While I was in Winnipeg this week attending the annual CAIS Heads and Chairs conference, it was an opportunity to reflect on some of the big questions affecting independent schools in Canada. Close to one hundred members and over two hundred participants attended this gathering and, as expected, there were many different perspectives represented by some of the finest schools in our country. Among the usual “hot topics”, we explored the drivers involved in achieving meaningful direction and change in our schools – building capacity among people, prioritizing collaboration, insisting on effective pedagogy (sometimes understood as “best teaching practice”), and demonstrating commitment to coherence.
Much of the discussion related to the systems in place in large schools who have significant resources to address student learning needs. When I am engaged in such national conversations about school effectiveness and meeting student needs, I always think in terms meeting the needs of individual students. If, as schools, we approach such needs truthfully and pragmatically, we will see that they can only be addressed “one child at a time” – which means that individual students have a right to differ.
How might a school for “all kinds of minds” look? To begin with, such a school would not label its students. Take for example ADD, LD or gifted. Terms such as these lump too many diverse children into one deceptively simple category. Such labels are not particularly helpful and are often misleading. I wonder if we will soon see the decline of the ever-burgeoning practice of labeling kids, of putting the letters “DD” (i.e., deficit disorder) after every puzzling trait, satisfying the need to infer that variation is deviant.
Authentic teachers know that labeling children is reductionist and an oversimplification. The practice of labeling overlooks their richness, their complexity, their strengths, and their impressive originality. It can also dehumanize a person’s total identity. Have you ever heard a child say, “I am ADD.”? Can you imagine someone announcing, “I am bronchial asthma”?
Once a clinician applies one to a child, a label can become a showstopper. Some people then think they need look no further; they now have a handle on “that kid”. This is so obviously false.
While I was in Winnipeg, I had the chance to visit the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, the realization of a dream of the late Israel Asper, a philanthropist and founder of CanWest Global Communications Corporation. As a proud and grateful Canadian, Asper wanted to create a place where Canadians, and especially young Canadians, could learn about human rights and the importance of understanding others and protecting the dignity of the person.
Maybe the process of labeling children would be given a re-think if schools just focused on describing children’s educational needs without calling them any names. I wonder.
A school for “all kinds of minds” should guarantee a label-free learning environment. During my career, I have encountered and worked with many students who have succeeded in impressive ways, despite the prophecies implied by labels.
Schools working with human beings – complex and beautiful – should understand that “labels are for jars”.
Ric Anderson, Head of School