Learning in Mind

Rethinking the Purpose of Education

The Dangers of Labeling Learners

"Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined."
~ Toni Morrison
"Once you label me, you negate me."
~ Søren Kierkegaard


attern recognition is one of the primary functions of the human brain. Infants come into existence seeking out patterns—categories—in their environment. One of the earliest bits of categorization in which a human infant engages is distinguishing between what is me and what is not me. As the child becomes verbal, s/he asks hundreds of questions that help the child refine her categorization abilities. Eventually, s/he labels the patterns/categories s/he has identified with words to simplify storing and communicating distinctions.

Over time, categorizing becomes more discriminating. That is a car, not a truck. That is an apple, not an orange. That is a dog, not a cat. The act of creating these categories requires active participation of the mind, but once labeled, people tend to go on automatic pilot. Thinking becomes habitual or, in the words of Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer—mindless.

In her 1989 book, Mindfulness(1), Langer explains that once categories are created and distinctions made, they tend to take on a life of their own. She gives the example of a man who rings your doorbell at two o'clock in the morning. The man is well-dressed, wears expensive jewelry, and there's a Rolls Royce parked at the curb. He tells you that he's on a scavenger hunt that he really must win. He needs a piece of wood about three feet by seven feet. If you have one to give him, he'll give you $10,000. You rack your brain, willing to do whatever it takes. But the only place you can think of to get such a piece of wood is the lumber yard and it's closed at this hour. "Sorry," you say reluctantly.

The next day, while passing a construction site, you see the perfect piece of wood. It's a door that has not yet been installed. You realize that you could simply have taken your own door off the hinges and earned a quick $10,000! Langer calls this "entrapment by category."

There's no doubt that categorizing simplifies both experience and communication. Early man would have been more likely to survive once he learned to quickly distinguish between dangerous and benign objects. Asking someone to hand you a stapler is a lot simpler than saying, "Would you please give me the V-shaped metal device that discharges U-shaped metal prongs used to attach papers"?

But there is a serious downside to this process that people rarely consider. The labels we attach to other human beings significantly influence what we perceive and how we behave. If someone is labeled as unfriendly, we approach that person with caution. The label primes us to notice—perceive—ways in which the person might be unpleasant or even do us harm. If a person is labeled as friendly, we unconsciously expect smiles and helpful behaviors. However, we might interpret that same smile coming from the "unfriendly" person as an attempt to deceive! In other words, because labels determine what we perceive and how we interpret the world, they enable some perceptions and behaviors and inhibit others.

Schools—Hotbeds of Categorization


chools are hotbeds of categorization—labeling. Honors, gifted, remedial, BD, ADHD, differently-abled, special needs, overachievers, underachievers, troublemakers, etc. Worse, because many such labels tend to focus on the negative—on what needs to be "fixed" in a student—rather than on a student's strengths, those categories often force teachers into negative perceptions. For example, labeling a student as ADHD or remedial inhibits teachers from perceiving that student as highly gifted in some areas. The category—the label—throws a spotlight on one aspect of the student and forces other, often more positive, characteristics into the background. The teacher unconsciously "expects" that kind of behavior from the student—and acts accordingly. Researchers have observed that a teacher may ignore a behavior from one student and punish the same behavior from another, based soley on the labels that have been applied to those students!

As Toni Morrison suggests in the opening quote, it is imperative to recognize that these categories do not exist in the student. They exist in the mind of the person who identified a pattern of behavior in that student and gave it a name. These categories, or labels, are not absolutes—pre-existing conditions over which we have no control. Choosing to change the label we apply to someone radically changes our perceptions of that person. Are you arrogant or self-confident? Is a student disruptive or filled with energy that might be channeled to unique outcomes?

Unfortunately, examples of children being "labeled" at an early age are on the rise. We hear about kindergarten children being repeatedly suspended for being troublemakers. In her "end of year" notes about the children in her kindergarten class—notes that were passed on to the first-grade teacher—one teacher labeled children monsters, terrorists, and demons. As a result, on the first day of school—before she had even met the children, the first grade teacher was predisposed by the label to focus on these childen as potential "troublemakers." Where did this happen? Not surprisingly, in an urban school attended entirely by poor and minority students.(2)

Would parents accept similar labels coming from a teacher in a middle- or upper-class school? If you had been called a terrorist from your earliest years, thus shaping the perceptions and expectations of the significant adults in your life, isn't it more likely that you would live up to the label in later years? Research offers a resounding "Yes!" The long-standing effects of labeling are well-researched and have been for decades.

"In one's attempts to realize the expectations that are made of him, either academically or behaviorally, a student attempts to achieve what is known as the self-fulfilling prophecy, in which what is expected of him becomes a reality simply because it has been expected of him. If a student …carries the label "disruptive" or "difficult," the student will achieve the standards that have been set for him simply because he knows that such is expected of him. These expectations…are usually groundless; they may be expectations that have come about by something as trivial as appearance, yet they affect the student's achievement because he believes that he must reach the standards that have been set for him.…[T]he student does not put any effort into his work or into improving his behavior because he has been labeled "slow"…[T]his label has become part of his identity, and if he would achieve or behave in a way that is beyond that label, he would essentially be losing part of his identity.(3)

What happens when you change your "label" for another person? For example, you think of that person as "stubborn" (negative). You change that label to "determined". (positive) How does your thinking about the person change? The person doesn't change! Your experience of the person's behavior itself doesn't change! Yet you perceive and interpret their behavior differently. Based on how we choose to "label" people, places, things, and events in our environment, we create the "reality" in which we live. The good news is that we can change that reality whenever we wish!

Pros and Cons of Labeling Learners


espite their negative effects on children, many educators defend the use of labels. In the formative years of special education (mid-1940s to early 1970s), having sub-categories within the "learning disabilities" label enabled educators to advocate for specific groups of children. Educators claimed the following "advantages" for this labeling.

Every one of these "advantages" rests on the premise that there are distinct categories of children. Is this true? Even the "labelers" recognize that a "category" such as Autistic doesn't describe a fixed set of charateristics or behaviors. Thus, we now have "Autistic Spectrum Disorder," which includes everything from social-interaction difficulties (Asperger's, etc) to communication challenges, to a tendency to engage in repetetive behaviors. Additional labels such as "high-functioning autism" make it clear that any "generic" label is a gross simplification.(4)

We have paid a steep price for the gains made by students with disabilities. Once designated as "disabled," the label passes from one teacher to another through the child's cumulative record. Regardless of the high-sounding rhetoric, these children are considered "deficient." Here are just a few disadvantages to labeling learners.

The definition of child abuse includes causing emotional harm to children. Can anyone honestly defend the practice of "branding" children for the convenience of adults?

In the next article, we'll dig deeper into the whole concept of labels. Do they serve any useful purpose? What other downsides do they have? What would a school look like if the only label each person had was his or her name?

  1. Langer, E. J. (1989). Mindfulness. Reading, MA. Addison-Wesley Publishing Co. Inc
  2. Ginsberg, Alice (April 06, 2015). "'I Can't Breathe': How Some Schools are Suffocating Poor, Minority Students," Teachers College Record, http://www.tcrecord.org/Content.asp?ContentID=17924
  3. Academic Labeling and its Effects. http://www-scf.usc.edu/~sgabay/academic%20labeling.htm
  4. What are the Symptoms of Autism? https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism/symptoms
  5. Labeling and Disadvantages of Labeling. https://www.education.com/pdf/advantages-disadvantages-labeling/

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