One of the primary functions of the human brain is pattern recognition. The brain comes into existence seeking out patterns-categories in our environment. One of the earliest bits of categorization in which a human infant engages is distinguishing between what is me and what is not me. Later, the patterns/categories are labeled in words to simplify storing and communicating distinctions.
Over time, the categorizing becomes more discriminating. She is a woman, not a man. That is a tree, not a flower. The act of creating these categories requires active participation of the mind, but once identified, people tend to go on automatic pilot. Thinking becomes habitual or, in the words of Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer--mindless.
In her 1989 book, Mindfulness, Langer points out that once categories are created and distinctions made, they tend to take on a life of their own. She gives the example of a man who rings your doorbell at two o'clock in the morning. The man is well-dressed, wears diamond jewelry, and there's a Rolls Royce behind him. He tells you that he's on a scavenger hunt that he really must win. He needs a piece of wood about three feet by seven feet. If you have one to give him, he'll give you $10,000. You rack your brain, willing to do whatever it takes. But the only place you can think of to get such a piece of wood is the lumberyard and it's closed at this hour. "Sorry," you say reluctantly.
The next day, while passing a construction site, you see the perfect piece of wood. It's a door that has not yet been installed. You realize that you could simply have taken your own door off the hinges and earned a quick $10,000! Langer calls this "entrapment by category."
It's easy to see why categorizing simplifies both experience and communication. Early man would have been more likely to survive once he learned to quickly distinguish between dangerous and benign objects. Asking someone to hand you a stapler is a lot simpler than saying, "Would you please give me the shiny metal object used to attach papers"?
But there is a serious downside to this process. The labels we attach to objects or people influence what we perceive. If something is dangerous, we approach it with caution. We are primed to notice—perceive—ways in which the object might harm us. If a person is friendly, we expect smiles and helpful behaviors. The important thing is that, depending on the label, people may perceive the same behavior, but interpret it in different ways. Because labels determine what we perceive and how we interpret the world, they enable some behaviors and inhibit others.
Schools are hotbeds of categorization—labeling. Honors, gifted, remedial, BD, ADD, differently-abled, overachievers, underachievers.... Worse, because many educators tend to focus on what needs to be "fixed" in a student, rather than on what already works, those categories often force teachers into negative perceptions. For example, labeling a student as ADD or remedial inhibits teachers from perceiving that student as highly gifted in other areas. The category—the label—throws a spotlight on one aspect of the student and forces other, often more positive, abilities into the background.
It is imperative to recognize that these categories do not exist in the student. They exist in the mind of the person who identified a pattern of behavior in that student and gave it a name. As such, they are not absolutes—pre-existing conditions over which we have no control. Choosing to change the label we apply to someone radically changes our perceptions of that person. Are you stubborn or persistent? Is a student disruptive or filled with energy that can be directed to wonderful things.
Becoming aware of the categories you use is a first step in freeing the mind to perceive other possibilities, other strengths in our students, other ways of thinking about teaching and learning. Choosing to label the positive rather than the negative not only changes the way you perceive the situation, but the way you interpret neutral behaviors. This opens up many possibilities that you might not have noticed before.
1. Think of a student who has given you problems.
2. What word or phrase would you use to characterize that student? (eg. troublemaker, undisciplined, class clown)
3. How might the characteristic(s) you've identified be labeled in a positive way? (eg. creative, energetic, clever)
4. Now, think about the student's behavior using the more positive "labels." How do your perceptions change? What possibilities occur to you that weren't there before? How might you deal with that student differently?
Isn't it amazing that simply by changing the label we assign to a person or experience, we notice such changes? Not really! It's not that the person or experience change. It's just that we perceive and interpret them differently. Even if we perceive the same information, we tend to interpret it in a (hopefully) more positive light. To this extent, we create the reality in which we live.
Remember—" If what you're doing doesn't work, do something else!" The only thing you have the power to change is yourself. By changing your own behavior, you force other people to respond to you differently. In other words, must change if you do. Mindfully choosing the labels you apply to others is one way to create major changes in yourself and the world in which you live and work.
Langer, E. J. (1989). Mindfulness. Reading, MA. Addison-Wesley Publishing Co. Inc.
There are many more processes similar to
the one above in Teaching in Mind: How Teacher Thinking