When speaking and writing about gifted kids, I frequently hear this sort of comment:
I don’t think we should label students. Kids are all so different that labels only harm them.
While I agree that all kids are different (I mean, does anyone disagree with this?), labels do serve a useful, but limited, function.
Think about the big labels on the walls of grocery stores: produce, meat, dairy, etc. These labels guide you to a certain section. From there, you can be certain that everything in the section will share some generally agreed upon criteria.
But within the section, there’s a wide variety of choices. And many of those choices are very different. By labeling them both as “produce,” we aren’t denying that onions and apples are different. Even within the “apple” category, there’s a wide variety of appearances, flavors, and sizes.
Once you’re in the meat section, it’s obvious that you need to pay attention to individual packages, lest you go home with pork chops instead of ground beef.
Note that grocery stores would be terrible experiences without these labels to guide us. Imagine if a few cereal boxes were mixed in with the pasta, and some apples were sitting with the milk. It would make shopping way harder.
Labels and Students
It’s the same with our students. If a student is labeled as “gifted,” you know that they’re likely to have a certain set of characteristics – which helps you teach them better until you get to know their unique needs.
We don’t assume all kids identified as “gifted” are the same, just as we don’t expect each kind of apple to be the same.
Having a vocabulary to summarize a person’s needs is incredibly powerful. Once I understood what the label “gifted” meant, it sure helped me understand myself better. Learning about “introversion” and “intuition” through Myers-Briggs helps me be a better human. Those labels give me a vocabulary to understand why I have different needs than other people. And it helps me understand those other people better.
Understand Labels’ Limitations
Labels have a general usefulness. Are there people who use labels to make bad decisions? Of course. But if a shopper grabs pork chops instead of ground beef, that’s their fault, not the big “meat” sign on the wall’s.
This is why I think explaining labels is so vital to help kids, parents, and teachers. Labels are useless if they aren’t understood. A big PRODUCE sign means nothing if you think it means “food that comes from a cow.”
And from my experiences speaking with many kids, parents, and teachers, we have a lot of work to do to better explain the gifted label.