Columnists Features

Labelling-based self-fulfilling prophecies in schools

Educational Journey with EPHAT MUDENDA
TEACHERS in a school set-up almost always label some pupils based on several factors that exist in their everyday interaction with the learners.
Sources of information that they use to label the children include those that are termed first-hand and second-hand sources. In the first instance, a number of things affect the way one perceives their pupils. For example, from the physical appearance of the children under their care, teachers may make a conclusion that one is a troublemaker, or that he or she is ‘dull’, or even that a pupil is very intelligent.
Such perceptions are also sometimes derived from a child’s handwriting, from the way they speak, for instance their accent, as well as performance in classwork, homework and tests.
The second source of information for teachers – in regard to their pupils – is simply hearsay. A teacher learns about the behaviour of some of his or her learners from their fellow teachers, who openly talk about well-behaved children and those that cause them a lot of problems in the school. Sometimes pupils themselves talk about the negative behaviour of some of their friends in class or school in general.
For those that have been inflicted with heavy punishments at one point or the other, such as suspension from school for a certain period of time, there are always records that serve as a point of reference. Therefore, it is easy even for new teachers to have an idea of children that are either bright, ‘dull’ or troublesome, among common traits found in institutions of learning.
Because of such a scenario in any given learning environment, scholars have come up with what they call the labelling theory. Basically, this theory says that problems are problems because someone – usually of course those in power, such as teachers – define them as such. For instance, generally, using a cell phone in class is not inherently ‘bad’, until someone in authority (a teacher) labels it as being bad behaviour.
Then the label of ‘deviant’ is attached to those that seem to be clinging to that which is regarded as uncalled-for conduct. Children who want to be regarded as being ‘cool’ may even accept and internalise the label, believing it of themselves. Such labelling-based self-fulfilling prophecies usually operate to the detriment of pupils themselves.
Whole categories of learners, based on gender, tribe or background, may be written off as low or poor achievers, creating a frame of reference in which their areas of weakness are easily noticed and their achievements discounted.
Some are individually labelled by simply being forced to believe that they can never manage to pass a subject, or that they are just ‘not good at the English language’. As they are internalised, such labels are transferred into new situations, including college and university education, and one is likely to continue being an under-achiever.
So this self-fulfilling prophecy starts with the teacher, who has different expectations for different individuals in the classroom. He or she expects children to perform in different ways. And because of the different expectations, teachers behave differently towards the children they teach. They will smile at some pupils and exhibit an unfriendly countenance towards others.
Once they know exactly what you think of them, the learners’ motivation is definitely affected, whether for good or bad. However, a pupil can either reject or accept the label. It is also possible that one can convince his or her teacher that they can be better than what they are perceived to be. The teacher can also play a role in complementing a learner’s efforts in changing the way other pupils and teachers view him or her (learner).
It is, therefore, fair, logical and respectful to accept every child’s contribution in class, for example, without misleading them into believing they have the right answer when they do not. Being sceptical about your colleagues’ judgments may also help you see potential in a pupil and this will enable you to encourage that individual to do even better.
Finally, matters to do with labelling learners in schools, particularly in the classroom, are there to remind teachers of the things they should do and those they are supposed to stop doing towards their pupils for the sake of realising the best outcomes, academically and otherwise.

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