It seems as if humans have evolved an innate desire to categorise. This is probably a reason for our cognitive power but it can have unfortunate consequences, especially when we start labelling each other. Politicians of the left and of the right have used this to the advantage of themselves and the detriment of society.
We need to recognise this dangerous tendency in education. The learning styles fad is not just an idea for which there is little evidence. It’s about labelling people. And once we label them, we tend to view any differences between us and them as relatively permanent: I may be an auditory learner but this boy from an ethnic minority background is a kinaesthetic learner so we cannot possibly expect him to sit still and learn to write.
If we modify our expectations – if we try to accommodate the perceived difference rather than address it – then we compound that difference. A child who cannot write needs more work on his writing not a label that means we expect him to write less.
This is what may happen when we label a child ‘dyslexic’. I am not here to argue whether dyslexia does it does not exist but to point out that, at least in some cases, the label might not be helpful.
We know, for instance, that a rigorous phonics-based intervention can help children with dyslexia. But the label is as likely to prompt us to try to accommodate reading difficulties by lowering our expectations for reading and writing or perhaps make us susceptible to spending money on unproven interventions such as coloured lenses.
And this is why I feel queasy at the explosion of learning difficulties and disabilities. These are all diagnosed by the behaviours that a child displays. The fact that such diagnoses rocketed towards the end of the last century and the start of this one shows us that these behaviours used to be considered part of the spectrum of normal behaviours. A child will now attract a label that he would not have attracted in the past.
This is clearly well intentioned and reflects a growth in attention andresources aimed at children who are identified in this way. This is probably a little circular – once you have the resources in place, including staff with a role to coordinate those resources, you’re likely to identify ever more children with needs and disabilities.
The problem here is that these labels may prompt the wrong actions on the part of teachers. If a child behaves poorly because she has a learning disability then we might be tempted to try and accommodate this – to work around it. Indeed, this is what the law suggests we have to do once something has been labelled a ‘disability’.
However, it might be better for that child to address the poor behaviour. Punishment and rewards might be one way to address it but other ways could include the use of a restorative approach where the child reflects on her behaviour or a proactive approach where the child receives explicit teaching of the right behaviours. All of these approaches are far more optimistic than one that consigns a child to a box.
We need to be wary when we see labels in education. The labels don’t really exist. The children do.