Our Desire To Sift, Sort, Label & Categorise.

Our Desire To Sift, Sort, Label & Categorise.

Part of being human seems to be the desire to sift, sort, label and categorise. When this applies to ‘things’ it can be useful and helpful in trying to make sense of the world around us. When it is applied to fellow humans it can be more problematic. Writing at a time of unusual political upheaval here in the United Kingdom we have become used to political commentators using superficial judgements to define, sift, sort, and categorise the protagonists into easily identifiable ‘groups’ and ‘categories’ in order to simplify for us what are often highly complicated individual political opinions & approaches.

Similarly, in education we spend time sorting, sifting and diagnosing in the hope of correctly being able to identify a student’s apparent ‘problem’.  The knowledge generated from these attempts to categorise and explain, together with much research into particular ‘conditions and ‘syndromes’ can of course be useful and helpful. The problem arises however when students do not easily fit within a certain category, or can fit into multiple categories, or can be their own unique category. Many practitioners will have experienced the exasperation that can arise from being present at meetings with special education;  mental health & community professionals. Here the hope is to bring a collective mind-set together in order to identify, diagnose or categorise a person’s ‘difficulties’ into something that can be meaningfully addressed in the classroom, small group or 1:1 situation. There can be a collective sigh of relief when it is decided that this person is ‘dyslexic’, or that person is ‘dyspraxic’, or maybe, this person is ‘autistic’. There is of course comfort in a diagnosis for the student, their parents and the professionals involved. It can of course lead to greater understanding, support and direction. However it can also lead to frustration, discrimination and alienation if the student so categorised does not ‘exactly’ fit the category they have been diagnosed or allocated to.  I can clearly remember one frustrated and angry parent arguing her point at a meeting of professionals that maybe her son did tick all the right boxes for autism; however he did not sit comfortably in the school’s expert provision for autistic children. Medicine has a neat little phrase called ‘co-morbidity’ which reminds us that within any one person the existence of more than one condition is possible. This makes the job of diagnosing, sifting, sorting and categorising much more problematic if we simply want a convenient ‘end product’. Maybe we should not be so quick to enter into this process, or maybe the starting point of the whole process is flawed. If for instance our starting point was to see each individual as unique and different it might avoid the need to ‘categorise’ in the first place. This of course would also need a complete re-think on how our society functions and in particular how we organise education, allocate resources & use our knowledge.

Aristotle reminds us that whether a particular form of knowledge is appropriate, or suitable depends upon the ‘telos’ or purpose it actually serves – is it political, expedient,  humanitarian etc? The important thing is to start unpicking the reasons behind what we do and why we do them. And ask ourselves if by ‘popping’ people neatly into ‘categories’, rather than seeing them as unique individuals is always the best modus operandi.

Graham Robertson


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