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


Taking on the identity of ‘special needs’.

Trip (1993) points to ‘critical incidents’ in the career life of a teacher that can be influential and instructive. Experiencing these ‘critical incidents’ can make one stop and think. One such incident occurred for me. A young man of about 15 years of age presented himself at the classroom door of the learning support unit in a large inner city secondary school. After knocking politely he came in. I greeted this student in the usual friendly manner and as I had not previously met him I enquired who he was. The boy replied that he was, ‘special needs’ and had been sent to see me because he had been ‘chucked out’ of his classroom for ‘no reason’. I wasn’t expecting to see him so enquired who he was again and I got the same reply. Eventually he told me his name and I launched into my usual repertoire of building rapport and getting to know him. Later, when I reflected upon this encounter I began to feel disturbed by this exchange. Here was a young man towards the end of his schooling experience and was very firmly defining himself by his ‘label’. His actual name had become secondary to his supposed ‘condition’ and seemed to have completely defined him as a person. His ‘label’ was confirmed daily at school and at home too he became very much aware that he did not function in the same way as those around him. He felt he was not as ‘good’ as his brothers and sisters at home, he had few if any friends at school, and in classroom situations he was very much aware that even with the extra adult support available he was out of his depth. Break times and lunchtimes were completely miserable for him and he was always on the lookout for some quiet ‘bolthole’ where he could pass the time more quietly before once again having to go back into the classroom. Schooling seemed to be a succession of endurance tests and obstacles to be got through. Over the next few weeks I used all my ingenuity and best ploys to interest and engage him in his ‘curriculum work’ but with limited success. A steady stream of his teachers visited me and hoped that perhaps I could somehow get him through his GCSE work as they too felt under pressure to come up with some recognisable ‘results’. I began to feel under the same pressure as the young man to get him to ‘perform’ in the way in which the institution saw as important. He told me he had tried a bit of counselling over the years which was offered by the school but when the counsellor ran out of hot chocolate and he could no longer time appointments to miss maths he dropped it.

Eventually we had a ‘breakthrough’. It came in the form of ‘American Block Paving’ – something that I was completely ignorant of but soon found myself on a steep learning curve. In gradually getting to know him it transpired that his weekends and holidays were spent working with his dad and uncles in laying pathways, pavements and driveways using American Block Paving (ABP). Over the ensuing weeks I learnt everything about ABP from this young man. We scaled down some of the shapes and tessellated them together into patterns, worked out costings and areas, sourced the cheapest ‘quality’ products and matched batches for colour and quantity and quality.  He passed on to me some of the ‘tricks of the trade’ and advised on the best tools and materials to buy and how they could be adapted to make them more useful. We investigated grades of sand, mixes of cement and drainage issues.  Had I needed a driveway, pathway or pavement I would have had complete confidence in awarding this young man the contract without hesitation. Both of us however continued to feel under pressure for him to turn his evident wide abilities into attaining the much valued GCSE currency. His interests did slowly begin to widen and we worked on connecting up his existing knowledge to many different areas. However as for the GCSE currency, he was not having any of it. Months later a member of the senior management team hearing of the situation decided to pay an unexpected visit. Trying to be as friendly as possible towards the boy, whom he had not noticed in the school before, he introduced himself and asked his name. “Pleased to meet you sir”, said the boy, “I’m special needs”!

We need to think seriously about our present schooling system which ‘sifts, sorts and labels’ according to grade position, and  concentrates upon only one element of what it means to be human.

Margaret Mead writing in the 1970’s lamented the rise of a schooling system which divorced children and young adults from the ‘real world’ and forced them into ‘youth ghettos’ where instead of learning with and from adults in real world situations they instead mostly learnt only with and from those of their own age. Adults and young people need to come back in touch with each other once more and have real opportunities to learn with and from each other in meaningful occupations. Maybe it is time for us to look again at our nineteenth century system of schooling and ask ourselves whether it really does benefit everyone in its present form. We seem to have a real problem in recognising that difference is ordinary and one size does not fit all.

By Graham Robertson