IATEFL 2018: Labels – not the way forward! – Adrian Tennant

Adrian Tennant is a free lance teacher trainer, writer and consultant who works in a lot of different contexts world-wide. He plans to talk for 15 mins and then have time afterwards to discuss things. His talk is on labels.

Last August, he watched a programme on BBC called Without Limits. BBC had put together 6 disabled people to travel round Vietnam sightseeing and trying out things. One with autism, one who had lost an arm, one who had lost her legs. While he was watching that, he was a bit queasy by the whole idea and then one of the participants said they weren’t sure whether to take part as originally the title had the word disability in it while they prefer difability – different ability. Likewise “non-native” means lacking, not being something.

He saw a quote on Fair List, written by Allport – The human mind must think with the aid of categories….Once formed, categories are the basis for normal prejudgment. We cannot possibly avoid this process. Orderly living depends upon it.

Adrian asks if we should have disorderly living then. He doesn’t think orderly living depends on categories and labels. They are divisive. They are social constructs to create categories of us and them. He also thinks positive discrimination is an oxymoron. The only examples he has come across, particularly in education, have failed. E.g. universities in South Africa have dropped from being ranked in the top 2 or 3 to much much lower. So we need to be careful about how we go about trying to removing bias. It’s not that he doesn’t believe in equity, he does, but castigating people because they are a certain thing and it worries him.

We had to discuss gender. It can be a spectrum or you can say there as many genders as people who say they identify as x gender say they are. Adrian went on to say a mixed ability class is stating the obvious. There’s a couple of groups advocating things like gender equality and native-non native equality. In this case you are still categorising and labelling using the same kinds of labels being used all along.

He wants to propose a new framework. Which is “Do you have the competency to do the job?” = subject knowledge, communication skills, patience, compassion… what they don’t need is to be a particular gender or nationality. As a profession, we are still wedded to labels. By using labels, you are setting people up in those constructs, which perpetuates the issues. What competencies do you need to be a good conference presenter? Something new to offer, able to tailor to the audience, confidence, self-assurance, charismatic.

For the rest of the talk, there was discussion about blind selection (an example was how the number of female players in an orchestra doubled when the selection was done blind) and about labels with negative connotations (reluctant reader). One lady said she had been approached to do a plenary because the conference in question didn’t have enough female speakers. The question being “do you only want me because I am a woman then?” . I couldn’t get a word in edge-ways but my feeling was that it’s all very well having a competency approach but the characteristics we came up with in terms of what you need to be a good presenter are things that you need experience of presenting in order to develop them. And if traditionally a certain segment of the population has been favoured, they will have developed those competencies more so than people who haven’t had the opportunity. However, this all seemed to be more about selection than labels as such. I think labels are useful, personally. It’s how we use them, the connotations we attach, the prejudice we attach that is the issue. Otherwise, it’s all vocabulary and we need vocabulary to discuss issues. 


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