External factors such as a strong family unit, parental interest, financial stability and an affluent location have all been widely recognised as key factors in driving educational success, but how much influence can come from the internal classroom factors and in particular positive labelling from the teacher?
Interactionist sociologists such as Howard Becker and David Hargreaves have written in detail about how negative labelling can have a significant impact on an individual student. In Becker’s classic study of Chicago High schools, he found that teachers label in relation to an ‘ideal’ student “those pupils who came closest to the ideal were mainly from middle-class backgrounds, whilst those who were furthest from the ideal were mainly from working class backgrounds” (Becker 1975)
Hargreaves suggests that there are three stages to this labelling process: The speculation phase, the elaboration phase and finally the stabilisation phase. It is basic human nature to label someone from the moment you meet them and by the time the third stage of this process has been established in the classroom it becomes almost impossible for the label to be reversed in the mind of the teacher.
Perhaps one of the best examples of this process is demonstrated in the study of a Kindergarten class by Ray Rist. Through an analysis of an all-black school, Rist observed that a kindergarten teacher (also black) assigned her students to three tables within the classroom only a few days after the start of the academic year. The most promising group of pupils were placed at the front and the least promising group at the rear of the classroom. Rist identified that placement of these groups was based not on educational ability but on appearance based factors such as darkness of skin, dress, hair style and even smell. Those labelled as 'slow-learners' had less opportunity to participate in learning experiences and were reprimanded more often.
What about the positive experiences?
The focus of these studies invariably rests on the negative self fulfilling prophecies of the neglected student but often fail to highlight to the same degree, the significance of the positive label. What about those that have benefitted hugely by the encouragement and recognition of a teacher, where a bond has been made and spurned a desire by the student to please the teacher through effort and drive?
One such real life example of this positive labelling can be drawn from LouAnne Johnson. Johnson is a former U.S. Navy journalist, Marine Corps officer, high school teacher and the author of ‘My Posse Don't Do Homework’, a book which recounts some of the adventures and misadventures of her time as a high school teacher at an inner-city school in California. The book gives insight into the lives of the students and the emotional baggage that they bring to school each day. Johnson shares her successes and failures in trying to connect with her students.
The book highlights how many of the students negatively labelled themselves, but through the teacher changing their self perceptions and installing self belief a noticable change in behavior, attitude and ultimately educational attainment strongly indicated the significance of power a teacher can have. Johnson notes that by reducing the hierarchical barrier between student and teacher, a more even level of trust can be formed:
“I had only one rule in my classroom and that was: respect yourself and the others in this room. I didn't disrespect my students and they didn't disrespect me…. if you treat kids with genuine respect, they may not love you immediately, but they will learn to respect you”. (Johnson 2007)
Johnson too feels that often the focus of under performance is on social class or race when actually the motivation of both the individual and more importantly the motivation of the teacher is vital in educational success. Johnson states that “If you believe you are superior to somebody and you are going to save them, they will resist you, even if they are drowning, if they didn't ask for your help. But if you truly respect and accept other people as they are, and your motivation is to encourage them to develop their talents and skills to pursue whatever goals THEY have set (or encourage them to set goals if they have none), then they will be interested in what you have to say. People focus far too much on race, gender and money when they should focus on heart, soul and intention” (Johnson 1997)
Perhaps the most important aspect for the teacher is to reverse any previous negative labels the student has been given, to break the self fulfilling prophecy, to wipe the slate clean and allow the student to start a new journey with a new self perception:
“When they have negative perceptions, you tell them what you see - a new perspective that they can't see themselves. If this is an honest communication, it will change the way they think of themselves. Instead of thinking of themselves as hopeless, powerless, stupid, lazy, or whatever they have been taught or told to think, they begin to see themselves as human beings, separate from the school system labels,
human beings with talents and abilities that will be valued by the world” (Johnson 1997)
The success of the book was later made into the 1995 film ‘Dangerous minds’ staring Michelle Pfeiffer, though it must be noted that the film is not a complete reenactment of events but rather was simply influenced by events from LouAnne Johnson’s teaching career. In the film there are two significant moments which further endorse the impact of applying positive labels:
Firstly the teacher explains to the group that rather than being graded on individual bits of work, all students start with an A grade, it is up to them to hold on to the grade, they can lose it or maintain it. This technique appears to motivate the students due to the fact that many of them had never previously experienced the title of ‘A grade pupil’ before, it was a new and motivating experience, as one of the students so eloquently puts it “I ain’t had no fuckin’ A before”
Secondly, the teacher gives a wholehearted speech (see the video clip on the left) in which she concludes that “there are no victims in this class”. The line is delivered with a power that makes the students stop and think. For many, it is perhaps too easy to blame the surroundings, upbringing or life circumstances for their educational failure, once trapped into the ‘I am a victim’ way of thinking, it is very difficult to snap out of the character. To be told to stop playing this victim in the film seemed to act as a powerful wake-up call:
"Teachers have the responsibility to assist their students in achieving their full potential. Through the course of their education, students begin to establish a bond with their teachers. To further gain their student's trust, teachers have to show that they really care about the welfare of their students." (Johnson 1992)
Interactionist research therefore shows us that teacher labelling, whether it be positive or negative can shape the thought process of the student. We only have to look at the impact of streaming in schools to recognise how individuals will adapt to the surroundings of the group, indeed the teacher too will change their attitude and body language depending on whether they are teaching a bottom or top set class.
It should also be recognised that false praise can have a detrimental effect, false hope and promise of success could actually lead the student to further frustrations if/when the success does not materialise. If positive praise was used far too liberally then the compliments would become the norm and the effect would become diluted over time, the teacher too needs to make distinctions with praise rather than blanket praise.
It too would be rather naïve to suggest that positive teacher labelling will always have the desired effect. Marxists would certainly argue that the external factor of social class is still the most over-whelming factor in the division between success and failure in education, the breakdown of academic results would also go a long way to support these Marxist claims too.
Further factors such as family stability, parental support, discipline, gender, ethnicity and individual intelligence also go into the pot of factors that influence educational attainment and in reality it is a combination of these issues that culminate in the overall success or failure for an individual in education.
One thing that positive labelling does teach us however is that for some students the influence of ‘The LouAnne factor’ could just be the difference between turning that fail into a pass.
Becker, Howard (1968) “Making the Grade” New York Wiley press
Hargreaves, David (1975) “Deviance in the classroom” Routledge, London
Johnson, LouAnne (1993) “My Posse don’t do homework” Reed publishing
Johnson, LouAnne (1997) “My thoughts on the film Dangerous Minds” published on www.louannejohnson.com
Rist, Ray (1970). "Student Social Class and Teacher Expectations: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy in Ghetto Education. Harvard Educational Review