Thursday, 3 April 2014

The power of labelling - and a note on smiling!

Educationally labelling another individual is one of the most insidious things we can do. By labelling, I mean providing an adjectival description of the educational ability or potential of the pupil. However, as we'll see, the label rarely creates potential and progression, it creates regression.

Many students come to us for one-to-one attention with a label that is cast out by their parents or themselves before we have even assessed their skills. It's quite unnerving at times when a young person sits down and says, "I'm dyslexic," or "I've got ADHD," or "I'm not good at exams," or the worst - usually proferred by a parent: "He's (or she's) really clever," or "gifted and talented."

Labels smother the child's abilities - just as pernicious sexist and racist labelling has undermine people's chances, educational labels diminish the individual's ability to progress. A label freezes the brain - it tells the pupil that he or she is irrevocably handicapped and cannot improve.

The proposition is literally chaining our students to artificial posts and leaving them slaves to a label.

Research has shown that labelling children "smart" creates fear, and thwarts the possibility of improvement. The label acts against the pupil's ability to act and can even become a life long scar that hinders potentiality. The smart, it has been shown, when faced with a difficult task prefer to engage in displacement activity. They suddenly find the task "boring" or effect no interest in it. In reality, they are realise that they are not that smart, or not so smart in all areas, or that what they once found easy they no longer do ... and they panic, avoid the more difficult work in case their results undermine the pretence, or they cheat. More often, smart students are more concerned with how they are faring against others rather than with the task at hand. Their motivation is to have others pleased with them - after all, the label came from without, so it is from without that they look for guidance and acknowledgement. In other words, their values come from without, rather than from within themselves. The pupil looks to the teacher, to the parent, to the peers - and thus for bribes, for money, for recognition.

Psychologists call seeking external approval having an "external locus of control" and is used to describe when a person looks outside of themselves for some form of validation, either intellectual or moral. In contrast, the healthier "internal locus of control" reflects the ability of an individual to be self-motivating, strong in their personal values, confident in their ability to develop, learn, and grow, and strong enough to ignore peer pressure of what other people think of them. In terms of educational techniques, students who have a greater sense of internal strength are more likely to stick to a task, use their own mind, and, thereby, improve steadily. They can rely on their inner strength - their innere Fuehrung - as the modern German Wehrmacht calls it (inner leadership).

In one-to-one work, dealing with the smart can be challenging for the tutor! The smart are severely handicapped in their ability to think for themselves: they have trouble focusing and often demand the reasons why they should do a certain task (which looks hard at first glance, say). They are saying to themselves, "Why do I need to put myself through this pain?" or perhaps "What would I really be if I failed to do this properly?" Their work tends to be minimalistic, as I call it - a few pen marks on the paper to solve a maths question (i.e., no working out, no process, just a hurried answer). And their English skills are often lacking - writing a sentence is painful, spelling can be too challenging ... their calligraphy is small to hide the burgeoning errors in their work. They are locked in an early skill set and cannot get out - because they were called "smart" or "gifted."

Well, we're all gifted. We're alive, and that's one heaven of a gift to enjoy. But we can make life even more impressive if we work at it. Strangling a young person with a label is no gift - it's a chain.

There are no rewards in our tutorials - no praise, no "oh, you're so smart!" comments, no chocolates or money or promises of dvds or computer games. Just sheer mental exercising. Slowly, we take the "smart" and teach them that they too can struggle, that it's normal to struggle, that there is a great sense of achievement and pleasure in actually working at problems rather than just getting them (or not). It's the same with those who come in with the negative labels such as dyslexia. Truth be told, we're all weak at some things in life and great at others - and the weak things, we can always work harder at and improve with the right tools and great motivation.

We love working with pupils of all ages and abilities - and it's tragic how some get labelled early and how that affects them as adults.

Now, I promised to leave my posts on a positive light: rip off the label and get your own personality back; own yourself and your thoughts rather than let other people tell you what's wrong with you. We're all great and lovely and fun and we can all improve what we do! It's fun too to stretch the brain - and the brain can be stretched in more ways than what our educational curricula offer: see the article I wrote on the multiple intelligences.

Another parting ditty:

Over the past few days I've been testing the mirror nerves our brains possesses: smiling at strangers wherever I go - and yep, those who catch my gaze smile back. Just a small step for making the planet a little more beautiful! Try it - it's great fun - so many return the smile! Takes a second, but boosts our feel-good chemicals!

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