Sticks, Stones, and Labels

  • Sticks, Stones, and Labels

    February 2023

    “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” How many of us grew up hearing or saying those words? I know I certainly did, but I now know those words are not true, as most of you would agree. Yet, I wonder how often we are now the ones calling our students names. I don’t mean that we tease our students like when we were younger, but I’m referring to the use of labels for our students. We call them “low, medium, or high” or “struggling students” or “sweet and low.”

    Part of saying we want to help each and every student to learn is to examine our own beliefs and actions. The words we use to describe or to think about our students really reflect our beliefs. Many things are problematic with labeling our students with these terms. Too often, we have drastically different expectations for what a particular student can learn based upon the label, and this leads to dramatically different mathematical experiences. For a student we label as “high,” we might allow the opportunity to engage in rich, deep mathematical tasks and help them make sense of the concepts they are learning. However, for a student we label as “low,” mathematics instruction too often turns into having them memorizing a set of procedures and rules with little sense making involved.

    Often, our perception of a student’s ability isn’t fully accurate. A variety of factors might influence how a student performs in math class on a given day. We often don’t understand the full picture of what is happening in the lives of our students. If a student appears to struggle at the beginning of the year on a concept, does that mean this student will struggle all year? Too often we label them, either verbally or mentally, as a struggling student rather than a student who is currently experiencing some struggle. This label often affects how we view their capabilities, how we interact with them, and the type of mathematics education they receive.

    Part of our responsibility as mathematics educators is to cultivate and grow our students’ identities. We must help them see themselves as capable of learning mathematics, and that begins with our own thoughts and beliefs. February may be the shortest month in the calendar year, but it often feels like the longest month of the school year. I challenge all of us to examine our words and thoughts around our students and to avoid labeling. Now is a great time to start putting this into practice!

    Kevin Dykema
    NCTM President