One of the most important aspects of the interactionist theory of education concerns the ways in which teachers make sense of and respond to the behaviour of their students. In their book Deviance in Classrooms (1975), Hargreaves, Hester and Mellor analyse the ways in which pupils come to be typed or classified. Their study is based upon interviews with teachers, and classroom observation in two secondary schools. They looked at the way in which teachers ‘got to know’ new pupils entering their first year at the school. At first, teachers have limited knowledge about their new pupils as individuals.
They may know the type of catchments areas they are from and this will give them a general first image of their new pupil, but apart from this they know little else and can only start to build up a picture as the school year progresses. Hargreaves et al. distinguish three stages of typing or classification.
First stage: This consists of speculation. The teachers make guesses about the types of pupils they are dealing with. The researchers noted seven main criteria on which initial typing was based.
2. How far they conform to discipline
3. Ability and enthusiasm for work
4. How likeable they are
5. Relationships with other children
7. Whether they were deviant
The researchers stress that in this stage teachers are only tentative in their evaluations, and they are willing to amend their views if initial impressions prove to be misleading. Nevertheless, they do form a working hypothesis – a theory about what sort of child each pupil is.
Second stage: Each hypothesis is then tested in the second stage, which Hargreaves et al. call elaboration. Gradually the hypotheses are either confirmed or contradicted, but either way the teachers become more confident in their judgements as their typing is refined.
Third Stage: When the third stage is reached, stabilization takes place. By this time the teacher feels, ‘he “knows” the pupil; he understands him; finds little difficulty in making sense of his acts and is not puzzled or surprised by what he does or says’. By this time, all the pupil’s actions will be evaluated in terms of the type of pupil they are thought to be. Some pupils will be regarded as deviants, and for them it will be difficult for their behaviour to be seen in a positive light.
Although Hargreaves et al. do emphasize that typing is a gradual process, other sociologists have suggested it can be much more abrupt. In a study of an American kindergarten, Rist (1970) found that as early as the eighth day of school the children were permanently seated at three separate tables. Furthermore, table 1 was reserved for ‘fast learners’, table 2 and 3 for the less able. According to Rist, though, it was not, in reality, ability which determined where each child sat, but the degree to which they conformed to the teacher’s own MC (middle-class) standards. The kindergarten teacher was evaluating and labelling pupils on the basis of their social class, not on their abilities they demonstrated in class.
Effects of typing: In itself, the typing or labelling of pupils might not be that important, but many sociologists claim it has important effects upon the progress of pupils. Teachers are in a position to affect their pupils’ progress in a number of direct and indirect ways. In British schools, teachers often differentiate between pupils by making decisions about what exams to enter them for and what streams or bands to place them in. These decisions can influence the options open to pupils. Teachers can also affect pupil progress in other ways apart from determining what classes they are placed in and what courses they take. Two closely related theories – the self-fulfilling prophecy theory and the labelling theory – both suggest that pupil behaviour can be changed by the way that teachers react to them. The labelling theory suggests that typing leads to labels being attached to pupils.
Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex