There is a radio show in the States called 'A Prairie Home Companion', which is set in a fictional hamlet in the mid-west called Lake Wobegon. Sadly, this month was Garrison Keilor's final broadcast of the show, which has been running since we were all small children.
Anyway, for those who don't know it, the closing words of every episode go something like "Well, that's all from Lake Wobegon, where the women are strong, the men are good-looking and the all the children are above average."
Who wouldn't want to live in Lake Wobegon? Imagine having a class full of children who are above average! In fact, if you have taught 3/1 in a school where the children are streamed, you have had a class of children who are above average. But for every 3/1, there is a 3/14. For every above-average student, there has to be an equal and opposite below-average student. That is what statistics dictates. Lake Wobegon, unfortunately, is only fiction.
So we have to accept that there are above- and below-average students. This class is hardworking and clever, and that class is not so hardworking and clever.
During my training as a teacher, we were told never to call a student stupid. Or lazy. Or bad. Or any other such pejorative. It seems like a sensible prescription, right? Criticize the behavior, not the person. But then how do we describe the children in 3/14?
Hang around a group of teachers and it's not long before you'll hear something like 'Oh, Poom's so thick. I just ignore him', 'Those girls at the back are so bitchy, all they do is disrupt the lesson', or perhaps on an even broader sweep, '3/14 are so weak, none of them really care about studying English'.
Is this kind of labeling a problem? Why? What about labeling a child 'clever' or 'gifted'? Can you do that, or is that bad too? And if you can, why can you apply positive labels and not negative ones?
The IQ test effect
In the late 1960s, psychologists Rosenthal and Jacobson became interested in this. In one of his studies, after conducting an IQ test at a primary school, he told teachers which of the students were 'bloomers' (or high-achievers) based on the results. The teachers were told that these individual students were 'ready to bloom', and would likely show some impressive intellectual progress.
In reality, it wasn't true: the children had been chosen randomly and their IQ scores were no more or less intelligent than the rest of the students in the class.
Rosenthal followed up later with more IQ tests on these children and found, incredibly (and rather controversially), that the random group of children who had been named 'bloomers' had made significantly greater improvements in their intellectual development than the rest of the children in the class. The children who had been labeled bloomers had bloomed!
The power of expectation
Why had this happened? Telling the teachers that certain children were 'gifted' created an expectation in the teachers of these children's performance. The children, somehow or another (I'll come back to this 'somehow or another' thing), then performed in accordance with this expectation: a self-fulfilling prophecy. This phenomenon has come to be known as the Pygmalion effect.
And so it must be for negative expectations. Students pick up on a teacher's expectation of low achievement, and somehow or another (there it is again) conform to it with low performance that confirms the original expectation. This is called the Golem effect.
This expectancy effect is, then, at least one of the reasons why labeling is so problematic for educators. But how does it work? When we say something like 'Poom's so thick', it seems like it can't make any difference because Poom isn't in the room to hear us say it. Here's that 'somehow or another': just by thinking that he is thick leads to subconscious cues that give away our expectation, and the expectation turns to reality.
What are the subconscious cues? In the Pygmalion studies, it seems that there are subtle differences in how the teachers deal with students who are identified as high achievers - more confidence-building praise, more questions directed towards them, greater wait-time after a question is asked, more constructive feedback.
Where a teacher's expectations are higher, there are changes in lesson content, difference in classroom management strategies, even greater teacher enthusiasm. With the Golems, subtly the opposite - less patience, lower trust, fewer questions.
And what about 3/14? These are not the students that can responsibly be labeled high-achievers, right? Well, as a teacher, I need to accept that not all my students can be above average. For those in 3/14, it's important that I don't give up on them - they are quicker to go off task and they do not like reading, but they have an amazing zest for life that the 3/1s sometimes lack, and are incredibly amused by one another's company.
I need to work from where they are at, not where I want them to be. Importantly, I need to actively avoid labeling them (even in my mind) with any negative expectations that they can reward me by living down to.
Steve has been a teacher and teacher trainer for over 30 years, and is currently a lecturer on the Master’s in TESOL program at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in Bangkok.