The Consequence of Punishment

Teachers become Teachers because they have a desire to teach (profound statement that eh?). But somewhere in the back of their minds, especially when they are new to the job, there is a thought process;

“What if a student doesn’t want to be taught? What if they wont let me teach? What do I do then? What happens next?”

Of course there’s a vast and obvious array of responses to that concern. Corporal punishment comes to mind (although thankfully it’s fallen out of favor in most societies these days), detentions or exclusions, copying out lines or expectations, or dictation, or a good old fashioned dressing down are all possibilities.

Yes, lots of options.

Not many solutions though.

At least this much can be said for the common responses to misbehavior; they are usually unambiguous, they are usually made clear to the student body from the outset, and they are usually implemented consistently. They are also considered undesirable by students. Usually. What they always do is say ‘Don’t do that or bad things will happen to you.’ You know what? That is archaic. Surely in this day and age we can do better than that.

For a while now I’ve wanted to write about the ever-present yet unglamorous issue of discipline and its pervasive effect on the teaching profession. It is ubiquitous yet it strikes me that it is an area largely ignored by education gurus and futurists. Such eminent men and women seem to be either far too immersed in the wonders of pedagogy, or they willfully ignore it assuming that discipline issues would evaporate if only we could…oh I don’t know…immerse ourselves in the wonders of pedagogy!

While I consider a lot of what they discuss wonderful too, I’m frustrated at their tendency to gloss over this vital aspect of learning. I’m not a futurist or a guru but, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to have a crack at it here.

Here’s the title of my master class seminar.

In education there should be no punishments, only consequences.

A touch cliché I’ll admit, and I’m sure you can spot a euphemism when you see one. As we all know, just replacing a word with another is a slight of hand trick the may make people feel happier about life but often changes nothing meaningfully.

But my master class would offer a linguistic analysis of the issue and because I’m a ‘guru’ you’d all listen to me long enough to let me make my point.

“Imagine”, I’d say, “A world where the word ‘punishment’ has been completely removed from the education landscape, and been replaced by the word ‘consequence’. Not just in print, but in thought and in deed. In such a world there is a lot less negative emotional baggage for students to contend with and a lot more opportunity to move on and improve.”

A Linguistic analysis is insightful here. To start, let us consider what the words ‘discipline’ and ‘punishment’ really signify. At its core, the word ‘discipline’ refers to the controlling of habits and behavior while pursuing a goal. It is derived from the Latin Disciplina, which means ‘training’. ‘Punish’, also of Latin origin, comes from poena, meaning penalty.

So essentially, the traditional model that promotes discipline through a considered series of punishments is really a form of training with a threat of penalty. It taps into a primal concept where the power stays with the master and the servant has no responsibility. They just follow orders.

Now let us consider the semantics of the word ‘consequence’. The Latin ‘consequentia’ means ‘to follow’ and in modern English is used to describe results or effects of an action. This is significantly different from punishment because all responsibility for what happens next belongs to the actor.

How does this affect schools? What teachers want is not a class where the student behavior is a result of the school’s discipline policy. What they want is a class where the student’s behavior is a result of self-discipline. They behave in a way that shows they see the value of acting according to the expectations and the rules of the school. Most importantly, they see the consequences that come from inappropriate behavior were initiated by themselves. There is no guilt trip from teachers and a working relationship is easy to rebuild.

Let me put this in terms that answer those nagging series of questions in the back of teacher’s minds.

If a student wont let you teach them, then you implement the consequences the school already has. Just be sure it’s done in a way that isn’t personal. Don’t imply the student is a bad person. Allow yourself the opportunity to find out why they don’t want to be taught and keep the possibility of working cooperatively with that student in the future. Dont dish out punishment. Enact consequences for actions.


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