Blogging the string in the labyrinth of Crete

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Paddling Pedagogy

A lot of the time, the edu-blogging verse (at least, what I see of it, which is admittedly a small portion) focuses on grand policy or curriculum changes, or whether the parents or children are to blame for children failing, or the detrimental effects of NCLB.

When it does get into the basics of how a classroom should be run, the views are often rather sophisticated. Ken DeRosa over at D-Ed Reckoning recently had guest blogger palisadesk do a four-part series on effectively managing a classroom. Ken has often discussed curriculum, and how the lack of proper presentation on the part of the teacher affects learning.

However, I recently found something which suggests more fundamental issues. While trolling through the forum discussion boards at a teacher's site, I found a post full of cautious optimism that teachers were no longer allowed to smack children on the derriere with a wood board. The original poster notes that while she's happy about the new policy, other teachers are "in an uproar" and convinced "all hell is going to break out".

Oh, and one thing I should note: the policy was changed so the teachers could no longer paddle. They now have to send the students to an assistant principal to get paddled. Ah, such social progress!

Sadly, the teachers probably will see a worsening of behavior. Punishment is a behavioral technique, but, as I've mentioned before, it's implementation is quite difficult. One of its effects is resentment. So now they'll have a bunch of resentful students who are itching to get back at any teachers who've had liberal foreswing. Now they know the teachers can only levy the punishment when they're able to send the student to an assistant principal. If the student knows it will be difficult or impossible to send them, they'll freely act out. The operational costs of sending the child to the assistant principal means a greater variety of escape behaviors will be available. The children will soon be testing them thoroughly.

It's also worthwhile noting that punishment on a variable schedule doesn't work well at all -- to actually prevent the behavior punishment should be meted out every time the behavior occurs. The operational costs of the policy decision will work against them here as well, as punishment becomes more erratically administered.

There is further the issue of the temporality of the punishment. With their new policy, the punishment will be delayed; not much, perhaps, but still enough to make it a less effective practice.

One poster recalls how it was legal in her state when she was a child: "Thankfully, I never had to go to the principal (apparently the teacher also could do it before my time) but my husband did. He said it didn't hurt. " I would dare say if it was known that the paddling didn't hurt, it wouldn't be a very effective punishment unless there was something else about it that was aversive (shame, perhaps).

The discussion above might sound like I'm advocating the district to let the teachers' arms swing freely. I am not. Using punishment is an erratic way to control behavior that can occasionally work, but which is largely incompatible with actually imparting subject matter content. A school system that allows corporeal punishment is essentially one that allows physical abuse.*

Further commenters to the post indicated that school-sanctioned beating is allowable in nearly half the states, and that it actually occurs in at least three. To their credit, the teachers posting almost unanimously decried the practice, which gives some comfort that it may not occur in many states where it is technically legal.

The original poster eventually follows up with

On one challanging day I didn't say a word, but took it [the paddle] out of the drawer and put it on the chalkboard ledge. I could hear the kids suck in their breath and they did get still and very much on task. I have to admit I liked the effect, but at the same time I knew they were only behaving out of fear... and I knew it was just a bluff on my part....What I've learned about the paddle is it puts fear into the souls of the children who don't need it and the ones who do seem to need it, don't really need a paddle to solve their problems. It may alter their behavior for the moment but not change it in the long run.

(emphasis added)

I find this to be a fairly wise statement for someone who's not familiar with the academic research on punishment (one might hope ALL teachers would be familiar with the research, and particularly those teachers where physical punishment is expected practice). I take it along with the realization that fear was the driving factor, she also realized she couldn't afford to repeat the performance often without carrying through. Punishment generally does not have a long-term effect of reducing the target behavior. This doesn't exactly mean it doesn't change their behavior in the long run, it just may not be a desirable change.

*Of course, a neat counter to this is that nearly all school districts allow mental abuse, which is likely worse. At least paddling is fairly consistent, compared with the uncontrolled use of humiliation and verbal insults currently allowed (I know -- most teachers try to avoid turning their kids into sobbing basket cases, but I don't know of anything actually stopping them).



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