There are no simple answers in this labelling debate.

I wonder what labels may be applied to each of the children in this Chinese classroom? Or to the teacher? Or to myself behind the camera? Or to those of you who are looking at this picture now?

I wonder what labels may be applied to each of the children in this Chinese classroom? Or to the teacher? Or to myself behind the camera? Or to those of you who are looking at this picture now?

“Once you label me, you negate me”

Søren Kierkegaard

Whenever you gather together ten teachers in a room you will find that you have at least twelve opinions! When I started this process of blogging one of my objectives was to provoke debate and encourage individuals to think about issues and post their ideas. Through this process I felt I might increase my own understanding about some of the issues that remain challenging in our education systems. Although relatively few have risen to the challenge of posting responses over the past two days, it is clear that in putting forward ideas about the use of labels I have provoked a reaction. It’s not quantity but quality that matters, and in this respect some of the thoughtful comments I have read certainly contribute to our understanding.

At the head of this post I put a quotation from the Danish writer and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Many years ago, when I was trying to get to grips with western philosophy I tried and failed to understand Kierkegaard’s ideas. However, what I do recall is his fierce defence of personal choice and his belief that the subjectivity of the individual was of critical importance. It was, he asserted, for the individual to decide how they wished to portray themselves, and not for others to attribute labels to them. Hence the quotation – “Once you label me, you negate me.”

Now, just in case you were beginning to wonder, I am not about to embark upon some kind of philosophical treatise. But early today as I was reading some of the comments posted in response to the labelling debate I was reminded of the Kierkegaard quotation. This probably happened because in reading the postings I was struck by the fact that although each respondent stated a fairly strongly held position, it was clear that everyone engaged in this debate was demonstrating great respect for individuality.

In my piece When in doubt apply a label, (27th Feb) I had expressed a concern that:-

“Once we apply a label we create an image of a child, and that can often have negative connotations and in particular a lowering of expectations about what a child might achieve”.

The point I wanted to emphasise here was that we all wear different labels and that they all elicit different reactions to some extent from those who know us well, and possibly to a greater degree by those who hardly know us at all. For example I have a number of labels, these include man, father, grandfather, husband, teacher, professor, each of which may be viewed either positively or negatively depending on the experiences of those who are making an interpretation. When I have been introduced as a teacher to people at a social event I have often found a mixed reaction. Some have suggested that this must be an interesting and worthwhile career, whilst on a few occasions I have been regaled with tales of the evils that teachers have wrought upon children for generations!

Alice, who I wrote about in the piece It’s my label and I’ll wear it if I want to, (28th Feb.) values the label “dyslexic” because it gave her the confidence to believe that the difficulties she experienced with reading and mathematics were not her fault. She also believes that it helps other people to recognise that she is not stupid or lazy but in fact has to work far harder than most in order to succeed.

Bharati, who has serious reservations about the value of labelling, conceded that this may indeed be one of the more acceptable factors associated with labelling when she expressed the view that:-

“The one use I can find for labels such as “dyslexia” is that people (teachers, parents) may begin to understand that it is truly difficult and involves more effort for a person to read or write, etc. and she is NOT JUST LAZY!!!”

Ekta, writing from the personal perspective of a parent as well as a teacher expressed her opinion in saying that:-

“It was only after his diagnosis that he started getting appropriate help. Here [in India], teachers aren’t skilled or trained to teach different learners. Many of them are also unaware that children learn differently. If a child isn’t performing, he’s labelled lazy, careless, etc. or if he has behaviour issues than his parents and family are labelled too”.

Whilst I have expressed my concerns regarding the use of labelling, and found that others such as Tim from Canada and Marie from Ireland share these anxieties, we have to recognise that for some individuals who bear these labels and also in some instances their parents, the receipt of a formal diagnosis may come as a relief and bring certain advantages. Some of the bonuses attached to labels may come in the form of additional resources, or support which are welcomed by both parents and teachers (this is an issue I will come back to tomorrow). However, there is also a suggestion that at times labelling may bring reassurance to the individual to whom it is applied.

I would suggest that this situation pertains largely because of faults within our education and social welfare systems. If it requires a label to be applied to a child before he gains the acceptance of teachers or others in society, then surely it is the system that needs changing not the child. If as a teacher I find myself labelling a child as lazy or begin to question his ability, then I would suggest my first course of action should be to evaluate my own teaching rather than look to apportion blame to the learner.

So long as teachers are unprepared for the task of viewing each child as an individual and as long as our education systems advocate uniformity and an expectation that all children will learn at the same pace and through the same methods, we are destined to continue an over dependence on labels. However, we should not attempt to oversimplify this issue and we must listen with respect to the opinions of those who are most central to this debate.