As John Dewey understood,  educators are uniquely positioned to impact students in profound ways. With this comes a social responsibility, that I would argue, is unlike that in any other profession. In the math classroom today, it is common to label students by their ability. I often hear statements such as, “These are my low kids. They are working on fluency.” “Those are my high kids. They are working on rich tasks.” In a climate of high stakes testing that sorts students according to their scores and achievement levels, it has become the norm to talk about students according to such labels. While it may be argued that these labels are helpful in planning and differentiating our instruction, I would argue that they do more damage than good.

 

I would like to change the dialogue to be about determining needs and adjusting instruction, rather than sorting by labels.

 

Flashback to 1968 in the wake of the shooting of Dr. Martin Luther King. Here we have the daring example of a teacher who understood her role in the social impact of education, as well as the damage done by labels. This film of a social experiment A Class Divided is beyond powerful. Jane Elliott was a grade 3 teacher from Iowa, and she demonstrated the impact of labels on the students in her classroom by sorting them into privileged or nonprivileged based on eye color. I urge you to take the 12 minutes out of your time to watch this film. The impact on learning is noteworthy.

 

Elliott gave her students a timed quiz, and those that were labeled inferior suddenly showed a decline in their performance. When they were labeled as superior, they completed the task in 3 minutes. The very next day, when they were labeled inferior, the same task took them 4 minutes and 18 seconds.

 

This is astounding. Imposing a belief system that some students were better than other caused an immediate and negative impact on their performance.

 

Back in the present of 2017, we have the work of Stanford professor Jo Boaler around growth mindset. Her message is that intelligence is not fixed and innate, but rather comes with effort. Most recently, her work reminds us that it is not only labels of inferiority that has a negative effect, but also that there are damaging impacts from the label of gifted or smart. She demonstrates this in this short video clip interviewing college students who were labeled gifted here. For students labeled gifted, there comes the belief system that this is something that was given to them (a gift),  not something that they earned through hard work and effort. These students are afraid to make mistakes, to ask questions, and they believe that struggle is an indication of a lack of intelligence. It is just as important that we change the discussion around the label of gifted.

 

With better understanding of theories around growth mindset perhaps the conversation is changing.

From an article by Matthews and Foster we learn,

“Increasingly, educators are conceptualizing giftedness in a way that's closely aligned with a growth mindset. They're seeing intelligence as something that develops over time, with the right kinds of motivation, opportunities to learn, and environmental supports. From this standpoint, gifted learners are those who are exceptionally advanced in one or more domains at a certain point in their development, and who therefore need the usual school curriculum to be adapted if it's going to match their ability levels.”

 

Dewey, Elliott, Boaler … these are just some of the leaders who over the decades have worked to disrupt the status quo of education.

 

I challenge you to be an agent of change.

 

Think about the labels that you use or hear being used, either directly with students, or indirectly in conversations about students. Instead of, “these are my low kids,” how about “these students would benefit from more time with visual models.” Or, instead of “these students are my high students’” maybe “these students already know this content, I need to push boundaries and find a way to provide productive struggle at their level of understanding.”

 

With a commitment to principles of the universal design for learning, and an understanding of theories of growth mindset, and above all of that, the recognition that education is a privileged opportunity to provide equity for all learners, we can and must do our part in moving towards a world without labels.

 
Best,
Sue


Supporting Resources

A Class Divided - video 1968

Rethinking Giftedness - Film by Jo Boaler

Rethinking giftedness article - Matthews and Foster

Center for the Universal Design for Learning - Resources and information

 


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