Monday, 11 May 2015

Academic labelling and its effects - personal stories

I had an interesting discussion with one of my younger pupils this week: her school have her down at a certain level that is below the level she's working at. Schools sometimes do this to ensure the pupil scores well at the lower grade. But her replies opened up a huge area in my mind.

"Sometimes" is a flexible word - some schools do this more than others when it comes to GCSEs: for instance, they may keep a student who is working at a B/C level on the foundation maths as they are more likely to secure the C grade pass. Is this all about maintaining a high ratio of passes? It does reflect human cum institutional nature when the personnel are given targets by the state or OFSTED to hit. I case you think I'm a cynic, there's plenty of evidence out there both anecdotal and historical - my position on it is to abolish the league tables and take the pressure off the teachers from having to perform against each others' classes and schools in the region. Education is not football.

It is just as wrong to compare two schools whose local cultures differ as it is to compare two individuals. And this was the point I was trying to make with my young pupil this week. Her responses were however saddening. When I pointed out that her ability was higher than the level her teacher had put, she defended her teacher, and then the school, and then the teacher: not with a reasoned explanation such as "Ah, but you see, when I'm in  the classroom, I cannot concentrate as well as I do here, so my teachers think I ought to do the lower level," which is fair enough and which I've heard before. I don't see the classroom side of my pupils, so I have to bow to the facts and then ask if she could take the exam in a quiet place such as the library.  Unfortunately, her response - typical as it may be at that age - was more thoughtless and just accepting the label provided. 

I found her retorts despairing, not just because she countered my perception of her but because her acceptance of what her school teachers had described was accepted as a dogma: a "label" as people now say. A sudden rush of understanding flooded my mind: an acceptance of what "they" say (a word she used several times) will leave her self-confidence fragile and low for many, many years. Her abilities are being defined by an authority figure and she has taken that authority, like most young people do, fully into her confidence. It creates a dependency on others' reactions and readings of us that is saddening and which needs to be countered by a healthy self-esteem and critical mind. 

In talking to parents, I may ask, "Have you got over school yet?" and many laugh nervously. 

Parents who were dyslexic in particular retain a fragility and host of fears about their children: to what extent this has held them back in their own lives may be difficult to quantify. Yet as we mature, we need to learn (and continue to learn) that other people's assessments and reactions are independent of our own.As an author,  I've been particularly sensitive to others' criticisms of what I've thought to be unassailable logic - partly from my schooling, that we become emotionally dependent on the 'report card' and partly from my personality type I gather (check out for some fun! I'm an INF ) and partly from some horrendous knock-backs in life that have reinforced a fear that "other people are going to damn what I'm doing..." It's quite common but it's not healthy. 

When I hear a pupil rest an assumption on another's opinion, I first ask  whether they think that the description is fair, which it often is. Sometimes it is well off the mark - such as one of my GCSE students whose predicted grades were set by her SATS results: needless to say, there's a lot of intellectual growth between the ages of 10 and 15 and while she was predicted Cs, she's scoring As and A*s. When it is a fair description, "Yes, I do struggle with doing exams under pressure," I then ask if past performance is any indicator of future performance (a phrase we always hear when finance companies are advertising a product).

A common analogy I then use is strength training. 

When I was first introduced to the dipping bar by Guy Baker, my personal trainer in Nottingham (yep, a plug - but I only recommend what I see as the best in the field), it was only after several weeks of strengthening the shoulders. I'd not done dips for many years and from what I learned from Guy was that I had been doing them incorrectly anyway. He used bands for the first few sessions as I learned the technique and gradually they went. And gradually the reps or the 'time under descent' increased. And then he introduced a belt upon which weights could be fixed. I've gone from supported dips to body weight to weighted dips - dipping an extra 20 kilos on top of body weight. Past performance was no indicator of future performance! I use the analogy with pupils who are struggling to read and write as well as pupils who are nervous about exams. Rarely, the damage is too deep - the pupil needs other intervention (we recommend hypnosis or acupuncture, for starters) to get over exam nerves: but when I've met such rabbits in headlights - it's not just school assessment and reports and labels that have left them nervous wrecks: it's their entire family! 

I recall one girl who was struggling mathematically but whose father loudly repeated every session when he dropped her off how great he was at numeracy, how he could do 12% of £3 11s 10d off the top of his head. 

Can you imagine what that did to her confidence? 

Her situation was rather extreme, but most of us are guilty of dropping implicit or explicit comparisons into our assessments which sound so stupid in the cold light: "Your brother loves French...why don't you? [because you're useless]" "Oh, I used to love maths, I did A-level and got an A...[you must get your innumeracy from your dad, because you're not like me at all]" "I hated English, I hated grammar school [shudders] we want our daughter to apply for the 11+..."

??!! - which translates as "I'm setting up my daughter to hate the interminable future...just like my parents did, and they didn't listen to me, so why should I listen to my daughter's fears?" 

I said to one 16 year old, "You're no longer dyslexic..." 
His reply: "What will my mum say?" 
"What has she got to do with it? Her fears and concerns are not the same as what you're capable of in your own right. Just keep it quiet then, and nod and smile, but now you know - you're not the label school and parents have imposed on you." 
Phew! That was a deep one - not massively uncommon though along the spectrum of life.

As teachers and parents, we always need to speak with care - we're human, we'll slip of course, and it's good to say to the kids, "Whoops, I made a mistake there."

It's best not to label, especially regarding ability and choices made in the past. Much better is to say: "You need to work on that area..." which implies that the pupil is capable of working on that area: rather than imposing a restriction on their ability: "You're dyslexic... [implying] so you'll always struggle...[which in turn implies] why not give up now?" 

As humans, we carry with us the immense ability to redefine ourselves and to step out on a new path - but that ability is so thwarted when authority figures and parents impose labels with no hope attached: "You're dyslexic, just like me, just like your grandparents..." or assess our future with a grandiose statement and no analysis of why grandfather John found it difficult to read (he was a farmer who 'had no use for schooling' and books were not in the house and his parents had told him that reading is useless...a culture he passed to his daughter...)

"Once a C student, always a C student" - that was reported by teacher of a head teacher's assessment of her daughter! 

What the heck?

We're flexible and adaptable - that, if anything, is what has enabled us to survive and flourish as a species. And when we are caught not fulfilling our potential or of being virtuous and thoughtful, it's usually because we've labelled ourselves or accepted the labelling and become dogmatic about who we are and therefore of our reactions and choices. 

No comments:

Post a Comment