "pay" for something they neither want nor need.

For an entirely different interpretation of ADHD, I highly recommend Thom Hartmann's book, ADD: A Different Perception. Hartmann suggests that ADHD is a genetic trait that was once valued in agrarian society. While the "Farmers" kept their heads down to dig and plant their crops, the "Hunters" (aka ADHD) in the tribe stood guard. Their "hyperalertness" protected the Farmers from wild animals and other dangers, thus insuring the survival of the tribe. Today, the Farmer genes "fit" the way schools operate. The Hunter genes don't, so these members of the tribe have been labeled and medicated to make life easier for teachers and to "help" the student be more "normal."

Gifted: one of the few "supposedly" positive labels, the term "gifted" generally refers to children with exceptional talent or natural ability. In reality, it is typically used to describe learners whose IQ deviates (on the up-side) from the so-called norm, or who possess a talent beyond what is expected of a person that age. The word gifted comes, not surprisingly, from the Old Norse word "gift." We still use that sense of the word when we say that someone "has a gift for—" In the 1640s, the meaning morphed into the idea of being "endowed by nature with some skill or power." Notice that there is no reference in that definition to being "smarter" or "special" or "above average" or better than everyone else.

Gifted is a good label, right? It recognizes the positive characteristics of a child. Well, maybe not. Some people sneer at the idea that "all children are gifted," suggesting that it's just a "feel good" phrase to make the "losers" feel better about themselves. But hasn't every human being been "endowed by nature" with some skill or power? Doesn't each of us have something at which we excel? Something we do better than others? As long as we limit the concept of giftedness to academic achievement (basically learning "fast" and getting good grades), we remain blind to the often intangible gifts of every child—every human being.

Think about a person you know who is unlikely to ever be labeled "gifted." Then ask yourself what skill or power that person has that is unique. Perhaps it's the ability to make other people laugh—to bring a smile to their faces when there's nothing to smile about. Perhaps its the ability to organize and motivate others to action. Perhaps it's a friend's ability to listen deeply—and make you feel "heard." Or the person who quietly mediates a potential argument between friends. The examples are endless once we get past the idea that giftedness only applies to a single type of intelligence or ability.

Labels in today's public schools derive from the Academic Achievement Paradigm. They typically "describe" the "deviation" of a learner from the inappropriate and elitist "standard" for "success." What's worse, they waste, and often demean, the abilities and talents of students whose "gifts" are in "non-academic" areas, or are intangible interpersonal characteristics.

Schools without labels? Is it possible?

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s it possible to lose the labels? To structure a learning environment in which labels are unnecessary? To eliminate the negative consequences of labels by simply getting rid of them? Yes—but only when we stop comparing students to a non-existent norm and start seeing them as individuals. Each human being—child, adolescent, or adult is unique—different! But different from what? If there is no "standard" or "average" person, how does one measure difference? Despite current thinking, different isn't wrong. It isn't deviant. It isn't "broken." It's just different!

How then, can education deal with these differences? The only way to break the hold of this worldview is to get rid of all the labels based on comparison that force us into "group think" and away from the perception of the individual.

Think about all the 'reforms' as far back as the 60s and 70s. Every one of them posits a new methodology, a new bit of jargon, a new pedagogy that will supposedly "fix" education. Each of these ideas may have value—for some learners. None of them will "work" for all learners. If the ideas were seen as options from which a teacher might choose, they might be worth discussing. But as the latest and greatest answer to fixing a broken system, they are no more than patches on a rapidly deflating, outdated balloon.

In a system based on Human Development, the only labels needed are the learner's names. Since each name is essentially different, the "label" allows teachers to see the whole person. If a person chooses to think in terms of good and bad, some of those learner's behaviors and characteristics may be perceived as negative and in need of fixing. But typically, in learner-centered schools, the learner is simply seen as unique. Emphasis is placed on working with the learner to help him or her grow mentally, socially, emotionally, creatively, and in self-knowledge.

In learner-centered schools, the most important factor—the characteristic on which all other factors depend—is the caring and respectful relationships between and among adults and younger learners. Once that is in place, the primary question becomes "What action (or lack thereof) is in the best interst of THIS learner at THIS moment in time?"


Obviously, even in a school that recognizes and facilitates the growth of individuals, there will sometimes be a need to "label" a group of students simply for convenience. In one learner-centered school, comparable to a K-8 public school but grouped by developmental levels rather than age, the learners are referred to as "the elders" and "the youngers." At a similar school, groups of learners choose their own names for their group. The names may sound comparable to the "eagles, robins, and sparrows" that everyone, including the children understood to mean "honors, average, and remedial." But these are labels that the learners apply to themselves based on characteristics they want to promote.

Getting rid of labels won't be easy…but given the well-researched negative effect of labels on both teacher expectations and student achievement, it is educational malpractice to continue using them as they are used today!


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