Monthly Archives: October 2008

Words, Names and Labels in Education


The discovery of an assortment of perennials was an unexpected joy for me at our new cottage.  Every time I cleared a bit of brush or weeds, I came across a new treasure.  Not being a gardener, I had no idea what many of them were; I took photos and leafed through a perennial encyclopaedia at home.  I kept photographs of the unidentified ones on my iPod and pestered every experienced gardener I met for information.

            After a few weeks I wondered why I was so keen to have names for them.  Wouldn’t a rose without a name smell as sweet?  It would and would be as lovely.  If it were in someone else’s garden I wouldn’t care whether it were called a rose or a rat, a sedum or a sow, I would just enjoy it.img_08222

            The thing is that I want to know where each plant thrives best: if I should leave it in the sun or consider moving it to a shadier spot; if it needs richer soil or if I could leave it uncomposted in the mainly sandy soil.  Describing my treasures to an expert gardener is often insufficient, sometimes even a picture misses if I failed to get a clear shot of the leaves or detail in a bud.  Give an expert a name, however, and she can tell me everything I could possibly want to know, even where a plant might grow outside of its usual zone or the rarer varieties of that plant or unusual growing patterns.  With a name I understand more because the name key to finding more information about a flower.

            In education and psychology, names of behaviours or abilities that stray from the norm are often called labels.  There is a strong feeling against labelling people and especially children.  It is understandable because words can hurt and often those labels are used to hurt.  When they do we try to find new names to reduce the sting: for idiot we substituted mentally retarded and when retarded became an insult, we substituted developmentally delayed or more accurate descriptors such as Down’s Syndrome or FAS.

            The problem is not the name, but the lack of understanding of what the name means.  The expert gardener knows not only what sedum is to see but also what can be expected from it in different conditions.  The expert educator knows what developmentally delayed means and therefore what to expect from someone who is described that way and how best to nurture them so they can learn and develop to their maximum potential.  People who use the word retarded as an insult have little knowledge of the real meaning of the word.

            When I say that naming the characteristics of a person or child is useful to the educator, I am not saying that an educator can rely on the descriptor for a full understanding of the child.  For example, a teacher who is told to expect an eight year old will expect a child who is reasonably articulate, able to print, read, do basic arithmetic and play games with other children.  Now think of all the eight year olds you have ever known; probably most of them have shared these characteristics and yet how different they all were!  A very small percentage of the children you have known may not have all these characteristics or may exceed these expectations.

            The same is true when we say a child is learning disabled or gifted.  Children are learning disabled or gifted in their own way.  The teacher may anticipate that a child with a learning disability might need more time on assignments, might have some social difficulties and will certainly need some kind of accommodation in order to learn, but aside from making some preparations for these possibilities, the experienced teacher will wait until she gets more information and gets to know the child before making detailed plans for teaching him.  However, without the words, learning disabled, the teacher would not be prepared to make accommodations and take the extra effort to discern what kind would be the most appropriate.

            In short, naming exceptional characteristics of children allows their teachers to prepare to teach them without having to go through a complete and time expensive assessment of each child in the classroom.  Normally the name or label comes with a detailed report that will inform the teacher’s preparation.  The label will help a supply teacher and other professionals who have brief encounters with the child know that this child may need support during class.  Being learning disabled will also get a university student a $2,000 grant in Ontario under certain circumstances.

School teachers and pupils in black rural scho...

School teachers and pupils in black rural school. This year, despite the fact the white school received free books, none arrived for the blacks. The teacher was so afraid of losing her job that she would not make any inquiries about the books and the children were sharing the few books some could buy. Creek County, Oklahoma. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, number, e.g., LC-USF35-1326 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

            Those who attach cruel prejudices to labels or use them to insult are as ignorant in their way as racists.  There is nothing wrong with being black or gifted or learning disabled or developmentally delayed or eight years old or mentally ill.  There is a great deal wrong with attaching heartless connotations to those words and using them insultingly.  As educators we are called to teach that just as dandelions and roses are both flowers, so everyone, regardless of ability, name, race, gender or creed is still a valued human being.   The problem, gentle reader, is not in the label, but in those who think it can be used to hurt.

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