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Or, alternatively, “This is your brain, on labels”

We love labels: they make things easy.

We love labels for what they do well -- they make things easy for us. Labels are a product of the way our minds work – in fact, this process may be one of our brains greatest feats. Our brain circuitry pattern-matches like nobody’s business; doing so affords a necessary level of simplicity in an otherwise overly complex world. We are bombarded with a veritable cacophony of stimulation every waking moment: sights, sounds and smells proliferate everywhere we turn. Our brains protect us from “overwhelm” by blending sensations together, narrowing our focus to attend to some things and not others, and by categorizing these experiences. We couldn’t get along without doing this, but there is a dark side to the process. The process – both its light and dark sides – is what this post is about.
Here’s how it works: You scan a label and “know” what’s inside:
•  “blogger”
•  “feminist”
•  “democrat”
•  “professor”
•  “bed-in-a-bag”
•  “dark roast”

When you read one word or phrase, a cascade of thoughts follow, and likely some emotion and mental imagery too (and sometimes even more – can you smell and taste that rich cup of dark roast coffee? Yum!). A single word shapes our thoughts. That is, when the words or phrases are familiar. When they are unfamiliar, and no cascade happens, we stumble, trip on our words, and with dismay realize we don’t know how to act or what to say. Has something like this ever happened to you: you answer the phone to a political poll, and you don’t recognize the name of the candidate in question and you panic; “A democrat? A republican? A libertarian – what’s that, again? - Oh dear, I don’t know what to say! What to do?!...”  Well, OK, this is Daily Kos, so probably not, but you get the point. That’s why we both love and hate labels. Labels afford understanding. Labels tell us how to act. We count on it.

Here’s another example, from one of my favorite classic studies by Bransford & Johnson (1972). Quickly read the following paragraph:

The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange items into different groups. Of course one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step; otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run, this may not seem important but complications can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. At first, the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the near future, but then, one never can tell. After the procedure is completed one arranges the materials into different groups again. Then they can be put into their appropriate places. Eventually they will be used once more and the whole cycle will then have to be repeated. However, that is part of life.
Do you get it? Or are you thinking “Wha…?!?” My guess is that many of you are left hanging. I find over and over again that in classes of 20 or so, usually only one or two students get it the first time through. But when I say something like “You mean you didn’t realize this is about doing laundry?” they all laugh, groan, and shake their heads. “Of course it is!” In Bransford & Johnson’s research, some students were told the title before reading and some weren’t. Those who were primed with the label remembered quite a bit when asked to recall it; those who weren’t hardly remembered a thing.

This sort of thing happens day in, day out to all of us, all the time. It’s how our brains work.

This is your brain, on labels.
To explain your brain on labels, I’ll start small, really small. Our brains are made of neurons, billions of them, and our experiences are represented in the form of complex inter-connections among neurons. When you have an experience, select networks of neurons in your brain become active, enabling you to perceive in your mind’s-eye what your eyes, ears, and nose encounter. We don’t have two sets of neural networks – one set for interpreting present experience and another set for remembering – we only have one set. When an experience is remembered, an approximation of the original network of neurons that was active when you had the experience becomes active again. This is why memories feel so real – your brain is doing now what it did then (to a degree, anyway, you never actually have the same experience twice, so you never quite have the same memory twice either).

The more often a network of neurons becomes active, the more likely it is that that set of neurons will activate together again, in the future. This is Hebb's rule in a nutshell and explains how repetition creates memories. Memories are highly sensitized networks of neurons that fire in circular succession (i.e., as reverberating circuits; for more detail on this process, see here). As we notice connections among elements of our experience, the respective networks that go with each aspect of experience become linked, creating an increasingly complex web of neurons firing over and over again, in a circular pattern.

These webs represent your knowledge of the world – they are what you think about. When your thoughts about a particular topic start, a chain-reaction is occurring in your brain, as the activity of one part of the web of neurons causes all others linked in with it to “fire” too – the cascade of thoughts comes from a cascade of neurons firing down the chain, kind of like a string of dominoes, but one that rights itself and falls down again, over and over. In this way, a single memory is not stored in a single spot of your brain. Rather, memories are contained in the pattern of activation that spreads across your brain, as the neurons that support each aspect of the stuff you are recalling fire again and again.  

As experiences repeat themselves, networks become so sensitized that the “spreading activation” process happens at an astonishing rate. For all intents and purposes it feels like the information is just there for you. When this happens – a body of knowledge pops into your head -- we call it “schema activation.” Schema is a fancy word for “category.” Once a category is formed via regular, repeated experience, the sense of knowing is so strong that it instantly guides your behavior.

This is how labels work
. A single “cue” is all it takes to activate a schema. Labels are cues that trigger schema-activation. When you hear a word, spreading activation happens and your mind is instantly full of knowledge and expectations related to that word. You can’t control this process, it happens whether you want it to or not. In many instances, this is a good thing. When spreading activation happens, you have a feeling of knowing: you know how to respond, can anticipate what will come next, and you understand the situation you are in. Imagine for a moment:

• You are in an unfamiliar city for a conference, wandering the city-center before the first session begins
•  You are hungry and tired and your heart races as you wonder where on earth to go for food?
•  You see green & white out of the corner of your eye and hone in on it: Starbucks!
•  Relief washes over you.
•  You walk towards the sign, your problem solved
•  Before you even enter the door, you are thinking about other things because you know what you’ll order
Schemas help us feel connected to the here and now when what we experience in the present reminds us of where we’ve been. Schemas help us deal with the complexity around us – they guide our attention, filtering out information we likely don’t need to know, and facilitate memory to boot.

Once a schema is established adding to it is “cake” – as long as you see connections between the new and the old. As experiences accumulate, our neural networks grow and coalesce. Knowledge starts with single encounters, and then repeated encounters merge into generalities. Single encounters with dogs, combine with single encounters with cats, that combine with single encounters with gold fish, and from there a category called “pets” is born. This all boils down to neurons connecting with other neurons.

When educators, caregivers, and parents know how this process works, they can create environments to promote it; this is the entire premise behind the notion of “constructivism” (Yes, this is a wikipedia link, but I scanned the entry and it is accurate) that guides many progressive education programs. Because labels guide our thoughts in this way, we should – and do – love them. When spreading activation doesn’t happen (either because no label was given or because the label was ineffective), you draw a blank, you are stumped, and you don’t know what to do next. You feel frustration.

But be warned: there is a dark side to labeling
Labeling knowledge, as in category formation, is an absolute necessity. Socially though, this process can cause problems. Let’s take school as an example, keeping in mind though that this discussion can fit any situation where people might be labeled.

First off, though doing so comes naturally, we all need to control ourselves! Labeling students is never advisable, especially not when the labels have to do with abilities. But it is tempting – how to teach a math lesson to 30 5th-graders, when their abilities range from below-to-above grade level benchmarks? Easy! Make three groups and teach each group to their level; isn’t that an approximation of working within their “zones of proximal development?” Though appealing on the surface when put this way, the costs of doing this outweigh the benefits. The debate about this rages on, persisting in a variety of forms (see here and here). But the debate is won, in my mind, and the side against gets the trophy.

Here’s why: Students in lower-ability/lower-achieving tracks …  

1. … receive lower-quality instruction.

2. … may not belong there – there’s no fool-proof assessment tool used to create groups or tracks. And achievement isn’t the same thing as aptitude either! So much more goes into a students’ grades than ability (whatever ability is…but I digress.)

3. … are labeled as such, and the label directly influences how they are treated, which then shapes their self-confidence and achievement motivation.

Remember that labels guide our thoughts and our actions. Once the meaning of a label is firmly established in mind, the meaning and all that comes with it is applied to a single human, a child, or yourself, when in fact the category of knowledge does not represent a single human nor a single child. Nonetheless, the damage is done. A child is labeled, the label is loaded, and the child is treated in accordance with the label, not her own unique characteristics. Not only that, but labeling by a teacher enforces a fixed mindset in students, and this, we know, is something that should be avoided at all costs, something I discuss elsewhere in more detail.

Proponents of ability grouping are quick to say that if you use non-related labels, students won’t know the difference. To that I say, how insulting! When students in a classroom are grouped by ability for targeted instructional purposes, no matter the actual label given to groups, students quickly learn what differentiates one group from another. Colors, birds, or shapes don’t mask the fact that each group experiences something else.

Many of us, and many of our children, have experienced this. Want to hear about my memories of 5th grade math instruction? I was in the “middle” math group, oopps, I mean “the green group,” but my desk was at the back of the room, right up against the rug-area where each group met with our teacher. I don’t recall the work I was supposed to be doing (it literally bored me to tears), but I do recall the work that the “high” group was doing, oopps, I mean, “the red group.” I recall avidly listening to their lessons on Venn-Diagrams, then asking my friend later on if my understanding of her lesson was correct – and it was! I remember going home that day and asking my Mom why I wasn’t in the red group, and wondered if she could talk to my teacher. I really wanted to do what they were doing. That entire year I was a bored, frustrated, misunderstood “middle” achiever, held back from learning something advanced and interesting (the red group got to use colored pencils and all I got was a lousy regular one!), only because my teacher didn’t think I was smart enough. She didn’t realize that it wasn’t my smarts – it was my motivation – that “put” me where I was on the achievement spectrum. Mediocre instruction stemming from a label produced mediocre work from me. That was 30 years ago and I did turn out OK in the end, but I also left elementary school a very insecure learner.

As much as labels help us, they hurt us too.

Such practices still happen in many US school today and even more broadly in the UK. These practices should be abandoned. They create fixed mindsets, and fixed-mindsets set students up for insecurity and mediocrity at best, failure at worst.

If that isn’t enough to convince you, let me put it another way. When framed in more familiar, socially loaded terms, we really see the problem for what it is (i.e., “mindset” is a relatively new term in the educational lexicon). When the discussion of labeling and social groups comes up in the context of race and ethnicity, no one argues with the fact that stereotyping and prejudice are abhorrent. What doesn’t come up in these conversations though is the fact that stereotyping and prejudicial behaviors stem from the categorization process described here – we’ve only got one set of neurons and they operate in the same way, all the time. A stereotype exists when one has a schema (i.e., network of knowledge) about a particular social group and this schema is only based on a smattering of experiences, thus the information reflects bias, not objectivity. Despite the bias though, the owner of this knowledge widely applies the expectations stemming from the schema to anyone and everyone they think remotely “fits.” Schemas guide our actions like this:  

Stereotype: “Coffee aficionados (CAs) are snobs and only talk about coffee. I know this to be true because I tried speaking to a self-described CA once and he was off-putting and boring.”

Action: Thinking to self in the speed-dating queue: “This person looks like a CA. I’m not going to pay attention to them.”

Result: The opportunity to connect with a potential companion is lost because of a stereotype.

This example is, of course, silly (at least it is to those readers not on the speed-dating circuit). But I’m sure you can see how the terrible the process can be when the stereotype and actions stemming from it are negative, hurtful, and/or derogatory. When that occurs, it’s called Prejudice. This is how labels, or, more precisely the neurological and cognitive process that creates them and gives them power, can be used for ill. Labeling students in classrooms is just the same. Ability grouping reflects a stereotype of learning that is just as damaging as any other form of social stereotyping. It’s all part-n-parcel of the same process.
Stereotype: “Students who earn 65% on most of their quizzes struggle to understand”  

Action: Thinking to self in the classroom deciding how to answer a student’s question: “I’ll keep my answer clear and simple and not explain, if I talk to much they might get lost”

Result: The opportunity to attend to an actual student and provide her with a tailored answer is lost because of a stereotype.

Conversely, think about this:

: “Students who earn 95% on most of their quizzes can understand anything I throw at them!”

Action: Thinking to self in the classroom deciding how to answer a student’s question: “I’ll explain the process to them and challenge them to apply the explanation to a different scenario, to see what they can do!”

Result: The opportunity to engage a student in a meaningful exchange was gained because of a stereotype.

How might inequities like the fictionalized one I’ve presented here be avoided? We can’t help but “group” after all, because that’s how our brains work (and my hypothetical teacher above isn’t intentionally trying to hold a student back…). But what we can do is focus less attention on outcomes, and pay more attention to improvement. The system most teachers work under today makes this exceedingly difficult because the threat of passing benchmarks hangs over their heads but it is not an impossibility. If, in the classroom students are “looked at” in terms of how much they’ve improved, then the teacher approaches each and every student with the same mindset of “how can I facilitate this student’s progress from point a to point b?” (btw, this mindset reflects a more accurate application of the “zone of proximal development” idea too). As I’ve discussed elsewhere, emphasizing process yields growth whereas emphasis on outcomes stymies motivation and confidence. Labeling students guides one to think about outcomes, not process.

Imagine a classroom without labels!

Or rather, imagine the possibilities in a classroom rich with the right kind of labels, and devoid of the wrong kind. Effective lessons stimulate schema activation. Improvement is the name of the game. When studying new material, students engage to connect new information with old by creating scenarios, drawing analogies, and forming metaphors. Teacher’s lessons capitalize on the spreading activation process by helping students add-on to already operative networks. When students engage in this way (linking new with old) they are substantially increasing the likelihood of recalling the material in the future because they are increasing the number of cues that can serve as signals for a particular pattern of spreading activation. In contrast, when students study material in isolation (e.g., rote repetition of definitions), they have to work much harder and for a diminishing return. This is because they are, in essence, creating a brand-new network and will have to spend time sensitizing it. Then, to add insult to injury after all that time spent, there won’t be many cues that will activate the network, making it difficult to bring to mind in the future unless the test conditions are nearly exactly like the study conditions, and how often does that happen? In other words, teaching around the test (and cycling back again) enhances networks; teaching to the test and nothing more truncates them. Of course enhancement is what teachers want. That’s the whole purpose of teaching.

In closing, students shouldn’t be labeled, but knowledge should. The human brain is both deeply complex and refreshingly simple. All networks operate in the same way. Knowledge is power. We all should use it wisely.  
Side note – Ever wonder what happens behind the scenes as commercials, ad campaigns, and political speeches are created? The designers of these cultural artifacts are well aware of the power of labels and they chose their words and images with great care. They bank on spreading activation and its link with your behavior. Or rather, they take that knowledge to the bank.
Up next: I have more to say about labels and education. Up-and-coming diaries will further discuss labeling and instructional practice, and will elaborate on how the ability to form and use categories changes with age. What are your thoughts on these matters?  

Cross-posted here:

Originally posted to ericak on Sun Feb 26, 2012 at 02:18 PM PST.

Also republished by J Town, Systems Thinking, and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  That's why I chose to homeschool my (10+ / 0-)

    son. It was the negative labels that were hurting him. And he's a very bright guy (now adult).

    "The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?" ~Orwell, "1984"

    by Lily O Lady on Sun Feb 26, 2012 at 02:29:55 PM PST

  •  Clear presentation of some difficult (11+ / 0-)

    concepts. It's not the labels per se, but how they are used.
    Teachers should not only use this information, they should teach it to their students.

    "There is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats ..." - Kenneth Grahame -

    by RonK on Sun Feb 26, 2012 at 02:51:18 PM PST

  •  Great diary...on an important subject... (10+ / 0-)

    of which there are no easy solutions...this "Green Group" kossack may have to read again to fully understand and learn...the speed dating reference hit my wife and I discussed this issue school drop-out, plumber, atheist...she...BA in dance, MS in psychology, Jewish...if we had not met through a mutual friend...getting to know each...thankfully...because it didn't look good on paper...welcome to Daily Kos.

    We are not broke, we are being robbed.

    by Glen The Plumber on Sun Feb 26, 2012 at 03:20:21 PM PST

  •  Wise words..... (9+ / 0-)
    But what we can do is focus less attention on outcomes, and pay more attention to improvement. The system most teachers work under today makes this exceedingly difficult because the threat of passing benchmarks hangs over their heads but it is not an impossibility. If, in the classroom students are “looked at” in terms of how much they’ve improved, then the teacher approaches each and every student with the same mindset of “how can I facilitate this student’s progress from point a to point b?”.....
    Reading your article brings many memories of the challenge I felt as I tried to keep my children's  love of learning alive in the public school environment And now our grandchildren are experiencing similar difficulties.

    Thank you for writing about this important topic.

    Love is the lasting legacy of our lives

    by princesspat on Sun Feb 26, 2012 at 03:42:38 PM PST

  •  Welcome to DKos, ericak. (9+ / 0-)

    You have clearly introduced some problems with assigning labels to individual students as well as to groups of students. I would use the label FAIL here for attempts to disguise ability grouping with supposedly non-hierarchical labels. Of course, no one is deceived, but it is easier to change labels than to change attitudes and practices.  

    There's a saying that students will descend to the level of their teacher's expectations, or something to that effect, and I know that was true in my case as well as in some of my friends' cases.

    Of course, your insights are applicable to business environments as well. I look forward to reading your next diary.

    Tipped, rec'd, and followed :-)

    •  You are correct there... (8+ / 0-)

      Attitudes are monumentally difficult to change. And yes, the labeling problem is part of the human condition -- marketers and politicians count on it happening too. It breaks my heart for students in schools today who are still taught in such ineffective and damaging environments though, especially when so much knowledge exists that could be used to transform education as we know it. Thanks for your encouragement! I've got a lot on my mind and will be posting more for sure.

  •  I disagree with the characterization that (11+ / 0-)

    public schools are "broken."

    I think that stereotype is just as inaccurate as the memes you correctly rail against.

    For example, despite adverse demographics (70% of our students are on free or reduced priced lunch) our high school graduates over 85% of our entering freshmen. Is that good enough? No, but I'm not sure you can call it "broken" either.

    In reality we are working very hard to implement such concepts as Universal Design and Differentiation and Instructional Consultation Teams.

    Of course, most teachers at my public high school have 150 students a day in six classes. We have 50 minutes to plan, grade, prepare materials, run them off, hike to the mailbox, and deal with administrative crap like absentees and tardies. We have students with wide ranges of prior knowledge and with every kind of challenge you can imagine. Most of us do volunteer activities such as sponsoring clubs and other activities.

    Our public schools are not broken. They are doing a superb job under almost impossible circumstances in most cases. Unlike the cliché, when it comes to public schools, you don't get what you pay for; you generally get much more.

    "Those are my principles, and if you don't like them...well, I have others." --Groucho Marx

    by Dragon5616 on Sun Feb 26, 2012 at 04:15:46 PM PST

    •  Good comments Dragon. (10+ / 0-)

      Thanks to you and others like you. You keep the system afloat and from being totally broken.

      My brother is a high school, AP teacher and coaches the knowledge bowl team,having taken them to Nationals several times. He engages his students in extracurricular actvites, including a mammoth dig. He sees many things as you do. However, he sees in his school and district, many of the things that ericak noted. I too, having sheparded 4 children through high school and interacted with hundreds of teachers over the years, must acknowledge that while the whole system is not broken, schools desparately need many more of the best, brightest and insightful to enter this noble profession.

      There is much work to be done, and lessons taught.

      "There is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats ..." - Kenneth Grahame -

      by RonK on Sun Feb 26, 2012 at 04:35:02 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Point taken, though (9+ / 0-)

      what you say is really what I mean. Rather than call it a stereotype (or me calling the kettle black), please instead go ahead and call it a hasty reply. I totally agree that there are many many teachers out there doing right and well under adverse conditions, to make an understatement. To my mind though, when conditions are stressed as they currently are (as you note), when national attitudes are counter-productive, and when the achievement gap widens (yes many students are successful - but many aren't as well), then something is indeed broken. It's not just one thing that's broken, as others note many aspects of the system are in need of an overhaul, so, as such, there is no easy fix.

      Back to your point though, the concept I present in the diary explains the challenges inherent in the follow-up discourse as well. We find ourselves speaking in general terms while thinking of specific experiences near and dear to our own hearts and lives. In effect, we ALL have incomplete schemas for the US school system, because it is simply not possible to create a truly "representative" generalization of US schools. The US has fabulous teachers who give their hearts and souls and the US has terrible teachers who should be ashamed. We have students who succeed despite all strikes against them, and students who would have succeeded had they had someone on their side at a pivotal moment. And many more in between.

      Thank you for entering into the discussion though. I do believe if we all took the time to think through things like this, we could model, on a small scale, a way of thinking that can shape attitudes, and that's actually pretty powerful.

      •  Your main points are well-taken. (8+ / 0-)

        Certainly improvement should be one of the prime measurements of teacher quality, rather than "achievement," and I certainly see the focus on process as a healthy one.

        I would also point out that stereotypes apply across the board in every aspect of life. Another initiative we are trying to implement is cultural proficiency. But, as I told our group recently, until we actually buy in to the goals and ideals of cultural proficiency as a school and as a community, we will not make any progress.

        Too many teachers and community members are convinced that Western white culture is "better" than other cultures.

        "Those are my principles, and if you don't like them...well, I have others." --Groucho Marx

        by Dragon5616 on Sun Feb 26, 2012 at 05:22:45 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Yes, the example of ability grouping in elementary (8+ / 0-)

          classrooms is just that - an example to a much broader point, that I hinted at in the side-note at the end of the post but didn't elaborate on. Our "machinery" - some like to call it our "wet-ware"- operates the same way, no matter the "soft-ware," or social context. Cultural stereotypes, educational stereotypes, attitudes, its all the same.

          When attitudes are  aligned with best practice, all benefit. And that is one tall order. I don't have the problem solved, but that doesn't keep me from trying to chip away at it, one small post, and a classroom full of students at a time.

          Thanks for the discourse.

    •  I can't say that the public schools (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      princesspat, nomandates

      where I live are all that whole - if broken is not the word, then maybe misunderstood would be a good place to begin. Currently we are shopping for a new school board candidate for the Mobile County District and I don' t know who would want the task.   With Rick Santorum rising in the polls here maybe he can come solve it somehow.  And schools are underfunded, teachers are underpaid, and states are polarized and the money is all going out to pay for more political propaganda for the party of fear.

      That I can say.

      I can do everything but earn a living.

      by alabamaliberal on Mon Feb 27, 2012 at 01:25:56 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Several miscellaneous observations (10+ / 0-)

    Traditionally, students were assigned to tracks based on which side of the tracks they lived on.

    My understanding is that it's a whole lot harder to remove an attribute from a schema than to add one. This is one of the mechanisms of confirmation bias, and also why we find certain concepts (particularly results in the sciences) to be "counter-intuitive".

    Schemas/categories can get "noisy", treating non-essential attributes as essential. The classic illustration is the little kid who lives in a neighborhood where all the houses are made of brick, and forms a concept of "house" that requires the building to be made out of brick. IMHO, noisy categorization often leads to the inability to realize that two different media are actually delivering the same message (consider the fundamentalist who actually can't recognize familiar Bible verses if they're from a different translation than the one he uses).

    Banksters are harmful for the same reason neutrinos are harmless: neither are inclined to share what they've got (wealth and energy, respectively)

    by ebohlman on Sun Feb 26, 2012 at 05:50:35 PM PST

  •  my gal pointed this diary out to me and while i (10+ / 0-)

    while i was reading she took the opportunity to remove all the labels from my canned goods in the cupboard.  she's claiming it wasn't so much overexuberance regarding this diary's thesis as an inspired self-defense measure against my culinary attempts, the theory being it couldn't get any worse (both of us take bad jokes a bit far, so...).  I'm debating accepting the challenge and praying for the diced beets/chef-boy-ardee/refried bean trifecta.

    for some reason, i'm envisioning chinese takeout or pizza in my near future...

    life: that awkward moment between birth and death

    by bnasley on Sun Feb 26, 2012 at 08:07:26 PM PST

    •  Ha, ha! (6+ / 0-)

      Love it! We really do love the labels, after all. I shudder at the thought of your trifecta, there! Hope dinner was palatable. And I am now l left wondering, where do canned goods fall, in the big scheme of things? Knowledge (stuff we want to label) or entities, that when labeled, somehow take on different qualities? Tough call, that one.

      Thank you, for the levity.

  •  Labels May Allude to Sense of Identity (7+ / 0-)

    I've been reading a couple of books, in regards to concepts of social identity - Social Identity, by Richard Jenkins; Identity Theory, by Peter J. Burke and Jan E. Stets; relatedly, Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies, by Lisa Zunshine, and Narrative in Culture, by Christopher Nash. I'm a bit of a dilettante with books, I'll admit.

    It's my lay impression that labels are - often - intended as to allude to particular concepts of identity. Granted, it may be so simple as - with the example - that a portion of coffee is identified as having the roast, "Dark roast." With accurate technical labels, I don't suppose it means so much except in reference to the presumed technical qualities of a thing.

    As far as any subtler matters of cultural identity may go,  I'm afraid that a cultural label's relevance may be not so easy to define, objectively  - and that the relevance of a label, as such, may be largely dependent on subjective and momentary qualities of both intention and interpretation. It's a sticky wicket, at that.

    Epistemologically, words are labels for concepts. Without any language in which one would be able to communicate a concept, I'm afraid that humanity would be stuck with the primitive example of grunts and gestures. So, we need words, to have language.

    I guess it becomes a question of,  What's the meaning of a label? What's the intended meaning, what's the perceived meaning, and how does either pertain to any selected matter?

    For instance, if I label myself as a "Bum," what is the meaning of that, then?

    •  Right on, again. (5+ / 0-)

      Yes indeed - we can't do away with the process. I discuss just this fact on a regular basis with students-- language is a deeply complicated system of symbols, created for communication purposes. Where would we be without it? Not here, that's for sure. So your question is right on the mark -- we can't do away with labeling, so my position instead is that everyone should think deeply about how they use words. All words are loaded in the way you describe because that is the point of them.

      No one is immune from influencing others with the words they choose, not me, not anyone. The process of assigning words to objects and aspects of the environment has consequences, some small, some deep. When the consequences have to do with students' motivation, that means it also has to do with their sense of self, and that should never be taken lightly. Identities are absolutely tied up in words.

      The difficulty in general, as you note, is finding a match between the intended and the perceived meaning of labels - that difficulty is apparent in this very stream of comments. Mere mortals do the best they can with it, and it is my hope that teachers work even harder than mere mortals to take care when using words with their students, to work even harder at ensuring that the match is as close as possible.

      As to your last question, I will turn it back around - I can't possibly know what you meant when yo decided to label yourself "Bum"...but that doesn't stop me from guessing :).

      •  I've really enjoyed this commentary ericak (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        nomandates, princesspat, ericak

        and would love to suggest a few follow up conversations on this as I find it is an essential topic...because in my research I've come to the conclusion that dual coding theory is correct, that Nancy Bell is correct about concept imagery, and that therefore David Bolton is correct about MindShame which brings me back to the media and the message that induces shame -- I should do a diary just posting the covers of the mail that comes into my house each day (It's owned by a conservative donor) and you'd see the images and words that are being used...

        I think this is why Michael Moore and animation films have done more good than books that have been written...even movies and music - the fact is that we aren't teaching our kids to "read" in a meaningful way and we are getting all hung up because we don't have time to do the job properly --

        a tool like Visual Thesaurus is a good solution but it's not enough

        I can do everything but earn a living.

        by alabamaliberal on Mon Feb 27, 2012 at 04:04:01 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Yes! To dual coding... (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          but before I finish my thought there I will say "I'm delighted" with the direction of the conversation too. My first foray into DK blogging has been fun.

          And yes, the idea of dual coding comes up again and again in cognitive psychology and neuroscience, under different guises, but the point is the same: we can code our experiences in different ways, based on sensory systems, and the more the better. The jargon from the "Working Memory Model" articulates a process called "the Episodic Buffer" to capture how we combine semantic knowledge and visual imagery as "old meets new," or as a network activates and incorporates new perceptions into it.

          I hesitate to fully imagine what a new education system could like, built from the ground up based on our knowledge from psychology and neuroscience - I hesitate because right now I don't have time to give the thought justice and once I start I just might not stop! But I actually am thinking about it anyway, here and there, and am writing these posts as I have time in between classes and life and all. I started on Wordpress, but am finding the interaction here much more engaging and useful.

          Anyway, I will look at your posts too, and I thank you for the conversation thus far!

          More to come.

  •  Confirmation bias feeds into this as well. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    princesspat, ericak, nomandates

    Some...spoke with strong and powerful voices, which proclaimed in accents trumpet-tongued,"I am beautiful, and I rule". Others murmured in tones scarcely audible, but exquisetly soft and sweet, "I am little, and I am beloved"." Armandine A.L. Dupin

    by Kvetchnrelease on Mon Feb 27, 2012 at 07:51:57 AM PST

  •  First, welcome to DailyKos! I enjoyed this (8+ / 0-)

    post very much. I have been a teacher, parent-committee chair and parent so I have seen the system from many sides.
    I have not taught for many years but I keep up with current trends through my sister, who is also in the profession.
    The most interesting new trend I have seen is the multi-grade classroom which intrigues me greatly.
    My first teaching experience was in a small, rural school with 24 students from grades 1 to 8. Think Little House on the Prairie circa 1976.
     I had no choice but to group kids for instruction as I could not possibly teach 8 different social studies, science, math classes. So it was grades 1, 2, 3, and 4, 5,6,  and 7,8. Many times while teaching the older kids about some topic I would notice that it had become very quiet and would realize that many of the younger kids had stopped what they were doing and were listening in on someone else's lesson! It was neat!
    It has become quite normal now to combine grades (though usually not so many! ). Many teachers find it works very well and allows students to flow in and out of groups as their interests and abilities dictate.

  •  Thank you so much (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    princesspat, nomandates, Thomasina, ericak

    for this. I'm in one of those mental states that doesn't even allow me to finish the diary before thanking you. In fact, I just linked this diary on my FB page, and commented that I'd seen it just after publishing one called Cognitive Dissonance and then after finding this one went back and realized I'd written one in December that was about Labels, so I just published it as well. Not to compete with yours but to support it. So I'm gonna go put a link to yours now.

    But what I wanted to say is that I have been using the word "taxonomy" in my latest art project and not really been able to find a good word for what I really meant - schema and your definition is helpful and I plan to quote you somehow...

    I also taught writing and I have ADHD so I've spent most of my adult life trying to understand the way the brain works. Thanks. I'm going to go read the rest of it now...

    I can do everything but earn a living.

    by alabamaliberal on Mon Feb 27, 2012 at 01:16:37 PM PST

    •  Hi Alabamaliberal! (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I'm delighted that my writing and the conversation that's ensued has been so inspiring for you. I look forward to continued exchanges on this and on other related topics. In between teaching and life (I have a wonderfully spunky 5-year-old, who helped me "with my work" so much this evening, that this is the second time I am replying to you...) I'd like to post a few more diaries on this topic.

      To your point about dual coding - it is absolutely true that we have the ability to do so, and the more often we do, the better we are. It comes up again and again in different guises  in the cognitive psych & neuroscience literature. In the current version of the Working Memory Model, a process dubbed the Episodic Buffer is denoted, to explain how previous knowledge (usually in semantic form, like the schemas I note) and current perception (usually in visual form) combine to create the sense of coherence across time and place we feel when we experience the familiar. Sounds like what you discuss above, huh. In an upcoming post (Im still mulling over details in my head) I want to write about ways to best engage young learners, based on their cognitive developmental level, to maximize their time spent learning and studying. The way the EB works differs with age; not a ton is known about this, but enough to make some informed decisions and educated guesses.

      I look forward to reviewing your writing on labels as well. What a happy coincidence.

      •  Most intriguing information I've read in ages (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Hebb's work, that is. Yours too, of course. Now, my first thought on the Episodic Buffer would be that it has something to do with what I discovered with my early teaching.  Or rather, my experience teaching for the first time sent me to the bookstacks in desperation (I worked at the University Library and didn't have far to go)  to find the books that I'd often hauled down to the seminars on teaching and learning for the PETAL program I once assisted.

        One of those books was written by a man named Nick Tingle. I found his work riveting. What jumped out at me was his understanding of the resistance to new understanding, the struggle that a new writer goes through before he or she can actually put down what they are thinking rather than the memes they have already in their heads -

        and in that book I came to understand why teaching new university students is so difficult - you are in many if not most cases teaching them to think for themselves for the first time - by pushing them out of their comfort zones -- without destroying the both of you in the process. I was not prepared for that aspect of the job.  

        I have been struggling with this idea of taxonomy and classification -- I'm participating in a group art project called 20 pages and I chose the theme of taxonomy largely because there was a page from an early work on Linnaeus and Ray and the naming of plants in my 20 page group (I didn't select it, it just happily appeared there) and when I discovered the little fact about Linnaeus's vindictive use of naming (he'd name plants after people he liked and people he didn't like - and the plants had certain characteristics that would fit what he did or didn't like about them, in a way that amused him) I was hooked.

        Having said all of the above, I can't stay in bed all day and write today. I've got to get busy and prepare my own labels for an art show I have coming up. That means I will be forcing myself to get away from the computer very reluctantly. But I'll be back. I printed out the stuff on  Hebb - your connection to that would interest me greatly.

        I can do everything but earn a living.

        by alabamaliberal on Tue Feb 28, 2012 at 06:34:08 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  just a quick follow-up... (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          -- you are in many if not most cases teaching them to think for themselves for the first time - by pushing them out of their comfort zones --
          your point here is spot-on, and fresh in my mind. I faced this head-on today  in my Intro class, where students bombarded me with "stuff" they've gleaned from pop-psych and other sources. Comment after comment from them started like this:
          "But I heard that...if you study drunk you have to take the test drunk...if you study with white paper under your text book, you need the white paper when you take the test...can I learn to have a photographic memory...why can't I condition someone too...
          and each question was met with the same reaction from me:
          "Let's think about that statement again, in the context of our brains, and of neurons connecting to other neurons, and so on......"
          Today was particularly challenging in this regard and by the end of the class period I said to them: "So I realize now that this perspective has dashed your dreams and ripped to shreds things told to you by your favorite science teacher from high school...but again, I ask you to think about this between now and our next class."

          As you note, getting students to engage at a different level when they've not done so before is immensely difficult because the pattern for how to learn is as strong as is the pattern for what's learned, if not more so. So for students who aren't used to engaging in an active manner, we (college profs) are asking them to change a whole heck of a lot.

          More later, directed to your query about Hebbian learning, and another essay will arrive soon, perhaps this weekend.  

          •  Well, I'm sitting here with an ice bag on my (0+ / 0-)

            left shoulder. I didn't think you could injure yourself blogging, but in fact, as I'm now aware, you can indeed do damage just when you need all your faculties.

            So, Nick Tingle is worth your time, if your library still has the book. He's a follower of my OpenSalon blog, doublygifted, and has retired now I think.

            You have to disabuse them of their notions before you can teach them. That's tough to do. I find that it is a performance art that takes everything I've got especially to teach them to write.

            I can do everything but earn a living.

            by alabamaliberal on Tue Feb 28, 2012 at 03:52:59 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

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