Punishment in Education

January 2, 2019

Punishment is common in our society. From taking a child’s toys away when they misbehave to penalizing adults for committing infractions, punishment exists everywhere. We see punishment as a way to eradicate or avoid negative or frowned upon behaviors. But is punishment in education useful? What consequences does it have? In this article, we’ll try to answer those questions.

Education is a very important issue that can’t be boiled down to concrete experiences or individual opinions. Educational practices should be based on scientific criteria.

To investigate the usefulness and consequences of punishment in education, we’ll focus on empirical data. This is because scientific data provide us with very useful information about punishment and its educational implications.

Punishment in education is not always successful or appropriate.

Rewards and punishment in education

Before discussing the usefulness and consequences of punishment in education, it’s essential to understand the principle that governs it. Why does punishment allow us to eradicate certain behaviors? The answer to this question lies in B.F. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning. He was one of the fathers of behaviorism and made great contributions to the psychology of learning.

Operant conditioning roughly states that when a behavior is reinforced, it’s likely to be repeated. In other words, when something positive happens as a result of a certain action, we tend to continue to act like this in the future.

The opposite happens with punishment. When a behavior is punished, the likelihood of it being repeated reduces. A lot of evidence backs up operant conditioning. In addition, the theory has been widely demonstrated in both animals and humans.

However, learning is very complex. A key aspect to understanding the effects of rewards and punishment in education is its instrumental nature. When we reward or punish, we modify a subject’s behavior because they expect that prize or punishment. That is, the subject behaves due to extrinsic motivation.

From an extrinsic motivation perspective, we can deduce that the new behavior will only continue as long as the punishment or reward is maintained. It’s important to understand that operant conditioning is associative learning. The subjects won’t understand why the behavior is right or wrong. They’ll simply understand that certain consequences follow certain behaviors.

Consequences and problems with punishment in education

Now that we know the principles that govern operant conditioning, let’s discuss the usefulness and consequences of punishment in education.

Punishment in education can have serious consequences.

Pitfalls of punishment

Punishment, despite the fact that it can help shape behavior, is a rather poor method in education because:

  • Behavior changes are conditioned: As we mentioned above, the behavior will continue only as long as the punishment exists. If the punishment disappears, the negative behavior will reappear. This shows us that the subject doesn’t learn what’s right or wrong. Instead, only a simple associative learning takes place.
  • Possible appearance of learned helplessness: If the subject isn’t presented with an alternative behavior along with the punishment, they may be unable to find that alternative behavior themselves and will become paralyzed in their actions.
  • Educating with violence creates violent people: Violent punishments (physical or psychological) can have severe consequences. Humans learn by imitation and immersion in a social context. If we see violence, we’ll learn to respond in the same way to things that happen to us.
  • Associating punishment to a person and not to a behavior: On many occasions, when a subject doesn’t understand why their behavior is wrong, they associate it with the person who’s punishing them. The subject believes that the punishment is an evil or egotistical whim of the person who imparts it. Thus, the subject may just avoid the person who punished them instead of changing their behavior.

Use punishment with caution

As we can see, educating a person is a complex thing. Punishment represents a simple and easy solution that can also be extremely superficial and dangerous. Although negative behaviors shouldn’t go unpunished, educating in values is somewhat more complex.

A democratic educational style based on discussion is synonymous with good education. When a child displays negative behavior, discuss why the behavior is wrong with them, the alternatives that exist, and how the child can solve the problems they created.