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Punishment–Thinking Beyond the Act


Punishment, May not be the Right Objective on the Learner!

Is it that learning in schools cannot take place without punishment? We need to reflect that when we talk about punishment in schools are we only talking about the more obvious and visible forms of punishment or does it encompass some of the hidden forms as well? What is the objective of this kind of act? Is this is a negative form of motivation or is it not? Even though with decades of educational research on learning we talk about giving the child independence, the teacher only to act as a facilitator and believing that the child is innately curious to learn we still succumb to forms of punishment in schools. Why?

I would like to address this issue at two levels.

  • First, the sociological realm which will include, what do we mean by punishment in a social structure, what is the relationship between power and knowledge, what are the objectives and henceforth implications of punishment on the offender, and what are the forms of punishment and why?
  • Second, the learning perspective, which will include the relationship between learning and punishment and its objective and implications on the learner.

Punishment can appear in various forms in schools. The most known and explicit form is corporal punishment. Other than this one sees punishment through public shaming for example by giving a child a black star against his/her name on a chart that is public to all or is asked to stand outside the class or principal’s office for everyone to see that the child has done something ‘wrong’. Then there are innuendos like the child being stared by the teacher in a demeaning way or making fun of the child by using the content of what s/he did wrong. Michel Foucault, a social theorist shed important light on the relationship between power and knowledge. Through his book, ‘Discipline and Punish’ I would like to interconnect what he covers on punishment in society and its repercussions in certain social institutions, for us, schools.  Foucault focused on how punishment is directly involved with power relations who could train, torture, mask individuals in the way that the power considered ‘right’. In relation to schools then the questions that arise are who is the power? Does the power truly know what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’? What is the environment for this relation to thrive?

If I were to address the last question let us see how our schools are structured in terms of infrastructure, resources, layout, etc. Mostly schools are designed to mirror a panoptical structure (to a certain extent). This means that the locations of the people in power i.e. the principle and teachers’ respective offices will be located in such a space from where surveillance of the children can be the highest so that no child can afford to do anything ‘wrong’. Inside the classroom the power will have a separate seat which is sometimes on an elevated platform and the ones on whom the power is observed are seated in rows in such a fashion that the observed cannot look at one another while the power can clearly look at or observe all. Therefore, within the larger structure of the school the classroom in itself also tends to adhere to a panoptical structure. One can therefore clearly see in a classroom set up the teacher’s hierarchical relation with the student where the teacher is the constant observer and the infrastructure acts as the perfect observatory. (One should take a minute to think what the role of the learners would be between the teacher as an observer and the school as an observatory, an offender? Do we see a child in the school as trust worthy and one who can be believed in?)

This kind of a structure helps the power (teacher, principle) to maintain their regulation over its children. It focuses on children being monitored on a continuous basis to meet the expectations of the power mechanism in which accepting children as ‘docile (passive) bodies’ becomes implicit. As discussed above, monitoring on a continuous basis can be done through enclosure wherein individuals are distributed in terms of space or by creating functional sites for more productivity, less options of revolts and increased efficiency. So, if we were to connect with the image of the infrastructure of the school I painted earlier the distribution of space can be seen in the seating arrangement of children which sometimes even is done by rank, the offices of the power being located at such places that the children cannot go astray from what they are expected to do which helps maintain the productivity part of it, the fact that the children are under constant surveillance in and outside the classroom wherein in the classroom the child is seated in such a fashion that s/he cannot even hold a discussion with his/her peers reduces the options for revolt.

Another aspect is normalizing judgment which again is also very evident in a school set up where students are all ordered to talk the same, dress the same and ‘act’ the same creating homogeneity. The clearest linkage is seen in having uniforms in schools for example. Everyone has to wear exactly the same kind of clothes every day. If we combine this normalizing judgment with the observing hierarchy it actually makes it possible to qualify and classify. Once a homogenous class is present and one child due to certain circumstances is not able to manage that homogeneity s/he tends to stand out hence developing an environment for punishment. Foucault constantly emphasizes on the fact that power ‘produces’ or ‘fabricates’ individuals. A punishment’s objective is not so much about making the offender repent but reconstruct the offender in such a manner as to adhere to the power. Therefore individuals are fabricated as per the needs of the power.

As is clear, I am not talking about any one kind of punishment like corporal punishment (actually I am not talking about corporal punishment at all). I am trying to raise a bigger concern that how implicitly we create a perfect environment through the infrastructure or our acts in schools for punishment to flourish. We need to imagine and accordingly construct our understanding of how the school is functioning as an institution if it were to be seen as a social institution within itself. Therefore at the pedagogy level what are the relations between the teachers and taught and how is the infrastructure possibly playing a role in the process. These are some thoughts I feel educationists should reflect on through which one could first understand why this attitude exists in the school and henceforth a stepping stone to what can be done to better it.

Now, I would like to shift from the sociological aspect to the psychological aspect and specifically to learning and the child. As educationists we believe that a child who enters the school is naturally curious to learn and our job as educationists is to not just nurture that quality but also guide the child towards being a confident independent being. If one were to follow this belief then it does require creating an environment of freedom and autonomy for the child and teacher in schools. That ways desired learning will have the space to thrive naturally. While India is at the brink of swearing by constructivism in classroom teaching and learning there is still this element of punish that exists which is contrary to the theory. It seems like while on the surface we are chanting constructivism as the way forward we are actually practicing a very behaviorist approach. Behaviorists believe that learning is accomplished when a ‘proper’ response is demonstrated following the presentation of a specific environmental stimulus (which contains a pre-determined ‘rightness’ in it). Some of the basic assumptions and characteristics of behaviorism are observable and measurable outcomes in students, emphasis on mastering early steps before progressing to more complex levels, use of reinforcement to impact performance and ensuring a strong stimulus-response association.


What can be observed here is one, learning occurs in a linear fashion, children as universally similar (homogenous) rather than unique, teacher to pre-decide what is to be taught and most importantly children as passive learners. The philosophical assumptions underlying behavioral theory is primary objectivistic; i.e. the world is real and external to the learner. The goal of instruction is to map the structure of the world on to the learner.

  • Therefore what is happening here is that content is pre-determined and therefore the rightness or wrongness of it is also pre-determined.
  • Second, the passive learner connects to the ‘docile bodies’ to some extent wherein the teacher tells and the learner obeys.
  • Thirdly, we are seeing all children the same and trying to fabricate them in a similar fashion by applying same pedagogical methods, same content, same environment, etc.

All this leads to one, a power relation between the teachers and the taught and two, normalizing judgment by creating homogeneity which gives space to then classify learners as good or bad and henceforth the bad ones punishable.

Here I would like to add a disclaimer that I do not mean to degrade the behaviorist approach in any way but am rather stating a stronger bent towards it and therefore its possible implications towards not just how learning is seen but its role in creating an environment for punishment. Behaviorist approach in itself has value and can be applied efficiently in varied situations.

We tend to see punishment as an act independent of its inter-connections to the environment around. This tends to create a very superficial understanding of punishment and therefore the actions taken to avoid the same also don’t tend to be long lasting. If we just ask the teacher to not hit a child if s/he does something wrong but continue to maintain the hierarchical relation between the child and teacher the implication would just be the evolution of yet another form of punishment. Through this article I would like to shed light on the fact that punishment just like it exists in society exists in our schools and until or unless we do not identify and re-structure all the inter linked elements of punishment, punishment cannot be done away with. It has to be seen and understood holistically. While there are schools that undertake punishment there are some who do not. Till now I have tried to paint a picture of some general schools that you and I have experienced but that does not mean it can be generalized across.

The schools which truly believe children should not be punished are the schools we need to observe in their entirety.

The way the school is built, the seating in classrooms, the role of the teacher and the role of the child, the processes of teaching/learning, etc. For example, I have observed a school which seems more like a home than a structured school. The classrooms, staffroom, offices, etc. do not have doors to give an inviting feeling for all. The children sit in a circle where they can talk to one another, look at one another and the teacher will also be sitting just like one among them. There will be no enforcement of homogeneity in terms of what you wear, how you act, what you say, etc. for it is truly believed that every child is unique with an innate curiosity to learn and once this is strongly believed in children are given freedom to learn at their own pace making mistakes within their own purview and learning from them. There is no comparison, there is no public shaming and there is ‘truly’ NO PUNISHMENT.