Labeling and learning — How does the institutionalized label “English language learner” shape learner experiences in agentive mathematics pedagogy?

How does this Google search with a keyword of “Afghanistan” (e.g., “war” comes up first in the search) relate to in-school learning?


The media provides symbolic resources of racism in our daily interactions. The media representation of Afghanistan in North America has been skewed towards wars, especially towards pro-war against Muslim/Arab who were portrayed as militants and terrorists.

Edward Said, a Palestinian American scholar of postcolonialism, maintain that the geographical, political, and colonial matrixes shape the formation of subjects, especially the Other, who come to be deprived of being a subject of thoughts and actions, and who come to be deprived of the discursive space to speak and represent (Said, 1978). Furthermore, Said (1978) argued that the Other is not only silenced but also often represented with hostility and aggression.

In this context, I asked: How does the geopolitical configuration of identities through media portrayals and local language policies are entangled with learner experiences for those who are institutionally labelled as “English language learners”?

I undertook this inquiry in “the transforming recess mathematics unit” that amplified care for friendships and fairness on the school playground for some learners. The unit was co-designed with committed elementary school teachers and Grade 1 to 5 students. The design was centered around the principle of participatory action research in that it encouraged those who were affected most by the particular issues to take the lead in researching those issues (Cammarota & Fine, 2008; Fine & Torre, 2004). Students had great insights about what constitutes fair use of the school playground and how they can foster friendships during recess. The pedagogical design created an otherwise-impossible opportunity for many students in an urban elementary school to mobilize mathematics curriculum for the purpose of transforming their recess experiences. 

Students mathematized their school playground
Students conducting surveys in the playground based on their research questions
Figure 3 - Agents of Change
“Everyone has the responsibility and power to make the world a better place” – on the classroom blackboard
Figure 4 Cathy's Survey
Student Survey to Advocate Fair Use of the School Playground

Against the backdrop of this “success story,” however, quieter voices were not always heard, and some students’ marginalized identity (in this case the institutionalized label of “English language learners”) were further reinforced in the unit. The series of peer-to-peer interactions showed how the geopolitical context was brought up in relation to one of the Afghan refugee students identified as an “English language learner.” During the peer interactions, this student came to be associated with war and “terrorists.” Also, the multilingual identity of a student from Mexico who was also identified as an “English language learner” came to be overpowered under the pervading local monolingual policy. 

Furthermore, when students conducted a survey about bullying experiences in the playground, the categorical and binary framework inscribed in mathematics curriculum, served as a context to reinforce categorical and binary frameworks that inscribed gender binaries (i.e., boys vs girls) and separated “English language learners” from others. Ultimately, students came to focus on the voice of the majority — “boys who never experienced bullying.” 

Figure 2 Karim's Results
Student Survey on Bullying in the Playground

These interactions happened even while the teacher and peers attempted to create a context of inclusion. The macro-context surrounding classroom learning strongly influences what happens in the classroom. The findings from this study call for transforming taken-for-granted labelling and related institutionalized practices through which representation of the Other has been co-constructed. Replacing a deficit-oriented label with a more asset-oriented label (e.g., emergent bilinguals) is certainly progress (García & Leiva, 2014). However, unless the underlying monolingual policies and practices, and biased media portrayals are questioned and challenged, simply replacing the label will likely not change the dynamics of identities and learning. This is because, as the findings of this study suggest, the macro-level geopolitical configuration of the Other (even without the presence of the label of “English language learners”) can continue to serve as a context to reinforce such a label. When we discuss the issue of identity and learning, we need to make explicit the geopolitical configuration and colonial matrix that allows us to critically examine how the institutionalized and colonial label can shape learner experiences. In particular, my analysis showed how categorical and binary frameworks inscribed in mathematics curriculum served as a context for inheritance and reproduction of such colonial categories. 

Embracing historically silenced voices can create a more humane history anew.

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This blog was based on: Takeuchi, M.A. (2020). Geopolitical configuration of identities and learning: Othering through the institutionalized categorization of “English language learners. Cognition and Instruction. Advance online publication (Full text is available: click here!)