Categorization and potential

As students, we are asked – told – that we need to define What We’re Good At early on. Before we make our own academic choices, tests and teachers tell us our “aptitudes,” “intelligences” (if we’re going by Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory), and “subjects where we excel.” Time goes by and we might be moved into higher or lower levels in different subjects – this is called tracking – based on earlier teachers’ evaluations of our work and our previous test scores. By the time we reach high school, it seems that the question has been resolved, and the “gifted math students,” “average language students,” and “struggling history students” have been sorted cleanly and categorically, labels which are accepted as truth by family members and the students themselves in the outside world.

This need to categorize, I found out recently, is not actually a cognitive imperative of human beings but rather an approach to the world established by Aristotle as a part of his seminal works concerning logic, which influenced philosophical thought up until the 19th century and beyond. I haven’t read Aristotle’s Categories but I wonder: Is categorizing a table the same thing as categorizing a person’s ability…or potential?

I’m led to think about what education does, and what it could do (and perhaps once set out to do) for and with learners. One hundred years ago, John Dewey asked whether education should be instrumental to the production of future workers, or whether it should engage the imagination and agency of every citizen in the creation of a thoughtful and participatory constituency that responded actively to its social and political environment. Do we limit this prospect somehow, especially nowadays, when we prioritize testing and its contribution to data-driven decision-making about our children’s futures? Many progressive educators would argue that we do, but we might consider that it’s not only testing but also our increasingly powerful drive to categorize students in terms of demonstrated success in a given subject that supports such a process.

So where does this leave us? Obviously to challenge a whole system that has seemed to work for centuries. Ceasing the categorization of students will lead to ambiguity about grouping, curriculum, movement of students through preset “necessary” material, and of course, how to assess learning and progress. And what role will a teacher play if s/he is no longer able to see the student as “Leah, B+ in science, C- in English”? When we are without categories by which to judge our students, how do we guide them? Have we lost our ability to educate, or have we found the beginning of creativity and potential?


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