Sat, 12 Mar 2005

Illogical punishment destroys school life

Rachel Davies, Sydney

Every time I arrive in Jakarta I notice how severe the traffic congestion seems to be and, unfortunately, how it only seems to be getting worse. When I pass comment on this to Indonesian friends or colleagues the answer almost always is the same "yes, too many cars and not enough discipline". There seems to be a kind of resignation that drivers have no discipline.

A friend followed this observation up with the statement that Indonesians have so many rules in their lives but they never really learn from them or follow them. He went on to describe that for him school-life was an endless series of warnings and crazy punishments that left him hating the idea of rules; for him they just made no sense.

This is of course very sad and very wrong because rules should be there to help and guide us but unfortunately I can understand why he would emerge from his school career in Indonesia with such a negative perception. The sad reality is that crazy and illogical rules and punishments have been applied for far too long and appear to be continuing.

In recent visits with school students and parents I have heard stories of punishments and attempts at discipline that, quite frankly, I thought as they say "had died out with the dinosaurs". For example, I thought that teachers had long ago realized the complete waste and stupidity of demanding that a "naughty" student should be punished by having to write out one hundred times "I must not do this" or "I will not do that" or "I should not do some other thing."

The only time recently that I have seen a student doing this senseless thing is the cartoon character Bart Simpson in the title section of The Simpsons television show and that sequence is only really there as a joke. But sadly this useless punishment can be no joke for Indonesian students because they can still have it applied to them.

It is simply a totally worthless activity that serves absolutely no useful purpose -- no wonder students can and will form negative attitudes when exposed to this concept of disciplinary actions! Useless punishments like this do nothing to create good concepts of discipline or allow students to internalize appropriate behavior. But worse still are situations in which physical violence is resorted to by teachers in the name of discipline.

Again regrettably recent discussions with parents and students have revealed examples of ways in which people that should be providing good examples for students (that is the apparent teachers and educators here) are in fact providing examples of erratic and undisciplined behavior that can only be counter- productive in any efforts to foster more disciplined conduct.

One student described to me recently how her mathematics teachers will often lose his temper, so much so that the students are practically in fear of him. In one incident with this ill- tempered teacher a board eraser was thrown at a talkative student. The result of this appalling behavior by the teacher was a cut above the eye for the student.

Luckily for the teacher he was able to get away with this behavior; it seems as though the student was something of a tough case and made nothing of the incident but there can be little doubt that in most instances a teacher of this kind would be facing serious repercussions not least among which would be an immediate suspension likely to be followed up with dismissal from his position in the school.

Other examples exist too of illogical and largely futile efforts being adopted and implemented amongst weak claims of installing and instilling discipline. A good example of this is the exclusion or even just the threat of exclusion from either certain classes or from school entirely. This is not discipline in action or punishment serving a purpose; it is inaction and resignation from the task of providing discipline and it is totally ineffective as punishment. Punishment should have some reconstructive element in order to be effective. Exclusion offers no prospect of reconstruction.

Students being thrown out of their classes or even school leaves problems unresolved and/ or even added to. Discipline needs to increase understanding of appropriate behavior and punishment needs to be just sufficient to reprimand and redirect attention and action. Both discipline and punishment should provide lessons and learning for the students but they cannot possibly work if the student is left to feel ashamed or abused as a result of being "disciplined" or "punished".

It is acceptable and quite reasonable that a student should feel a certain degree of discomfort if he or she is guilty of doing wrong but that discomfort should not really be attached to putting the person to shame.

Illogical and largely ineffective punishment is far more likely to arouse further problems when, in fact, it should be diffusing them. A while ago I was reading a "defense of the poor" against the claim that they were habitually criminal in their element. The writer highlighted that this was not at all true because, in fact, "poor people no more wish to be criminals than any other people. It is just circumstances that can sometimes force them down such a road out of desperation."

The point that was ultimately made was that most often criminal behavior or misdemeanors are far more likely "acquired habits" that have not been checked and corrected. Effectively, then, a wrong-doer may repeat offend if not constructively and intelligently redirected away from the undesirable behavior.

This sentiment should be active in the thoughts of teachers when considering discipline and their implementation of punishment. Student misbehavior can be, and most likely is, misdirected energy and activity that needs to be carefully redirected by the teacher. With such positive redirection the misdemeanor may just be a one-off slip-up and will not be allowed to become a habit. Such re-directive disciplining is both logical and constructive to the life of the school.

The writer is an education consultant and can be reached at