1 Stop! Labeling! Our! Students!

Riley Peterson

Cognitive psychology is the study of how people think. Our brains are constantly working, doing, planning, organizing, remembering, learning, and so on. It’s a bunch of neurons bouncing around wildly. To put it very simply; cognition is just us thinking. Since we are almost always thinking, cognition is entwined in all our sensory-motor engagements.

It’s becoming clearer that we need to reteach our educators about learning styles and how they are no longer the answer. Putting our students into categories may seem like the right way to help them learn, but subsequently it puts the students at risk for inaccurate performance, false confidence, and low self esteem. The truth is, telling a student that their “learning style” is auditory, (of auditory, visual and motor) is presenting a fixed mindset way of thinking. If a student believes that they belong in the category of “auditory learner”, this is telling them that they do not belong in the other categories. This may result in the student having low performance in assignments in which other learning styles are necessary. The child may think, “My teacher told me I am an auditory learner, therefore not a visual learner, therefore I must not be able to learn this material which is presented to me in a visual form”. This could result in the student having a lower performance, not because the material is too difficult or because it is presented in a learning style the child can’t comprehend, but because the child has a fixed mindset that they can’t learn it. This then falsely reinforces the cycle of learning styles.   Though the truth is, “learners are more alike than they are different”, says Erica Kleinknecht in her article, “Embracing Embodiment”. In fact, Kleinknecht explains, “Networks of neurons in our brains connect with sensory inputs and connect with each other. Activity in each of the primary cortices (auditory, visual, motor) doesn’t occur in isolation…Learning is embodied and it’s embodied for everyone” So what this means is that we actually never learn with just one sensory faculty. Everyone uses and needs all of their senses to learn successfully. In this case it’s not fair to teach our students that they only learn one way or another.

Another reason why putting students into boxes can be so detrimental, is the effects it can have on the students’ confidence and self esteem. When I was in middle school, our teachers split my grade into two groups. Separate from our homerooms–which were random–these “sections” as we called them, were the groups we would travel from subject to subject in. So from math, to language arts, to spanish, to science, to PE, etc. that was the group I was with for each core subject. As I’ve been learning this week in class, memories are never as pristinely accurate as we think they are, so I acknowledge that my recollection of this story may not be 100% correct. I can’t remember in exactly what way these groups were presented to us, but my memory tells me that our teachers told us the groups were based off of our math scores. When I looked at the faces of my fellow peers, most of whom I’d been in the classroom with since Kindergarten, it was obvious to me which group was which. I was in the lower section. Many of my fellow peers in my section were ones who I knew to struggle or need a little extra help, and a large amount of my peers in the higher section were students I knew to need little guidance and who generally excelled in most areas. I viewed myself to be somewhere in the middle. Though once the school year began and we got used to the “sections” we had begun to label ourselves even further. Those of us in my section begun to call ourselves “the stupid class”. When talking about the higher section we would often refer to them as “the smart class”. How awful is that? Not only this, but the general attitude of our math teacher reflected favoritism towards the higher section. I began to hate math. To be honest math was difficult for me, but the fact that I was in this section didn’t help my confidence either. I was terrified every day in class, praying I wouldn’t be called on for the answers. She would put students on the spot time and time again in front of everyone, and if you didn’t know the answer, she’d make you feel horrible about it, and move onto her next victim to humiliate.  This went on to affect me not only in math, but the other subjects as well. Since I was in the stupid class, I began to have a fixed mindset that I was not good enough or academically talented what so ever. Like me, this probably had the same effect on my fellow peers, and our performance was most likely less successful because of our fixed mindset that we were not smart. Because of this, I was even worried that I might not get accepted to the high school of my choice. I remember the day I did finally receive that acceptance letter to Holy Names Academy, I cried. I was so relieved. Then, when the prospect of transitioning from middle school to high school was upon me, I was very nervous. My self view was so skewed that I wasn’t sure if I’d be good enough.  I remember beginning Algebra 1 my freshman year of high school. I was not confident in my ability to perform in class as well as I was convinced that all math teachers were frightening and patronizing. I was astonished when my Algebra 1 teacher, Mrs. Kershner, was sweet, caring, accepting, encouraging, helpful, supportive, and didn’t make me fear math class? What a concept. Although to this day I still know math isn’t my best subject, math and I were able to mend our relationship that year, and along with that my self confidence with academia in general.

I look back on my middle school education, and wish my teachers hadn’t categorized and labeled us based off of our academic standing. Although I went on to a nurturing high school where I was supported and encouraged, the damage from the sections in middle school has affected me throughout high school, into college, and even sometimes still today. If I had this experience, I can’t imagine the millions of other students across the nation who have encountered a similar experience. Because I know it’s happening in schools everywhere.

As humans, we love labels, we love categorizing, we love putting things into boxes. It feels easy. If someone or something has a label, our brain can generalize the basic info it needs to assess that someone or something. And in circumstances, labels are a great thing. In her article “Labels on the Brain”, Erica Kleinknecht explains that labels do make some things easier for our brains, “A single “cue” is all it takes to activate a schema” A schema describes a pattern of thoughts or behaviors that organize categories of information and the relationships among them. People use schemata to organize current knowledge and provide a framework for future understanding. Kleinknecht goes on to explain “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, 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” (Kleinknecht). So maybe this is why when I hear the word “relationship”, I immediately assume it’s going to end in heart break, because my brain has labeled it with my previous knowledge and expectations related to the word. This is all making sense!

When it comes to education however, although labels may make it easier for teachers to determine which curriculum is needed for each group, labels may also make it harder for the students to be successful in the long run. Kleinknecht specifically addresses this as well, “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” (Kleinknecht). So like I’ve concluded, as well as Kleinknecht, if the costs outweigh the benefits, why are we still doing this? I believe that kids see through the “red group, blue group, green group” facade, and are aware that they differ from each other in some way.  As a newly trained educator, I’ve gotten to witness this situation from the other side. Last year in the third grade class that I aided, my lead teacher–Danielle–placed the students into reading groups based off of what they most needed to work on. Because with 26 third graders who are all at very different reading levels, it would’ve been impossible to have each student improve their reading skills and comprehension if we were to teach one lesson at one level to the whole group. Being a teacher in this situation helps me to understand that the range of abilities is sometimes simply too large and it seems that groups based on ability are the only solution. Although I do not like the social construction of these groups and I fear what it is doing to the self esteem of my students, I do value and respect the opinion of Danielle–an experienced, highly trained educator–and her reasoning for applying this method. Although I don’t like it, I understand why teachers may need to put students into groups. So until someone can find a solution for this problem, I’m not sure what the right answer is.

One thing though that I think we as educators can control, is labeling students by learning style. Like Kleinknecht said, “Activity in each of the primary cortices (auditory, visual, motor) doesn’t occur in isolation” and so contrary to what we’ve thought for years, students are not just one type of learner. Yes maybe they prefer one type, but no one person is only capable of learning with just one sensory faculty. Yes maybe students in one grade are actually at different levels, but they all learn in the same basic ways. It’s time to encourage educators and students alike, to stop labeling and start encouraging all types of learners.


Daniels, Greg, director. The Office, Season 7 Episode 14. NBC, 2005.


Kleinknecht, E. (2014, January 18). Embracing Embodiment. Cognitioneducation. https://cognitioneducation.me/2014/01/18/embracing-embodiment/


Kleinknecht, E. (2012, February 24). Labels on the Brain. Cognitioneducation. https://cognitioneducation.me/2012/02/24/labels-on-the-brain/