Labelling Theory and the Classrooms


The classroom is like a second home for the child. Each and every child requires to be nurtured with unadulterated care and love to be able to realize her complete potential.

Nivedita Dwivedi is an Independent Writer. She is working in the field of education and is based in Mumbai.

Labelling Theory was primarily developed through the work of sociologists in the decades of 1960s, mostly in the context of classification of certain behaviors as deviant from socially acceptable norms. This theory basically posits that selfidentity and behavior of individuals may be influenced by the terms used to describe them or by the ‘labels’ the society chooses to attach to them. This theory gained traction in the decades of 1960s and 1970s. Sociologists like Emile Durkheim, George Herbert Mead, Howard Becker, Edwin Lemert etc., variously referred to it and used it in different contexts and in the process, also developed upon it.

This theory is also closely related to the concept of self-fulfilling prophecy. This expression was coined by the sociologist Robert. K. Merton. In simple terms, it means the following: Certain professed expectations (positive or negative), may affect behavior so much so that the expectations actually come true. Although the abovementioned theories have been invoked in various contexts, I would like to talk about these in the classroom context, by the means of an example. The incident that I am now going to discuss is an actual classroom experience that occurred in the Nursery class of a reputed private school that prides itself on being an innovative and progressive school. The said school uses storytelling as a major learning resource for the pre-primary students. The school planned on holding a story-telling session in front of an audience, in this case, the parents of these 3-4 year olds. A story which was transacted often with the kids in the classroom was chosen to be enacted in front of the parents. This was the first time that such a ‘show’ had been envisaged by the school. For the show, the class-teacher of the kids selected 2-3 students who would be given the roles which had certain dialogues to be spoken. The rest of the students were supposed to be holding certain props like trees etc. and standing on the stage with these props. The selection of the students who were required to be delivering the dialogues was done by the teacher based on her judgment on who would be able to memorize the dialogues and deliver them confidently on the stage. In fact she called the parents of the few she had initially chosen separately and asked them to make the children practice the dialogues at home as well.

A scene from film Dead Poet Society

However, mid-way she decided to change the students (without informing the parents and for undisclosed reasons), and selected some other students for the roles with dialogues. On the day of the ‘show’, the teacher began by mentioning in her speech how each and every student was participating in various capacities. She added that the dialogues had been given to those who were more self-confident on stage. The 5-7 minute show thus completed uneventfully, and very ‘successfully’ according to the school and many parents. This entire incident above, sounds pretty innocuous and commonplace and many of you would be wondering what I am actually trying to convey here. Imagine a bunch of 3-4 year old kids.

At this age, children are dominated by a curious spirit, wanting to explore things, play and run around. They are at their inquisitive and playful best. In their journey of exploration, storytelling is indeed a very powerful means of nurturing and developing their inherent abilities. However, when the same tool is used as a means of showcasing the development of children by putting them up on a display as above, the entire purpose is itself defeated. These children, who have been growing and developing beautifully as a group are now classified into groups, some who are more self-confident and are thus chosen to play the parts with dialogues, and the rest who may not be thought that suitable for these roles.

They are thus introduced to the process of ‘labelling’ that they will have to undergo throughout, beginning this very day. At this young age, they might not understand any of it and may just follow their teacher blindly. Yet, as they grow, they will slowly begin to internalize the expectations of the teacher and her perception of their own selves. Self-fulfilling prophecy may then kick into play, and the inherent unique strengths and capabilities of the children may be pushed into the background and much worse, may die a natural death.

What are the learning goals that were fulfilled for the children after this ‘show’ was ‘successfully’ conducted? A few of them developed their skills of rote memorization, whether or not they actually understood what they were speaking is another question. The rest of them had a great time enjoying themselves in their own little ways (they were innocently playing with each other and chatting among themselves) even while standing on the stage with props in hand. That it can be concluded from the above that those who were chosen for narrating the dialogues were necessarily more capable of doing it is highly doubtful. Also, the teacher (who narrated most of the story herself) got to showcase her ‘achievements’ with the kids to the entire group of parents. Are these the goals that should be sought to be fulfilled? This is a moot question indeed.

A story-telling session, conducted as a part of the natural routine of students, where they are not tied down by being forced to ‘perform’ for an audience, is an immensely powerful learning tool. During such sessions, children listen, ask questions, develop an understanding of the language, enhance their vocabulary and can also be made to understand various deep concepts in a fun way. In fact, some systems of education, like the Waldorf system, emphasize greatly on the use of such tools.

(Waldorf system is based on the educational philosophy propounded by Rudolf Steiner. This system emphasizes on the holistic development of children weaving together, arts, crafts, manual activities, storytelling etc. in the classroom experience, especially in the elementary stages. The early childhood education, in this system, emphasizes on hands-on activities and creative play, the elementary education emphasizes on developing artistic expressions and social capacities and the secondary education focusses on critical reasoning and empathetic understanding. In the kindergarten stage, storytelling is one of the many powerful tools used in this system. Story-telling sessions are part of the daily classroom routine for the kindergarten kids. The love of language and learning is built into the children through these daily animated sessions which also harness the creative energies of children. A key aspect of this system is its noncompetitive nature, focusing instead on harnessing the capabilities and inherent strengths of each and every child.)

The classroom is like a second home for the child. Each and every child requires to be nurtured with unadulterated care and love to be able to realize her complete potential. For this, it is essential to harness the inherent strengths and unique abilities of each and every child. Classifying them, labelling them, ranking them may have their limited uses (more so for the schools than the children), however, if the goal is to ensure that the every seed planted blossoms into a beautiful flower, then the practices followed inside the classrooms will need a serious rethink. 



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