• georgejamescowie

Are labels helpful? If so, who are they helpful for?

These posts have been about 3 labels that have been used to describe some students I have worked with since I started teaching in 1999.


The labels I have been looking at in particular have been ‘autism’, ‘ADHD’ and ‘dyslexia’.


Those of us involved in trying to enact inclusive practices in education often become involved in trying to understand these labels although they originate in the field of psychology.


Psychology is really an attempt to use scientific methodology to understand human behaviour. A large part of this is categorization and as research continues, definitional parameters often change rendering labels such as the ones outlined as obsolete.


Thus, there are moves to scrap the term ‘dyslexia’ and instead use ‘reading disabled’. Autism, Aspergers’ and ‘Social Pragmatic Disorder’ all come under the heading of ‘the autism spectrum’. ADHD really should be looked at as two distinct conditions to do with attention, or hyperactivity or a combination of the two and the extent to which they affect Executive Functioning etc. etc.


As a teacher I feel both indebted to and frustrated by psychology. Yes, these labels are important tools for understanding why some students struggle with access and engagement and point the way to effective pedagogical approaches and differentiation - this is when the relationship between education and psychology is at its most productive - when it helps us to help students in practical ways.


However, it can feel at times that education psychologists are so concerned with definitional precision and teachers are so bewildered by the debates and rationale behind them that the students seem to get forgotten in the process.


So, I wrote these posts to try to demystify some of these labels and hope that they may help all of us involved in trying to help young people to understand them and the discourses around their apparent behaviour or learning difficulties a little more.


I want to end with a quote from Richard Carlson’s essay ‘Question Labels’:


‘Beware. While such assessments can be invaluable and promote the success of individual students, they are fallible. All kinds of variables exist that can skew the accuracy of standard measures and labels. A student may be deemed “slow’”, but in fact is a very bright but very anxious test-taker...A student with an apparent learning disability may actually have outgrown its effect and now be suffering from boredom because of inappropriately low placement...Students can get labeled and locked into their past reputations by others so that they finally give up trying...Test the limits that others have applied to your students...You may change the direction of a person’s life…


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