Saturday, January 16, 2016

Reward and Punishment



There was once a Groom who used to spend long hours clipping and combing the Horse of which he had charge, but who daily stole a portion of his allowance of oats, and sold it for his own profit. The Horse gradually got into worse and worse condition, and at last cried to the Groom, "If you really want me to look sleek and well, you must comb me less and feed me more."[1]

“The Horse and the Groom” is the name of the fable above.  It is known as one of Aesop’s fables.  As we have read above, we can learn from it many different things depending on the angles we are taking and on which moral we are emphasizing.  But this time I want us to focus on one moral of the story, which is neglecting the most important thing while highlighting the less important results in disaster.  Therefore, it is important that we remain faithful to attend to the most important thing while we also attend to the less important thing.  This principle applies to all corners of life.  For this principle is universal and generic in nature.  And there is one thing I would like us to focus in this article, which is the current trend in the world of education that attempts to highlight something and neglect the most important thing.
 A statement recently spoken by the Minister of Education of Indonesia surprised me.  He said that “reward and punishment is out of date now.”  Then he asserted that education must be built by what is called as positive discipline.  Reward and punishment for the Minister is not effective anymore for the new generation.  First of all, I do not disagree with positive discipline.  Positive discipline in itself is a good way to train people to become better.  What I find surprising is the omission of reward and punishment from the field of education or modern education.  There are several reasons why I find this surprising coming from the Minister of Education.

First reason, there is a confusion of meaning.  Some people think that when the term “positive discipline” is used, then it means that punishment must be eliminated.  It’s a fatal mistake to associate positive discipline with “no punishment.”  Educators widely understand that positive discipline emphasizes encouragement of good behavior more than discouragement of bad behavior.  But this understanding doesn’t negate punishment as a venue for discipline.  Commonly, discouragement of bad behaviour is implemented through punishing the subject who does the bad behaviour.  There are many ways to do it, in which the most common in regular social life is through the expression of anger.  Anger over bad behavior is natural and normal.  When kids behave impolitely, parents are usually angry at them.  The unconscious goal of being angry toward the person performing the bad behavior is to discourage them from repeating the undesired behavior.  In this normal social interaction we find children responding appropriately by refraining from repeating the undesired behaviour – usually for a time.  When they forget they would repeat, but then the parents’ anger would come back again to remind them not to repeat.  Enough repetition then the kids would normally not repeat the bad behavior anymore.

This common social interaction has been in existence since the very beginning.  For thousands of years this practice has been with the human race and was never considered obsolete until now.  It is quite surprising that humanity has been practicing punishment for thousands of years in every culture and it works perfectly from generation to generation but that in the 21st century such practice is considered out of date.  The question is: “Is our human constitution in the 21st century so different from the previous centuries?”  Clearly humanity has not changed its fundamental core.  We are still the same human beings.  And that’s why we still can relate to people of past histories, even thousands of years ago.

Punishment in itself has an important place in the context of discipline.  We all do it at many different levels.  Even in the so called positive discipline we find punishment.  For punishment can be carried in many different forms.  Including what is known as the negative punishment, which is the punishment by removal – removing the good thing from the subject – with the purpose to discourage the undesired behavior.  Negative punishment slightly differs from negative reinforcement on the purpose.  Whereas negative punishment is aimed at discouraging bad behavior, negative reinforcement is aimed at encouraging good behavior.  That’s in theory.  But in practice often the action chosen is either similar or the same.  Negative reinforcement is more to the liking of the positive discipline.  But the action often cannot be differentiated from that of the negative punishment.  Therefore, wanted or not, positive discipline also includes negative punishment – even if more in the practice than in theory.  For example, when a certain someone breaks a traffic law, speeding or parking on the forbidden area, the police would then give the person a ticket.  The ticket states the amount of fine the person has to pay for violating traffic law.  Can we argue that the fine is meant for negative reinforcement or negative punishment?  The “removal” of one’s money from his/her pocket is aimed at discouraging the preceding traffic law violation or is aimed at encouraging the person to abide by the traffic law?  You can take your pick all you want, but in the end either option can be argued equally strongly.  If positive discipline omits punishment, then either it can only be understood theoretically or it is impractical.  How are we then to enforce discipline of the traffic law through that kind of positive discipline (which omits punishment)?  This is a serious question.  A question that deals not only with theory but also with practice.

Second reason, some think that punishment is always bad for the learners.  This notion is based on a faulty philosophical assumption that influences modern anthropology.  Modern anthropology borrows big time from John Locke’s tabula rasa/blank slate philosophy of man.  Locke believed that man is born without sin.  Society is the warehouse of sin.  So the fault is in the society as they inevitably mar the innocent newborn.  Jean Jacques Rousseau picked up Locke’s philosophy and applied it in his philosophy of education.  So in “Emile” Rousseau proposed the kind of education that isolates the learner from the society in the hope that Emile would grow up pure without the stain of the society.  If Locke’s theory is right then education a la Emile would suffice to save humanity from the judgment day.  All we need is to implement Rousseau’s educational model and our society will be like living in heaven and all of us will be like angels.  But that’s not happening, isn’t it?  Even Rousseau himself in the end doubted that his educational method would save humanity.  For it even can’t save Emile.  Locke’s philosophy is faulty because we are all born in sin.  All religions and all cultures agree that every human being is born in sin.  Even the most advanced psychology can’t determine how come a child who is never exposed or taught to lie can just lie.

Modern education that is founded upon Rousseau and thus upon Locke proposed that punishment is not a good way to discipline people, especially little children.  Thus gradually modern educators attempt to omit punishment altogether from the domain of education.  They believe that humans are intrinsically good and thus for them punishment is not necessary.  Some communities and schools have implemented the kind of discipline that omits punishment for years and even decades.  What is the result?  Do the graduates become angels?  It turns out that they are daydreaming and the result is devastating because all the bad behaviors stemming from human sinful nature is not discouraged.  Even John Dewey, the guru of modern education, had to argue for negative education – the kind of education that discourages bad behaviors.  Why in the world the 21st century educators think that omitting punishment would produce better outcome?

Third reason, the wrong practice of reward and punishment is mistaken for what reward and punishment is all about.  Therefore, reward and punishment is misunderstood.  Now this is a different level altogether.  We are no longer discussing the necessity of reward and punishment model but we are discussing of the practice of it.  As we all know, there are good and bad practices.  The case cited by the Minister is a common case happening in many schools in Indonesia.  Good or bad we have not the proper procedure to analyze and evaluate it.  The case cited is “when students arrive late to school, they are being punished by standing.”  I myself experienced that painful experience once.  I had to stand in front of the principal’s office for being late.  School started at 7 am and I was 5 minutes late.  So we stood in front of the principal’s office for a good thirty minutes.  Then the principal came to us, for there were a few of us, and then she told us not to be late again before releasing us back to our classroom.  I was in grade 4 at that time.  In my experience, I was never asked why I was late.  The principal did not know that my being late was caused by the transportation trouble that we had.  My dad drove my brother and I to school using a motorbike.  On the way, we had a flat tire.  It was unexpected.  So my dad rushed to the nearby tire station to fix it.  It took some time to patch the tire.  Now, the principal never knew why I was late.  She only focused on the procedure of dealing with students who came late.  So we were punished.  If the case cited by the Minister is the same like what I experienced, then it certainly is a bad practice of punishment.  However, this one case is not a representative of the entire reward and punishment model.

Reward and punishment (R&P) model is an elaborate process and strategy to discourage bad behaviors and to encourage good behaviors.  The case of punishment for being late as I experienced is indeed a bad practice of punishment.  I did not understand why I was punished.  I did not even think that I deserved to be punished because the reason of my being late was not put into perspective.  Educators ought to understand which practice is good R&P and which is not.  The bad ones are to be avoided.  Now, it would be illogical to make a decision of eliminating the whole model just because of mistakes made by some educators.  Just imagine, a lot of traffic policemen accept bribe when they catch traffic violators.  Does that mean traffic police force should be eliminated altogether?  It would be absurd to eliminate the entire force just because there are mistakes made by its members.  In the same way, it would be absurd to eliminate R&P just because some educators choose the wrong application of it.  What is needed instead is the coordinated evaluation system to improve the implementation of R&P.  Professional development is another way to ameliorate the system by training the educators to practice the good R&P and to shun the bad.
And fourth, which is also the last reason, is the dismissal of punishment altogether by questioning the relationship between the punishment action and the disciplinary requirement.  This can be found in the Minister’s question: “What is the relation between standing as punishment and being late coming to school?”  Such question is not fair given the suggestive answer to ridicule the punishment action as inappropriate.  The punishment given must be understood within the context.  I’m not defending the choice of punishment, but I am concerned with the generalization method used here that results in discrediting punishment altogether.  The thesis of the Minister’s argument is to throw away reward and punishment out of the window, and thus even an invalid generalization is used to support the thesis.

The question raised can be easily answered by referring to the purpose of the punishment, which is to discourage being late coming to school.  While it seems like standing does not have any direct connection to being late, it actually carries an effective impact.  For students who are intentionally coming to school late, the punishment is meant to discourage them from repeating their undesired behavior.  What matters is not the direct connection here.  What matters is the discouragement of the bad behaviors.  We implement punishments that do not have direct relation with the undesired behaviors almost in every area of discipline.  In public discipline for example, we put people to jail when they break the law.  Say someone is committing tax evasion.  Then he is caught.  After the trial he is sentenced to 15 years in prison and a hefty fine.  What is the direct relation between evading taxes and being sentenced to prison for 15 years?  The same question can be asked about giving fine to traffic violators.  What is the direct relation between paying $200 fine and speeding?  There are no direct relations in those two cases, yet we still implement it.  We implement it because of its effectiveness in achieving the goal of discouraging the bad behaviors.  The lack of direct relation does not make punishment obsolete.  To conclude like that shows lack of logical reasoning.

In this short article I am trying to remind all of us not to neglect the important things in order to highlight the less important things.  The groom’s mistake is when he does not give the horse enough food but continues to groom the horse hoping that by excessive grooming the horse would be healthy.  Excessively cutting R&P from the domain of education does not make education healthy.  And excessively pushing the kind of discipline without punishment also will not make education healthy.  Instead, by doing excessive cutting of R&P and pushing discipline without punishment will result in a very unhealthy education.  As the horse in Aesop’s fable continues to deteriorate under the wrong treatment by the groom, education too will surely deteriorate if R&P is cut and discipline without punishment is implemented.  Here I rest my case.


[1] Aesop (2011-01-11). Aesop’s Fables (Illustrated) (Kindle Locations 458-460). ICU Publishing. Kindle Edition.

2 comments:

obed said...


Hi pak, I hope you remember me, I think we need clarify what kind of punishment? is it okay for you to punish your pupils physically (spank or beat, and 'cubit') ?

Since we know that discipline has some root with disciple it may came from disipulus. the way to discipline is threat them as disciple - teach, train, test, and transform.

Actually I had write a long post about your lecture last year in my office, but it's accidentally gone in the draft of my blog. :)

and your posts are always perfectly written.

Ferry Yang said...

Hi Obed. My article did not deal with the details of the punishment per se. I dealt more with the concepts and principles in the practice of rewards and punishment. Even the term "physical punishment" can't be confined to just spanking or the likes. Time-out might also be seen as a form of physical punishment, because often the child is put in a different space and not allowed to do some activities for a period of time.

Hope this helps.