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.




16 thoughts on “There are no simple answers in this labelling debate.

  1. Hello, I agree that labels are everywhere, “fatso”, “dumb”, “lazy”,”skeleton”, “slow”, “retard”, “smart”, “dark”, “fair”, “foolish”, etc ., and many other racial ones which might be controversial to discuss on an educational blog site. I don’t think such labels will disappear. Parent-teacher conflicts,teacher-teacher conflicts regarding labels will also be there. Yes,the system needs to change.Question is, how?
    I have also had labels growing up,still hear them now and then but I take it all positively now. There are people who don’t. And we have to respect that.
    As an educator I truly believe in inclusion. My voice may get lost in a country as diverse as India where there are multiple challenges towards inclusion,but by taking tiny steps towards promoting inclusive education(the MA course for instance), maybe my great grandchildren will enjoy an inclusive education system here in India. I choose to be positive about this happening!
    Hope this response was not totally out of context!

    • Hi Maitrayee,
      Your comments are certainly not out of context and are very welcome on this blog. I am perhaps more optimistic than you about India. I see a country with many languages and even more dialects, all the world’s major religions. vast cultural differences from state to state and even within states, yet one where democracy (I accept with some difficulties) prevails. I also see people willing to learn and determined to improve the lives of their families. Don’t give up – we won’t have to wait for your great grandchildren’s generation to see a more inclusive society – with your commitment we may see this much sooner than you think.

        • Well said Maitreyee,
          Diversity has contributed to the development of India throughout its history and your work will help it to achieve a more equitable education system

  2. Labels are part of our lives now and I feel we use it as we use sorry. I find the word sorry very loosely used without giving much thought to the fact that when one says sorry, he/she means that he will not repeat the action and he seeks an apology for what he/she did. But today, sorry is used everytime without really being meant to be used. For eg. one comes late, one is sorry, one does not complete work, sorry, one is careless about handling money and loses it, it is sorry again. Similarly, we use labels – lazy – the most commonly used word for children who do not “perform” upto “expectations”. The next commonly used labels with children are ” hyperactive”, ” destructive”, “low functioning”, “high functioning”. Now how about labeling the ones who label the children. When I said to one of my staff members that she had been careless, she said I was labeling her and I could find someone else. Little did she realize that I was only trying to do what she did to the many children by calling them ” careless” when they left behind the bottle or ” bad” when they walked into the office and moved her things around a little bit. Even as parents, we get offended when our children label us may be when they are totally upset or frustrated with our unreasonable demands,but we forget that we end up labeling them every now and then in some way or the other. Unfortunately, we have mastered the art of labeling and to unlearn this art, it is going to take a lot of genuine and continuous effort.

  3. Hi Savitha, The term “living up to expectations” is an interesting one. Maybe when the expectations of the teacher, the parent and the child do not coincide, then we have a problem. I wonder who should establish our expectations? We obviously have to have these, but what are their origins?
    There are not too many differences between some of the great thinkers of the east and the west here. Kant and Thomas Aquinas both urged that we should educate children for “the good life” in order that they could live with moral purpose for the benefit of mankind. Vivekenanda, Gandhi and Vinobe Bhave followed this philosophy and similarly saw education as being about far more than the acquisition of knowledge. Much more here worth discussing I think.

  4. Hi Richard,
    As a parent, after the diagnosis,after my son got a label only, the acceptance from the society,school, relatives and friends happened(felt fuming though…not seeing a child as a child but with a label…). Before he got a label, in his preschool,once he was made to wait outside the classroom till i went and picked him up. The reason : he was not yet toilet trained….(even with diapers). The true part in this labelling thing is, we got so relieved after his diagnosis. Atleast now,we somehow know in which direction we have to move on in order to make my son “NORMAL”. If “LABELLING A CHILD ” helps him/her to explore his/her potential and gives the satisfaction for a parent to know more about their child and to take it forward, “WHY NOT”??? IN CURRENT SITUATION?

  5. Hi Kavitha,
    You describe perfectly the dilemma I have been trying to highlight. Caring parents such as yourself are pushed into a position of seeking a diagnosis in order to gain the recognition of their child’s needs. A recognition that should be there by right without the need for labelling. Until we make changes to the ways in which teachers are trained and resources allocated this system will persist. Parents like yourself will be forced to keep making demands and thinks will not change. Raising awareness is essential and your comments can help us all to understand better how that change can be achieved. Thank you for your valuable contribution.

    • Hi Richard,
      Rightly said. As we, parents keep demanding in every step to make inroads in every possible way, those who are in the position to make that change happen is busy protecting their post,positioning themselves in favourable spot…. Everytime we happen to meet face to face(after so many calls made, waiting for infinite time to get their appoinment), they give 5 or 10 min. to hear our points and take away our many years of work in bunch of papers…. we wait for the miracle to happen…… !!! Still waiting…………..

      • Hi Kavitha,
        I am delighted that parents are posting on this blog. Your expertise and experiences are critical in ensuring that the debate around this issue remains balanced and focused. Do keep helping to shape our thinking.

  6. We have had many people fight in different ways against labels – racism, labels in colour – blacks or whites, Asian or American, labels in Religion – Hindu, Muslim, Christian, labels in physical attributes – beautiful, ugly, labels in education – bright, poor, slow, failure, success, labels in economic conditions – rich, poor, middle class, labels in caste – brahmin, shudra….Gosh, it is endless. Where is the word – humanity in all of this? Where is the feeling of inclusiveness in all of this? Our lives are clouded with false prejudices, expectations, perception, images, conditioning and of course labels….Yes, parents need help to understand what their child is going through and it is important to get that one word that will help us understand the diagnosis and thus plan the way forward but the same word is misused to exclude the child, to find excuses for not being able to provide the child a learning environment.

    • Hi Savitha,
      Your point about the misuse of labels is important I think. Part of the answer to our current situation is to ensure that individuals themselves are comfortable with the labels applied to them. I know people who describe themselves as having Asperger’s syndrome and seem to be very content with this. On the other hand, I know of a young man who was labelled as having emotional and behavioural difficulties when at school and now as an adult feels very angry that nobody tried to understand his perspective. We are a long way from resolving this question I think.

  7. hi richard,
    in our work at setting up resource rooms in schools, the very first one in 1994, and many more till now, the first reaction has always been that children will be “labeled” as being resource room children…in this particular school, at the end of two years, we had children come in with their friends and say, “mam, please let my friend come here as well, she needs reading help”. Many of my colleagues at the time, were also of the opinion that resource rooms were not about inclusion.
    we have also experienced, over the years, a lot of conflict about whether or not assessments and labeling should happen, and with the general scene here being one of awareness, training,infrastructure, and we can go on with this list, and lack thereof, we have continued with the resource room module while parallel programs go on in areas of training, and awareness about inclusion and inclusive practices.—still confused, but not ready to give up on either….on a concluding note, the children of av school resource room are refered to as resource room children, but in such a loving and supporting way….so till we reach consensus, and for as long as we have 10 teachers and 12 🙂 opinions, we go on.

  8. Hi Gayathri,
    Being well aware of the excellent work undertaken by yourself and colleagues at Brindavan I see the tremendous dilemmas that persist around these issues. As I have always maintained, we are in a position of transition where we need to work together to prepare colleagues in gaining the confidence needed to work in inclusive environments. Until that point is reached the continued commitment of teachers working in resource rooms will ensure that children are not rejected from the education system. Keep up the good work.

  9. Hi Richard and Everyone – Great discussion here. I very much sympathize with the views expressed by those who got very little in terms of service in schools until their child was assessed, diagnosed, and given a label for their specific issues. The main justification I see for this is that it allows for appropriate resources to be allocated. However, there is a very dark side to this. In many classrooms I see children with labels provided with teacher assistants who sit with them, special curriculum provisions, etc., etc. Often these additional resources can serve to further segregate children within the classroom. For example, sticking a teacher assistant to a child (as if with velcro) is a very common practice, and often has the effect of getting in the way of social relationships with peers. I see a lot of this sort of practice in instances where resources are pinned to individual children.
    There is an alternative and it is not rocket science. Simply provide schools with the resources they need to support all children. This could be based on local population demographics (where they are known). That way extra resources, such as teacher assistants, are for everyone thus reducing the focus on one or two children and shifting it to supporting the needs of all. This may be idealistic, but what’s wrong with pursuing an ideal?

  10. Hi Tim,
    The issue of teaching asistants (known by various other titles elsewhere) is, as you rightly say a difficult one. It has always been my view that teachers need teaching assistants more than children. If a teaching assistant is allocated to a teacher to use as required in support of all teachers then I believe we can have a beneficial system. As you rightly state, when such para-professionals are assigned to individual children, then this creates dependency and can also lead to teachers abdicating their responsibilty for this child.
    You are quite right, we need to be idealistic and this means creating discussion and debate and ensuring that we all try to learn from the differing perspectives that are being expressed. We similarly need to try and understand how cultural influences from differing contexts may shape the ways in which we think about similar problems in a range of situations. This blog has been read by individuals in more than thirty countries and opinions have been expressed by professionals and colleagues from around the world. This is only a small gesture towards the promotion of discussion, but hopefully combined with others we may be able to continue the momentum.
    Thanks again for your contribution to this forum.Let’s try to keep it going and to involve others along the way.

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