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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Why Do We Label Our Students?

By Peter DeWitt — July 06, 2016 4 min read
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“I’m not a math person.”

“Science was never my best subject.”

“Oh. I can’t learn a new language. I’m just not good at that.”

“I’m a visual learner, so I can’t learn in a lecture.”

Is it that we weren’t good at the above subjects or did someone along the way make us feel as though we were not good at them? Are visuals really the only way some of us can learn, or have we taught ourselves that lectures aren’t our favorite format of learning so we enter into one with a negative mindset?

This is not to mean that we didn’t struggle in one or all of them, but could we have pushed through to become more successful if we stuck with it or had a better teacher? Did we label ourselves as good at something or not good at something to make ourselves feel better about not learning it the first time?

Did we lack a growth mindset?

For full disclosure I don’t think we all could have been the next Stephen Hawking, Madame (Marie) Curie or Einstein, but I do think that the labels we received in school may have been one of the reasons why we didn’t excel in the subjects that we struggled in.

In a strange way labels make us feel better about why we don’t learn something.

But...A Growth Mindset!
Last year, I wrote Why the Growth Mindset Won’t Work, and it was based on a keynote John Hattie (I work with Hattie as a Visible Learning trainer) gave in Texas where he said the research he has collected showed that the growth mindset vs. the fixed mindset had an effect size of .19. That .19 is well below the .40 (hinge point) that refers to a year’s worth of growth for a year’s input.

It doesn’t mean we should dump the growth mindset, but it does mean we have to look at how we use it in school, and that has everything to do with labeling...or not labeling...our students.

Hattie said that the growth mindset doesn’t give us the bang for the buck we want it to because although we talk with students about having a growth mindset, we treat them in very fixed ways. Over time, I have been asked a great deal how we treat students in fixed ways. Ability grouping or labeling students are a few of the ways we treat students in fixed ways.

According to Hattie’s research ability grouping has an effect size of .12 and not labeling students has an effect size of .61. Not labeling students is fairly high up on his list of influences on learning, which you can read more about here. What that means is having more fluidity in grouping students, and it also means that we should not be labeling students as much as we do.

Where Does Labeling Come From?
We label students for many reasons. Yes, I was a teacher and principal and was on board with labeling students as well, so when I’m referring to we I do include me in that statement. Sometimes we label students because it will get them the help that we think they need.

Yes, get them the help that WE think they need...

I wonder if some of this is wrapped in the idea of self-efficacy. Ashton and Webb’s (1986) research showed that teachers with a low level of professional self-efficacy didn’t feel like they, as teachers, could make an impact on student learning. When teachers feel that they cannot make an impact on student learning they tend to recommend a student for special services (i.e. AIS, special education, etc.)

One other contributing factor to labeling students is teacher evaluation. In an effort to make sure that leadership understands why some test scores are low, teachers feel they have to recommend students for a label to explain why test scores are low. A focus on high stakes testing breeds labeling among students.

In the End
When we began teaching we wanted to save the world and help every child. After our first year we learned how difficult that belief was, and then began to feel the pressures to perform. We either realized we couldn’t do it alone, or we wanted to create a paper trail to explain why certain students weren’t learning in our classroom so we pushed to have them labeled.

Can we do some things differently? Can we use groups that are not based on ability, but figure out ways to scaffold the learning so that all students are being challenged? Can we use something like SOLO Taxonomy which was developed by John Biggsin the 1980’s.

Can we help develop a mindset in our students and ourselves that look at learning as sometimes being hard work, and that we need to find ourselves in the Pit of learning (Video explaining the Pit) from time to time, and that part of the learning process is to find our way out of it. Click here to see more of James Nottingham’s (Challenging Learning) images around the Pit.

Can we focus more on metacognitive skills (Click here for strategies from the Center for Teaching. Vanderbilt University), which Hattie’s research shows has around a .69 effect size?

Can we develop our own growth mindset around the students that enter into our classes regardless of their circumstances? It doesn’t mean we can’t be empathetic but can we find a better balance in empowering them and not enabling them?

Can we work with an instructional coach, colleague or a teacher leader and learn about a few more instructional strategies that may help engage the students we want to label? Maybe it’s not that they have a deficiency but they are not connecting with the way we teach. Instead of changing the child can we work on changing their environment within our classrooms?

In all of that work we do providing the paper trail and the pressure we put on others to give the students a label, we may have taught students that they each had their own glass ceiling and provided them with the fixed mindset we say we work so hard to get them out of...

...and that’s one of the reasons why the growth mindset doesn’t always work.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including the forthcoming Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (2016. Corwin Press). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

Creative Commons image courtesy of Wokandapix.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.