These are my daughter’s gerbils. The white one is Zoe and her sister is Dane (named after characters from books by Tamora Pierce). In recent months they have been quite adventurous. Zoe escaped frequently, once she was out for a week before we managed to catch her and return her to the cage. Dane seemed to stay put. We decided Zoe was adventurous and Dane was more of a homebody. Then Dane escaped one day. We got her back relatively quickly. Not long after we got home to find them both out. Over time we decided that Zoe is adventurous and Dane is wise. In their new cage (one that hopefully will actually contain them) Dane is using the exercise wheel, something neither have done before. So Dane is the athletic one.
We’ve given these gerbils labels based on what we’ve observed. They seem accurate to us. They fit what we know.
The problem is there is much we don’t know. Our knowledge and understanding of these little cuties is exceptionally limited. There are many, many hours in which we do not observe them. And our understanding of what we are observing is based on limited knowledge of gerbils.
Another problem is that once we have given Zoe and Dane these labels, it is quite possible that what we observe now fits those labels. We notice the things that make Dane seem smart but not the ways Zoe might be. We see what we expect to see.
This is even more true, I believe, when we’re talking about people. On a trip to Colonial Williamsburg a couple of years ago I took my daughters on a carriage ride. The oldest looked all around as we rode, checking out the architecture, the people, both tourists and historical actors. The youngest spent some time looking behind us and down. When I asked her why she explained that she was waiting for the horses to poop so she could compare fresh horse poop to the older stuff all along the streets. She wanted to be able to figure out how old horse poop is when she sees it. In that moment I decided that my oldest is a social scientist and the youngest is a hard scientist. I said that to them and they nodded agreement. When I shared it with my husband later he did the same.
Since then it’s come up on occasion and we’ve reinforced it. Not intentionally. But by noting examples that fit our labels as they happen. Maybe these labels are spot on for who our girls are. But maybe not. And they are still relatively young. Will these labels still fit as they grow? Have we set them up to grow in a specific direction?
This isn’t the first time I’ve felt a need to write about labels and how they effect people. Not even the first time this month.
I recognize that we need ways to ensure students get the support they need in order to make progress and learn and grow. I recognize that funding is limited and we have to justify our decisions. I just wonder how much damage we are doing to some students by labeling them.